Bye, Bye, Mr.
American Pie Vajpayee
By Niranjan Ramakrishnan
17 May, 2004
political aficionados, the Indian parliamentary election is the superbowl
of superbowls. The largest electorate in the world moves, and in that
movement, scoffs at elites and cynics all around the world who say democracy
is not for the poor, the illiterate or the backward. As its hand hovers
over the ballot box (or in this election, the touchscreen), it makes
and breaks the rich and the powerful in distant Delhi.
Twice in the last
thirty years, a profoundly anti-democratic dispensation in India has
been overthrown by the ballot. On both occasions, the coup de grace
came not from the urban literates mouthing the shibboleth of the day
('law and order' in 1977, 'economic reforms' in 2004), but by the masses
who saw things for what they were. As the results gushed in on May 13,
2004 (electronic voting making the counting of 400,000,000 votes a mere
matter of hours, plus the advantage of India not having a state called
Florida), it became clear that the people had defied TV-anchor and editorial
page wisdom and showed the ruling coalition the door.
This election was
also the first to be conducted entirely in electronic format. That it
went flawlessly is a tribute to the world's largest democracy, and testimony
to the country's increasing facility with the computer.
The new government
I wish one could
say that the inheritors were clean knights in shining armor. The Congress
Party,which will form the next government, imposed a fascist rule on
the country between 1975-77. It was responsible for the mass murder
of sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
in 1984. It was also the originator of economic liberalization (though
it was never so axiomatic about it as the current government) when it
reassumed power in 1991. And as soon as it seemed to have acquired enough
support to form a government, its first statement was the obligatory
one -- "economic reforms will continue". Through the five
years of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA)'s cultural assault,
the Congress often did little to resist. But there will be time enough
to deride the Congress during the rest of its term. Today is a day for
Reasons for the
The opinion and
exit polls -- almost uniformly -- predicted either a majority for the
ruling alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or at the very
least an assured position as the largest bloc in Parliament. The Congress
Party, led by Italian-born but India-settled Sonia Gandhi (whose foreignness
is strangely troubling to expatriate Indians settled in far corners
of the world), was at first billed to do worse than the last time, and
though slowly upgraded, never expected to emerge as the largest single
party (its position for the first 30 years of independent India).
How did this upset
take place? Who knows? As the Urdu couplet goes, "Ya subah ka ehsaan
ho, ya meri kashish ho, Dooba hua khursheed sarebaam to aaya..."
(Whether it was the kindness of the morning, or my irresistible attraction,
the sunken sun did come up after all).
But we can recount
some possible reasons.
Mom, can I be
the 51st State?
The NDA, and its
leading constituent, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's BJP, became
the standard bearers of globalization, zealous in their pursuit of 'economic
reforms', ardent water carriers for America. To its shame, official
India remained mute when Iraq was attacked. Mr. Vajpayee's administration
threw its weight behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, and was mightily
proud of a projected US-Israel-India alignment in a new world order.
policy, while delighting a rudderless urban middle class drooling over
the prospect of luxury at any price, devastated much of the urban poor
and village India. The aftermath of joining the WTO has wreaked havoc
among the farmers, of whom it is reported that more than 25000 have
committed suicide in recent years -- a development not deemed worthy
of serious front page coverage in Indian newspapers, many of whom have
far more important stories to carry, such as Oscar Night and Emmy Nominations.
with America came at a time when America's stock was on the downswing
the world over. Even the BJP's Hindu vote base, though possessed of
no great love for Muslims, could see that Indian silence in the face
of the invasion of Iraq, and the frenetic energy with which Mr. Vajpayee's
government tried to preempt Pakistan and get in bed with the Bush Administration
in the latter's post-9-11 muscle-flexing, were hardly in keeping with
India's tradition of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. And if America
could launch a pre-emptive attack on a country merely suspected to be
developing nuclear weapons, it did not take much imagination to see
that a country with actual nuclear weapons could be considered just
as much of a target.
India on Sale,
On the domestic
front, the government proceeded to systematically carry out a controversial
privatization initiative involving the selling off of billions of dollars
of public assets. India's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government,
declaring that workers had no inherent right to strike. State high-handedness
was rampant, and to seal the deal, Mr. Vajpayee's government pushed
through a law called POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), which basically
did away with large sections of India's constitutional protections regarding
arbitrary arrest, detention and due process.
To compound this
general attitude of callousness, the BJP, as its allies looked on mutely,
oversaw the worst communal pogrom in post-partition India. Thousands
of muslims were killed throughout Gujarat state, in response to the
killing of Hindus in Godhra, a town in the same state. The response
of the central government was the rough equivalent of 'Stuff happens'.
The Gujarat state government, also led by a BJP chief minister, saw
in all this nothing more than the manifestation of the universal law
of action and reaction. Even now, many BJP supporters view this as just
a tit for tat. They would also tell you (quite factually) that thousands
of Hindus have had to leave the state of Jammu and Kashmir owing to
fear of militants. They miss a vital difference: in Gujarat, the killings,
rapes and lootings took place with the deliberate inaction (and in some
places, the active connivance) of the state government (see, Riding
the Tiger in India).
Another aspect of
BJP rule (again as its allies, including the anti-fascist stalwart of
1975, George Fernandes, stood shamelessly by) was the attempted cultural
transformation of the country in the name of 'Hindutva'. This term,
originally coined by VD Savarkar, the spiritual father of the BJP --
and incidentally an accused in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi -- means
'Hinduness'. In the dispensation of the last five years, the BJP and
its cohorts got to decide who was Hindu enough. Led by a bumbling Hindutva
enthusiast called Murli Manohar Joshi (who lost his seat in the elections),
the BJP pushed through the rewriting of Indian history according to
the Hindutava interpretation, and created revised textbooks now used
by millions of schoolchildren throughout India. A friend of mine, who
worked at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) -- one of the most
prestigious technical institutions in the world -- told me how Joshi
was forcing IIT meetings to begin with a Hindu prayer (the Muttawain
would be proud), something spineless officials, swayed by the atmosphere,
readily acceded to. My friend died of cancer earlier this year -- how
I wish he had been alive to see this clown trounced!
Aside from such
backdoor efforts to leave its imprint on Indian history and culture,
the NDA also countenanced with little demur the burning of libraries,
art exhibits, the threatening of artists and others because they were
deemed not to conform to the Hindutva view of things. For all its cravenness
towards things American, the BJP had no time for the spirit of the First
Amendment. When the world-famous Bhandarkar Library in Pune, India,
(a repository of ancient Hindu manuscripts, among other things), was
ransacked and trashed in January because an American author of a book
critical of an Indian folk hero had thanked it for its help, no political
leader said a word, and both the state and central governments stood
by watching. No wonder the looting of the Baghdad Museum did not strike
the NDA Government as calling for an outcry.
All this may yet
not have been enough to ensure the NDA's ouster. But in the last few
months, it spent public money like water to blanket the airwaves and
roadsides with ads and billboards of "India Shining", showing
off the great progress India had made (neither the message nor its context
was lost on anyone during the election season). I was in Chennai (Madras)
early this year, and the city (run by a recent NDA ally) was without
drinking water, with the worst dry season still to come. People were
buying and storing water by the truckfull, and even scheduling that
was getting difficult. In the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, the
chief minister, another NDA ally, who prided himself as the chief globalist
of India and habitually went about with a laptop computer, forgot that
his state was in the throes of a drought and that rural indebtedness
had driven many to despair. Three days before the parliamentary election
results, his party was thrashed in the state assembly polls, presaging
the rout of his partners on the national scene. "India Shining",
was a slap in the face of the average Indian, something only a tone-deaf
administration with its ear cocked solely toward praise from the west
would have missed. Instead of pulling the plug, they continued the campaign
for months before being ordered to stop by the Election Commission for
being violative of election campaign laws. Deputy Prime Minister Lal
Krishna Advani made much of what he called, "the Feel Good Factor"
under the BJP. It turned out to be Feel Good Riddance Factor.
Bye, bye, Mr.
All in all, Mr.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, veteran of Indian politics and regarded (wrongly,
in my view, for what politicians do matters more than what they say)
as a moderate, came across as out of touch, and some of his colleagues
as epitomes of downright chest-thumping zealots. Like the myth of George
W. Bush being strong on terrorism, there is one about Vajpayee being
the master of foreign policy. If India is regarded with greater respect
in the world today, it has little to do with Vajpayee, and a lot to
do with the purchasing power of its economy, a product of liberal education
and technological strength for which one must thank Jawaharlal Nehru.
One is tempted to
make an analogy of Mr. Vajpayee's defeat with that of Winston Churchill
in 1945. Would that it were true... Churchill left behind the legacy
of a nation united in wartime and prepared to sacrifice. Mr. Vajpayee
leaves behind a culture of callous divisiveness and selfish consumerism.
If Churchill challenged the British people asking for blood, sweat and
tears, Mr. Vajpayee scarcely said anything inspiring, projecting only
a smug, don't worry, be happy attitude. Churchill's words can ring with
power even today. The only place where Vajpayee's clever wordplay evokes
appreciation any more is amidst inebriated Indian audiences in foreign
countries. I speak as one who has attended many of his public meetings
and enjoyed his oratory
in India is that Mr Vajpayee brought about, after several attempts,
a kind of a rapprochement between India and Pakistan. One may say his
heart was in the right place, of his surefootedness one is less certain
. His visit to China was considered a success in building bridges between
the two Asian giants. This too is an imperative of the times, and Vajpayee's
abandonment of India's traditional sympathy for the Tibetans has came
in for criticism. The one achievement for which he deserves credit is
the holding of free elections in Jammu and Kashmir.
In the end, Atal
Behari Vajpayee's tenure as prime minister of India will be remembered,
like that of friend Bill Clinton's, as a squandered opportunity, mistaking
galloping consumption for real upliftment, spiritual or material, leaving
little lasting positive imprint on the country's ethos.