By Praful Bidwai
21 May, 2004
The News International
The BJP has proved
unwilling to play by the rules of democracy.
That's why India stands convulsed by Sonia Gandhi's decision not to
become Prime Minister - despite a landmark electoral verdict in her
favour. This great act of renunciation enhances her moral-political
stature. But it equally exposes the BJP as an egregiously intolerant
party, which is deeply uncomfortable with democracy, and has contempt
for political decency and Constitutional law. The contrast between
the two could not be starker. The Indian Constitution bars
discrimination between citizens "on grounds of religion, race or
place of birth".
Besides her "inner
voice", a major reason behind Gandhi's decision is
the hysterical campaign the sangh parivar threatened to unleash on
the "foreign origins" issue for utterly petty reasons - with
from the BJP's top leaders, including Vajpayee. Evidently, Sonia
Gandhi reckoned that a situation of prolonged strife and contention
would not be in India's interest. It would distract the government
from addressing urgent tasks, and weaken its mandate.
The mandate itself is a stunning rejection of the NDA and its
economic, social and political agenda. Contrary to BJP propaganda,
the verdict isn't "fractured", attributable to tactical or
factors, good alliance building, "anti-incumbency", and the
success/failure of "political brands".
In fact, this election
marks a clear watershed. The NDA called for an
early election in the supreme confidence that it would win hands
down. It was trounced in 24 out of 28 states. Its defeat was
strategic and derived from people's anger against its policies.
The pattern of the vote is complex, regionally differentiated and
reflective of India's diversity. But the overarching trend is
unmistakable. Just as the Congress in 1977 swept the Southern states,
the NDA too retained Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and
Chhattisgarh. But nobody in 1977 denied that the Janata Party had an
unambiguous mandate. The UPA's right to rule is far stronger than,
say, the Janata Dal's under V.P. Singh in 1989. It has 320-plus MPs
on its own in the 543-member Lok Sabha.
The Indian people
voted against the NDA's pro-rich, pro-corporate neo-
liberal policies that impoverish the majority; they rejected hate-
driven Hindu-fundamentalist politics of exclusivism and Islamophobia;
and they reaffirmed their commitment to pluralism and secularism. The
Left gathered its highest parliamentary tally in history.
The electorate strongly supported the Congress wherever it took a
clear, combative stand on secularism, and on poverty and
unemployment. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi added to the impact. But an
anti-BJP sentiment already existed - rooted in public anger at the
NDA's zealously neo-liberal policies, which have produced agrarian
distress, unemployment and hunger.
states capture the verdict's essence - Andhra
Pradesh, noted for the computer-savvy Chandrababu Naidu and
Microsoft's investments; Gujarat, "Hindutva's laboratory"
for the 2002 butchery of Muslims; and Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu
fanatics razed the Babri mosque, and where the BJP was hoping to
score huge gains.
Naidu was ignominiously
defeated both in Parliament and state
elections - because of his unabashedly pro-investor policies. For
him, it was always more important to be at Davos than to bother about
the suicides of 3,000 highly indebted farmers, crushed by high power
and water charges (thanks to privatisation), and cheap imports. His
Information Technology balloon burst. Andhra's software rank slumped
from number 3 to number 5. Naidu refused to demand that the BJP bring
the Gujarat pogrom's perpetrators to book.
Gujarat is the one
state where the BJP has ruled on its own, for long
years. It was forecast it would sweep Gujarat - as it did in the post-
pogrom state elections. Instead, it lost in half the constituencies.
It performed worst in those very areas where the anti-Muslim violence
was most virulent. Clearly, it was penalised by an
electorate finally disenchanted with Hindu-chauvinism and with Modi's
In UP, the BJP's
social base has shrunk. Even the Brahmins are
deserting it. Its defeat in Faizabad-Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura only
means the temple/mosque issue is dead. The BJP has been reduced to
just 15 seats in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand put together. In the North
as a whole, it has shrunk into a minor party. The defeat of Hindutva
hardliners like Vinay Katiyar and Murli Manohar Joshi shows the
BJP's "identity politics" has no popular appeal.
The elections demolished
another myth - Vajpayee's "magic" and charm
as Hindutva's "soft" face. The NDA built a personality cult
this. Many BJP's supporters put Vajpayee in the same league as Nehru,
or Indira and Rajiv Gandhi at their respective peaks.
Vajpayee turned out a dud. Neither intellectually nor politically was
he ever in Nehru's league. In Lucknow, he undignifiedly started
begging for Muslim votes. The saree stampede showed he was trying to
bribe the poor to get votes. When the BJP switched from trying to win
Muslim votes to splitting them - what UP's politicians
call "dividation" - Vajpayee got surreal. He courted Mulayam
Yadav and asked Muslims to vote for him, not the Congress! On polling
day, only 35.4 percent of Lucknow's electorate bothered to vote - a
rate unprecedented in a senior politician's constituency.
In the last six weeks, Vajpayee's stature has eroded more than in the
preceding six years! The BJP is now left with no issues. Having
nothing to offer, it has focused on "foreign origins". This
a deep xenophobic pathology and contempt for the popular mandate. The
NDA used gutter-level language to agitate that issue during the
campaign. But this simply didn't wash. The people did not fall into
the xenophobic trap. For them, a person born abroad, who has
voluntarily accepted Indian citizenship, is as authentic a national
as any other. What matters is citizenship, not "native" ethnicity.
The BJP has also strained to present the share-market crisis as
business's rejection of the UPA. There are two components to this.
First, there is a massive decline in stock prices all over Asia. The
FIIs had pumped in almost $600 billion into the "emerging markets"
China-Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and India. They are now pulling
out some money because of high oil prices, fear of inflation, and a
US industrial upturn. A big bear cartel has been hammering down the
Mumbai market to bully the Congress into adopting conservative
So, it's especially
tragic that the Left parties aren't joining the
UPA government. Their entry would have given it gravitas, prestige,
and longevity. They can still play a vital role in negotiating a
common agenda, which reflects popular aspirations and rational
priorities, covering economics, social policy, institutional
structures, and foreign and security policy. The economic priorities
include major employment programmes, macro-economic correction
through progressive taxation, and reform of the public sector, not
It's necessary to
reaffirm secularism actively by exemplarily
bringing the Gujarat pogrom's villains to justice, by resolving the
Ayodhya dispute through a temple-plus-mosque formula, by banning
Togadia-style hate-speech, and revising communal textbooks. It's
imperative to "detoxify" institutions corrupted by the BJP.
India must return to Non-Alignment and emphasise a non-hegemonic,
multi-polar, peaceful and rule-based world order. Similarly, its
security policy must be freed of BJP-style jingoism. This is a
wonderful opportunity to turn the people's aspirations into radical