Chris Harman


Behind India’s shock election result

(22 May 2004)

From Socialist Worker, No.1902, 22 May 2004.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A few months ago it seemed certain that the ruling BJP would win the Indian elections comfortably. But things turned out rather different, says Chris Harman

INDIA’S RIGHT wing Hindu chauvinist party, the BJP, suffered a shock defeat in last week’s general elections. It had a net loss of nearly a third of its parliamentary seats, while its main opponent, Congress, had a net gain of a third. At the core of the BJP is an organisation with some similarities to European fascism, the RSS. It lay behind a murderous onslaught on the Muslim minority in the state of Gujarat that caused some 2,000 deaths just two years ago.

The central thrust of the BJP’s election campaign was the claim that Indians are entering a new period of prosperity. Its slogan was “India is shining” and it promised to continue with the neo-liberal reforms that had supposedly brought this about. This backfired on the BJP.

A tiny minority of Indians are enjoying massive prosperity. Since 1993 the richest 1 percent have seen their incomes rise by 50 percent. The super-rich 0.1 percent have seen their income triple. Just below them is what the media refer to as the “booming middle class”. They have experienced some improvement in living standards in recent years. But they amount to just 10 to 15 percent of the population and their “wealth” means no more than owning a motor scooter and a television set, and not being physically hungry.

Meanwhile more than twice as many people continue to live in absolute poverty. Statistician Abhijit Sen points out that “half of all Indian children are clinically undernourished and almost 40 percent of Indian adults suffer chronic energy deficiency”.

An incident early in the election campaign showed how impoverished hundreds of millions of Indians are. The BJP gave away cheap saris, worth about 50p each, at a rally in the city of Lucknow-and 25 people, mainly elderly women, were trampled to death in the rush to grab them.

The extreme poverty in much of the countryside also exists in the cities, with up to half the people in cities like Delhi or Mumbai surviving on 60p a day. The defeat is not just a defeat for the BJP’s bigotry. It is also a defeat for those who have pointed to India’s neo-liberalism as an example for the rest of the Third World.

The World Bank claimed earlier this year that India “is within striking distance of achieving annual economic growth of 7.5 percent or more”. But average growth in recent years has been much less than this, and has been accompanied by a worsening of conditions in wide areas of the country.

The “India is shining” slogan was aimed at a yuppie layer that has been ever more brazen in displaying its wealth. Congress, the party who were the main victors in the election, completely dominated Indian politics until the mid-1970s. It used state intervention and planning in collaboration with the big capitalists to build up industry. It implemented limited land reforms creating a new class of rural capitalists and a much bigger class of independent, but poor, peasants.

Subsidised rations of basic foods were just enough to stop the very poor starving to death, but did not allow them to escape from poverty. This began to come undone in the 1970s and 1980s and Congress lost its automatic electoral majority. Its local leaders became increasingly corrupt and its national leaders tried to keep in power by playing regional and religious groupings off against each other.

In 1991 a Congress government made the decisive turn towards neo-liberalism. It imposed an IMF structural adjustment programme, began dismantling systems of subsidies and slashed tax rates for the rich.

It first played the card of urging the rich to enrich themselves that the BJP then took up. The BJP had hoped to propel itself to power on a wave of anti-Muslim hatred in the early 1990s. But the BJP overplayed its hand. The ruling class did not feel the plight of Indian capitalism was so desperate that they should risk destructive religious rioting in every city across India. Outright fascism was not on their agenda. The other pro-capitalist parties cold-shouldered the BJP.

A coalition of non-BJP parties formed a government in 1996. But such governments did not break with neo-liberalism and the BJP resumed its growth. By 1999 it was able to stitch together a majority coalition – laughably named National Democratic Alliance.

This was not a full-blooded fascist government. The RSS core of the BJP continue to foment religious hatreds and the government used the education system to try to indoctrinate people with Hindu chauvinism.

But the BJP ministers had to restrain themselves a little, for fear of frightening Indian capitalism and their coalition partners. The attempt of the BJP leadership to appear respectable caused disputes with the lower middle class activists who form the cadres of the RSS. They are now blaming the BJP leadership for losing the election.

These divisions can weaken the BJP-RSS alliance in the short term – but the BJP will no doubt try to strengthen itself by stirring up religious hatreds. Most of the Indian left were hoping for a Congress victory. The two big Communist parties told their supporters to campaign for Congress where they themselves did not have the strength to win. And now they are saying they will use their seats in parliament to back the new Congress government.

But Congress cannot present any real barrier against the RSS and the BJP recovering from their electoral defeat. The large left vote in the elections shows that it can still be an independent force in Indian politics. But it has to stop putting its faith in parliamentary coalitions and stop making concessions to neo-liberalism.

Two things are needed to make the defeat of the BJP and the RSS permanent. First there has to be wholehearted support for mass action against neo-liberal attacks against the workers, the peasants and the poor.

Secondly, RSS and BJP agitation to stir up hatred against minorities has be met on the ground by united action by all the left parties, with attempts to involve trade unionists, anti-globalisation activists and the minorities themselves. The recent World Social Forum in India showed the degree of unity that is possible on the left. It has to be directed now to fighting neo-liberalism and resisting the right, not to propping up a Congress government which is likely to be as corrupt and as disillusioning as its recent predecessors.


BJP: A political party built by a core of RSS members, but involving other politicians prepared to work with them. Held power in India until the recent elections.

RSS: A two million strong organisation of the lower middle class, built along almost military lines and directed against religious minorities.

CONGRESS: The party that has led most Indian governments since independence. Now led by Sonia Gandhi.

The left: Made up mainly of the two big Communist parties (the CPI and the CPM). They have massive influence in the states of West Bengal (where the CPM controls the government) and Kerala, but are weak elsewhere.

Who got the votes

INDIA IS the world’s largest democracy, with 670 million registered voters. The “first past the post” voting system means the number of seats does not reflect the number of votes parties get. In this election all the parties stood down in certain seats in order to allow their allies to stand.

So, although the BJP lost a massive number of seats, its vote was only down by 2.3 percent, to 21.5 percent. Similarly, Congress increased its seats massively because other parties gave it a clear run against the BJP. But its total vote actually fell from 28.3 to 26.2 percent.

The two Communist parties increased their number of seats from 37 to 53. Their biggest gains were in Kerala, at the expense of Congress. Their vote remains about 7 percent nationally.

The other big winner was the SP party in Uttar Pradesh, which represents the slightly better off peasants. It will now play a key role in determining the character of the new government.

Last updated on 13 December 2009