The results of the 17th Loksabha elections are out. The Bharatiya Janaty Party (BJP) has won a comfortable majority on it own steam, 303 of a total of 545 seats. While the Indian National Congress (INC or just the Congress)’s haul was 52 seats. It was a clean sweep for the ruling party in the Hindi heartland and western India. Rahul Gandhi who led the INC in this election lost his seat in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh (UP). A seat he had held since 2004. Besides Rahul three other members of the Gandhi family have represented the Amethi consituency since 1980.
UP is the Hindi heart of India. Being the most populous state its sends the greatest number of representatives among all states to the Loksabha. This year the INC has won only one seat in Uttar Pradesh (UP) of a total of 80 and the BJP has won 62. That’s the entire story of these elections in a nutshell. Since what happens in UP determines political fortunes in India.
Rahul Gandhi made mistakes at both the tactical and at the strategic level. Instead of forming pre-poll coalitions to take on the ruling the party they fielded their own candidates in more than 400 constituencies. Most importantly, Rahul Gandhi ceded the ideological space to BJP by letting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi define the terms of the battle, whether it be national security or the place of minorities in the polity. Instead of taking the fight to the BJP, Congress ran away from the fight. This included maintaining a studied silence about the entire Pulwama incident, when it happened, not fielding enough Muslim candidates for the fear of being labeled pro-Muslim and even shying away from visiting Muslim majority areas to ask for their vote. Electorates rarely reward cowardice or incompetence.
So how did the party that led the independence struggle against the British rule and oversaw the establishment of the modern Indian state, its constitution and its institutions come to this sorry pass?
(To be continued)
ETA: The new government wants to stress learning Hindi, so before I go, check out this video which celebrates the linguistic diversity of India, another obstacle to the ultimate goal of the Hindu Rashtra where everyone speaks Hindi and is Hindu. I am so old that I remember when Unity in Diversity was India’s creed.
ETA2: They have walked it back, after a huge outcry from the southern states. I think they were just testing the waters. They will float this proposal again.
(To be continued)
5/23 Update: The Election Commission has started counting the votes and Modi seems to be headed for a second term.
This is a brief primer to help you make sense of the main players on the Indian political scene. Ther Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) is currently in power, its main opposition, is the Indian National Congress. Then there is a third mostly left of center grouping which calls itself Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) and advocates for the rights of Bahujans (common people, a short hand term for the alliance of Other Backward Castes and Dalits*).
The key to understanding Indian politics is caste, region and ideology, in that order. Most of the analyses I see in the western media and much of the English language media in India misses that point, by focusing solely on ideology and the two main parties. They also ignore India’s linguistic diversity, and regional politics which vary greatly. Most importantly, they ignore caste which plays roughly the same role that race plays in US politics.
In this post I will focus on the BJP and its leader, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Bharatiya Janata Party: Is the party in power at the center (federal level) right now. It won an outright majority during the last Loksabha elections in 2014. It was the first time a party other than the Congress had managed this feat. The previous BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed a coalition government.
Before 2014, Mr. Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. On the national stage he was credited with the economic growth the state had achieved and the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Ahmedabad, precipitated by the events in Godhra.
Since his election in 2014, Mr. Modi’s government has delivered on the items on hard right agenda. Banning the slaughter of cows had been a long stated goal of the Hindutva hardliners. Twenty states out of twenty nine now have restrictions on the slaughter of cows. It may come as a surprise to many that majority of Hindus are not vegetarian and some even eat beef. These cattle slaughter bans have hit the poor and lower caste Hindus as well as Muslims the hardest. Roving bands of vigilantes who call themselves cow protectors have used these bans to intimidate and sometimes lynch people.
Modi’s record on the economic front has been questionable. The much touted demonetization scheme aimed at removing high denomination currency out of the economy to combat corruption missed all of its stated goals. India’s suffering farmers have seen no respite and the unemployment numbers have been the worst in forty years.
BJP purports to speak on the behalf of all Hindus but their agenda and their saffron roving bands make many Hindus, let alone religious minorities, who don’t share its dogma, nervous. They are not being paranoid because many activists agitating on the behalf of those in tribal areas and lower castes sit in jail under trumped up charges. Journalists have died for speaking out as have academics like M. M Kalburgi.
BJP is the political arm of the all male Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) modeled after Europe’s Fascist movements of the early twentieth century. RSS seeks to unite Hindus separated by caste, language and region into militant nationalism called Hindutva. RSS was formed in British India in 1925 by K. B. Hedgewar, a Brahmin physician from Maharashtra and has its head quarters in Nagpur, Maharashtra. They were largely absent during India’s freedom struggle against the British, spent most of their time attacking Congress and complaining about their tactics. Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse had RSS links.
BJP and its earlier incarnation, the Jan Sangh never achieved much in the way of electoral success until the late 80s. Their electoral fortunes changed when they adopted building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya in place of Mughal emperor Babur’s mosque as their core issue.
The most important project of RSS and other Hindutva idealogues has been to rewrite history to further their own agenda. The last 5 years has seen the mainstreaming of previously fringe RSS propaganda into the political discourse. We have seen the lionization of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, vilification of Jawarhlal Nehru, India’s first Prime minister and to a lesser extent of Mohandas Gandhi. Orwell’s 1984 seems to be their Bible, or should I say Gita?
The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
Ultimately what is stake in this election is the truth, we will see if India lives up to its motto,
सत्यमेव जयते ( Satyameva Jayate)
And if the truth ultimately triumphs.
In part two of this series I will discuss and analyze the results and the other two other major political groupings contesting the elections.
(*Dalit = downtrodden, these are mostly castes considered to be at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and many are considered ritually impure. Many of these taboos still persist in parts of India. Prejudice against these castes by those in power is commonplace).
The third phase of voting in the Bihar, the thirteenth largest state in India and a part of the Hindi heartland, is coming to a close. Although, right nowit is known for its intractable corruption and sleaze, even by Indian political standards, it was once the heart of the Indian civilization. Buddha preached here and Patliputra, now Patna, was the seat of the Maurya empire which reached its zenith in Ashoka’s time.
This race hasn’t received much coverage in the major media outlets over here but is being followed with bated breath in India. The incumbent chief minister is Nitish Kumar from Janata Dal, one of the many socialist parties of India. Many see this as a referendum on the Modi government. Last year Narendra Modi ‘s Bharatiya Janata Party won the national elections decisively and was able to form a government without the help of any other parties. This was the first time ever, that a party other than the Congress had been able to do so at the Center*. Another important figure in Bihar politics is Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal. Laloo was the chief minister of Bihar in the nineties and more recently India’s railway minister.
After a year the shine has worn off Modi and his government. Despite all the talk of economic development, wherever BJP was elected at the state level they pushed through their hobby horse of banning beef and other such reactionary measures, which most voters could care less about. The polls indicate a tight race. Stay tuned for an update.
Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav (from left to right)
* Janata Party defeated the Congress at the hustings in 1977. Technically it was a single party, in reality it was an uneasy coming together of various socialist parties and BJP’s precursor, Jan Sangh. The party broke-up under the weight of its own contradictions before completing an entire term in office.
This spring India goes to the polls to elect representatives to the Lok Sabha or the lower house of the parliament. As always, the party or the coalition with the most votes in the Lok Sabha will choose the next Prime Minister. Since the nineties no single party has won an outright majority. Coalition governments, headed either by the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been the norm.
The Major Players: The Parties and Their Leaders
The current ruling coalition is led by the Congress, India’s oldest party, predating independence. In its current form, it is but a shell of its venerable past. Since the seventies it has been reduced to being one family’s fiefdom with no internal democracy. The opposition is lead by the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP. The party with fascist leanings and an ugly us-versus-them rhetoric rose to prominence in the nineties following its agitation to build a temple in Ayodhya. Lastly, the new kid on the block is the Aam Aadmi Party* (AAP) which swept into power in Delhi State elections held recently. Their sole focus, so far as I can tell, seems to be corruption.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress, and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi** family , is a political cipher with no experience to speak of. The BJP’s Narendra Modi has experience in spades, ten years as a chief minister of Gujarat, and also a past that is a cause for much concern. Lastly, there is the AAP’s leader Arvind Kejriwal, who resigned just 49 days after taking office as the Chief Minister of Delhi. He seems to be more into street theater than actual governing. Stay tuned for further developments.
*Aam Aadmi means common man in Hindi
**no relation to Mohandas Gandhi.