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International Socialism, May 1977


Notes of the Month

Southern Asia:
Election upsets


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 8–9.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


VERY rarely has an election result been so dramatic a contradiction of everyone’s expectations and so politically important as that which occurred in India this March. The change is best symbolised in the two headlines in the popular weekly Blitz. Only a few weeks ago it referred to Sanjy Gandhi, former prime minister Mrs. Gandhi’s son and most hated of the old ruling order, as ‘History’s Own Answer to Our Prayers’. After the election, he became ‘The Accused’, one of India’s own evil ‘Gang of Four’.

In the election, Mrs Gandhi’s personal rule, legally consolidated by the constitutional amendments introduced since the Emergency of June 1975, as well as the unchallenged monopoly of power of her party, Congress, since 1947, were both destroyed. Indian parliamentary politics, apparently frozen in a particular shape for thirty years, has begun to move.

Appearances are deceptive. The opposition party which swept the polls, Janata (with its ally, Congress for Democracy, CFD) was cobbled together largely from former fragments of Congress itself – Morarji Desai’s Congress (O), Charan Singh’s Congress (now BLD), and Jagjivan Ram’s CFD (a split from the ruling party only six weeks before the elections). The only newcomers to power are the large Right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Jan Sangh, and the tiny Socialist Party.

Janata is a federation of regional parties, dominated by segments of the rich peasantry, and with an immediate following among the urban lower middle classes. Its victory was so dramatic because the threat to Mrs Gandhi’s dictatorship forced the opposition to collaborate, regardless of the politics they claimed, on a scale not seen before. Opposition to Mrs Gandhi was enough. In its wake, Janata carried a host of local parties (Akali in Punjab, for example) as well as the Communist Party of India (CPM). The differences between Janata’s and Congress’s programmes are trivial.

The voting results were less dramatic than the change in seats. Just over 60 per cent of the electorate voted (a higher per cent than in Mrs Gandhi’s landslide victory of 1971, but just less than the 61.3 per cent poll in 1967). Janata took 43 per cent of the votes, or about 26 per cent of the electorate. Congress vote fell from the 41 and 43 per cent of 1967 and 1971, to 35 percent of the poll.

Twelve states dominate India, electing 87 per cent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Of these, five in the northern heartlands of India that were formerly the stronghold of Congress, swung dramatically to Janata, which took all the seats in the two biggest states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. By contrast, Congress and its allies won heavily in the four southern states. In between were the three most industrialised states – West Bengal, Gujerat and Maharashtra, where votes and seats were more evenly divided.

In sum, regional fragments of old Congress, with the politically scarcely distinguishable Jan Sangh, replaced Mrs Gandhi’s ‘new Congress’. We can only guess that the reason was that the savage compulsory sterilisation campaign, which primarily affected North India, achieved what neither famine nor drought could in all the preceding years. Furthermore, factional disputes in Mrs Gandhi’s Congress paralysed the old voting machine, and the lower echelons of the government bureaucracy were apparently demoralised and failed to bring the vote in.

The new government, its members appointed proportional to the federating parties, has now to secure a majority in the Upper House of the national assembly (Rajya Sabha); to do that, as also to elect the new President, it must secure a majority in the State Assemblies. The Congress majorities in the State Assemblies are refusing to co-operate, so Janata is trying to bribe Congress Assembly members to ‘cross the floor’ and thereby force the resignation of sufficient State governments to get a majority. The opportunities for the most ferocious intrigues as the different contributory parties of Janata jostle each other to secure an edge are endless.

If Janata is a temporary alliance of convenience between regional groups, the election has forced other parties to be regional. The Communist Party of India (CPI), Mrs Gandhi’s only ally, took a fierce drubbing, and has become, like Congress itself, a southern party. It secured only seven seats in all, four in Kerala and three in Tamiland. The CPM, by contrast, caught the ‘Janata wave’, and, although completely wiped out in its old stronghold of Kerala, took 17 seats in West Bengal (plus three in Maharashtra and one each in Orissa and Punjab). In essence, the CPM has become a Bengali party.

The new government has, with some difficulty, hung together, but the jostling is already considerable. It is faced with very grave problems. The economy continues in slump, with exceptionally high levels of unemployment. The prospects are for a run of bad harvests, and although food stocks are unprecedentedly high, prices are beyond the reach of the vast majority. Inflation, especially in foodstuffs and clothing, is beginning to increase rapidly. Because, the 20 month Emergency led to wage cuts of up to ten per cent and the gaoling of militants, there is likely to be a rapid increase in industrial militancy. Expectations have been enormously raised by the election result, expectations of being able to win back what has been lost and drive back the depredations of both landlord and employer.

But the new government embodies the rich farmer interest – three of the leading Ministers are rich farmers in their own right (including the Home and Agricultural Ministers). In the first statements of the government, Janata has dropped its pledge to achieve full employment in ten years, and, instead, is proclaiming the impoverishment of agriculture by the cities as the main cause of all trouble. But when it speaks of agriculture it does not mean the eighty per cent of cultivators (no mention of land reform or anything like that), only the prices received by the rich farmers.

The new government is thus all set for a major collision with suddenly released forces of the class struggle. We are in for a period of great social turmoil, combined with the severe political instability of the central government. It is the greatest opportunity for the revolutionary Left that has occurred since Independence, a quite unlooked-for chance to build a mass alternative. The new government will, sooner or later, be compelled to reintroduce Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency to save the Indian ruling class – or the generals will do it for them. By the time that comes, there needs to exist that revolutionary alternative which so signally failed to exist during the last Emergency, a party that fuses the basic material demands of the so long oppressed Indian working class with the aim of the conquest of State power. The old traditions of middle-class revolutionary politics – using mass grievances as occasional support and bargaining counters – cannot create that alternative.

Mr Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, did not run the risks undertaken by Mrs Gandhi in India. Pakistan is much smaller than India. Bhutto did not inflict compulsory sterilisation on the peasants, and pampered the government bureaucracy so that they duly turned in the vote in the general elections. But after the elections, he has not had a dissimilar reaction.

In the 1970 elections (in the old undivided Pakistan), Bhutto’s party (PPP) won 37 per cent of the vote, much of it concentrated on the largest province, Punjab. The nine parties which have today united in the main opposition, the PNA, won 63 per cent of the vote then. This time, on a 55 per cent poll, Bhutto’s PPP claims to have secured 59 per cent of the vote, the PNA 36 per cent. In the Punjab province (with two thirds of the national electorate), Bhutto claims to have won 61 per cent of the vote, and 64 per cent in his home province, Sind. In Baluchistan, wracked by civil war for the past five years (there are said to be six divisions of the army occupying the province). The PNA in protest boycotted the election, and the PPP won 50 per cent of the vote. In the last province, North West Frontier, the PNA won half the vote, and the PPP about a third.

The voting swing was considerable, but mild in comparison to the swing in seats. The PPP received 155 of the 200 seats in the national assembly, against the PNA’s 36. During the election campaign, the signs of a massive revolt against Bhutto were as palpable as that against Mrs Gandhi in India, but the outcome was completely different. The opposition PNA was harried and harassed in the run up to the elections; there was much violence, arbitrary arrests, and the censored press lent no help to the opposition. As in India, politically the opposition was to the right of the governing party. This was more extreme in Pakistan – the PNA promised a return to Muslim law, denationalisation of the food industries, compensation for the nationalisation undertaken so far, abolition of taxes on home ownership, import duty on agricultural machinery and interest on loans. Nonetheless, the fine print of the programme did not deflect the only opposition reflecting a genuine revolt against Bhutto’s dictatorship.

The results – including a massive PNA victory in most of the cities – were so bad for the opposition, they immediately announced a campaign to oust Bhutto, boycott the National Assembly and hold again the elections. The PNA, in protest at the national elections, boycotted the provincial assembly elections, with the result that the PPP secured majorities in all provinces.

The results of the protest campaign have been staggering. The PNA’s protest clearly connected with a gigantic repressed revolt, especially among industrial workers, producing the most serious crisis in the country since 1971. Take, for example, general strikes, rising to a crescendo from the first on February 28th, through March 1st, March 14th, March 20th and 21st, 23rd, 26th, 30th, and further riots on April 8th. The PNA claims that 100 have been slaughtered by the army and police, and 25,000 arrested, in an agitation that has paralysed all the cities of Pakistan (the press coverage is too poor to tell how far there has been an echo among the peasants.)

In particular, the revolt has been most extreme in the industrial districts of the major city, Karachi – in Landhi, Korangi and north-west Karachi (areas including also the largest number of migrant Pathan workers; Pathans are from North-West Frontier where one of the opposition parties, the National Awami Party, is strong). The opposition of workers is smothered in the wave of purely parliamentary critics, using popular discontents simply as a bargaining counter to secure greater gains in the parliamentary scene. Worse still, one of the leading PNA figures, former air-force chief Asghar Khan, has openly expounded a strategy of using popular revolt to instigate a military coup that would put him in the saddle.

Bhutto’s response has been, apart from the wave of violence and mass arrests, conciliatory, suggesting that he too is looking over his shoulder at the army chiefs. He has offered to hold the provincial elections again, to left the seven year Emergency, to free political prisoners, to reduce the curbs on the press, and to revise the electoral results in the light of tribunals’ recommendations for each constituency, all provided the imprisoned PNA leaders call off its campaign of agitation. This is a surprising response, and has as its effect, to increase the intransigence of the opposition, or rather increase the differentiation between those prepared to compromise and those who scent a military coup in the offing. So far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, the ouster of Bhutto would be a great victory, but military rule a considerable defeat. The PNA would settle for the second in the hope that it could be the civilian facade to military power. Pakistan’s revolt is, in the absence of revolutionary leadership, a tragedy, torn between disastrous alternatives. But in the longer term, the present agitation could be the prelude to the differentiation of the opposition – between the religious and conservative fanatics and the Left.

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