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Socialist Review, January 1994

Notes of the Month


No glittering prizes

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Just over a year ago the Ayodhya mosque in Uttar Pradesh was demolished by a mob of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters. In the riots that followed, more than 2,000 were killed. It appeared that Congress, which has ruled India almost continuously since independence, was losing control as the country slipped into the chaos of communal violence.

The BJP, a Hindu chauvinist, near-fascist party, was in control of four states at the time: Uttar Pradesh itself (India’s most populous state, with 150 million inhabitants), Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The BJP had ridden to power in these states in the Hindu heartland on a wave of anti-Muslim hatred. It was also deeply implicated in the events that led to the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque.

The central government, under prime minister Narasimha Rao, which had dithered between pandering to Hindu chauvinism and opposing it, dismissed the four state governments for their involvement in the Ayodhya riot and called fresh elections in these and another two states. A third of the country’s 500 million electors went to the polls at the end of November. There were widespread fears that the BJP would do extremely well.

The results came as a surprise. The BJP lost control in three of the states it had governed, keeping power only in Rajasthan. Congress gained absolute majorities in Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, despite a lacklustre campaign. The most surprising result was in Uttar Pradesh itself. Here a coalition of two regional parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), swept the board, replacing Congress (which was reduced to 28 seats out of a total of 425 seats in the state assembly) and reducing the BJP’s share of the seats to 176.

The secret of the SP’s and the BSP’s success lay in their appeal both to Muslims and to the ‘backward castes’ and the untouchables: the poorest sections of the Hindu community.

The BJP has suffered a considerable defeat, which is likely to increase internal tensions between those who see the future of the party as stirring up religious hatred and those who see this as too narrow a base.

But despite its defeat, what allowed the BJP to grow in the first place is still there. This has to do with the state of the Indian economy. After independence in 1947 the bulk of the ruling class pinned its hopes on state control of industry as the path to national development. That option has been found wanting and the Indian ruling class has shifted hesitantly and with doubts towards the doctrines of the free market.

In June 1991 the Congress government decided to pursue a policy of economic liberalisation. Rao freed up prices, made the rupee convertible in part and cut tariffs. But the glittering prizes of the free market have proved elusive here as elsewhere.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and of Industry, a national employers’ organisation, said recently that reform measures need to be ‘properly sequenced’ and ‘a level playing field’ provided. The fear otherwise is of a mass takeover of Indian industry (Coca Cola, for example, has just bought up Parle, the country’s leading producer of cola). But the real effect of the policy of economic liberalisation has been on the mass of the Indian population, whose poverty has increased. As the struggle for existence has intensified, so have communal tensions and the explosive growth of sectional parties like the BJP.

With the Hindu nationalist challenge of the BJP now beaten off, the prime minister is under pressure to resume his liberalisation programme, which had slowed because of the unpopularity of Congress. The Economist has urged the government to slash public finances, sell profitable state enterprises and abolish legislation that prevents factory closures and workers being sacked. If this happens then the same conditions that enabled the BJP to flourish can reappear, though one of the reasons for the BJP’s defeat in Himachal Pradesh was that it took up pro-market reforms.

And the BJP may be down but it is not out. It remains the largest single party in Uttar Pradesh and it captured Delhi, where elections were held for the first time in 40 years, because of despair about a badly run, polluted city with frequent water shortages and power cuts.

Nevertheless, the elections showed that a reactionary response was not the only alternative to government inspired cuts and economic liberalisation. The parties which won in Uttar Pradesh cannot be relied upon to deliver jobs or improvements for the mass of the poor. But the results show that it was possible to appeal across sectarian divisions. And if the appeal can work electorally then it can also be fought for.

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