Prem Shankar Jha

India’s 16th general election has been unique for many reasons. No previous election has been so relentlessly and exhaustively discussed; no previous election – not even the post Emergency election of 1977 – has aroused so much passion, so much fury; so much hope and so much fear. And in no previous election has the result been so completely a foregone conclusion. But almost no one thought that the BJP would get as many as 283 seats, a comfortable majority on its own, and that the Congress would be reduced to a pathetic rump party with only 44 seats.

These results have left the opponents of the BJP and the secular liberal intelligentsia in shock. But for the country this is not by any means an unmitigated disaster. Its most obvious blessing is that it will ensure a smooth and swift transition of power to the new government. Had the results been indeterminate; had the BJP found it difficult to form a government, there would have been a collapse of confidence in the Indian economy abroad and a run of dollars out of the country that would have destroyed whatever chance remained of a quick economic recovery.

That hurdle is decisively behind us. Investors, both domestic and foreign, have been quick to perceive this. That accounts for the 1500 point rise in the Sensex since the beginning of the current week, and the additional 800 point rise on Friday 16th. A billion dollars of foreign institutional investment had propelled the pre-election rise. Today Indian investors too, who had long shunned the equity markets, have begun to come back to it.

But it would be self-deluding to believe that with the election over, and a stable new government in place, we can go back to business as usual. India has entered new and uncharted territory in the development of its democracy. The first phase of development – single party dominance by the Congress party – was replaced by coalition rule in 1989. Most political Pundits had predicted that this would fatally weaken the centre and make India exceedingly difficult to govern. They were proved wrong. As a book being released in the US in the coming weeks, “Why India Matters”, points out, coalition governments took more hard decisions and propelled India much further up the radar screens of foreign governments than the Congress had been able to do in the last two decades of single party dominance.

But coalition democracy was built around two central poles – the Congress and the BJP – and the Congress pole has now collapsed. Whether we like it or not, therefore, we are returning to another phase of near–single party dominance with no conceivable combination of parties to form a viable opposition and put a brake upon its actions. And this single party—the BJP, is not the benign Congress of yesteryears. Not only does it espouse a radically different ideology from the Congress, but it has little in common even with the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani.

The leaders of today’s BJP are not from the Metropolis but the Mofussil. They are products of an internal convulsion within the BJP after its defeat in 2004 that saw the exodus of Vajpayee, Advani and virtually all the urbane and seasoned leaders whom the public recognized and respected a decade ago. Today, most of Modi’s core team are state leaders who have no idea how different, and how difficult, governing a nation of 1.27 billion people can be. They will have to come to grips with its bewildering diversity. They will have to learn, as Emperor Ashoka learned when he created a religious police to enforce his edicts and fatally weakened the Mauryan empire; as the Mughals understood from the very start, and as the British learned in 1857 after they tried to ride roughshod over Hindu and Muslim customs and beliefs, that India can only stay united if its rulers accept and respect its cultural diversity and religious plurality.

Vajpayee had tried to hammer this into his party and the RSS through a succession of four annual New Years’ Day “Musings”. Had the NDA won the 2004 election, he would have completed his task. But the NDA’s defeat became the springboard for a wholesale rejection not only of his closest colleagues in the BJP, but also of the philosophy of tolerance, and respect for diversity, that he had tried to instill into the Sangh Parivar.

There is reassuring evidence that Modi,like Vajpayee before him, has devoted a good deal of thought to this challenge, and has come to similar conclusions. As long ago as at the Hindustan Times Leadership summit in 2007, he had insisted that Hindutwa does not mean Hindu cultural, let alone religious supremacy but its opposite – a respect for India’s religious pluralism and cultural diversity. He has not made a single anti-Muslim statement throughout his campaign, and has rebuked those who have. But like Vajpayee when the NDA first came to power in 1998, he too will have to find a way of making the Sangh Parivar accept this definition.

Modi’s task, however, will be far harder than the one that Vajpayee faced a decade ago. For India is now in the dangerous middle stage of capitalist development that Europe passed through in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is the stage in which a relatively new, and still financially insecure, propertied class tries to tame growing class conflict by diverting the attention of the have-nots towards convenient scapegoats on whom they can pin the blame for their misfortunes. Europe chose Jews to be the scapegoats. The result was a rising, increasingly virulent, anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust.

In India, extremists in the Sangh Parivar have elected Muslims to be the scapegoats. If Modi does not reign them in India will, literally, have no future. For India is a world of minorities, in which the Muslims are only the largest. An attempt to impose cultural homogeneity upon them will lead to its disintegration.

The BJP’s absolute majority, and the decimation of not only the Congress but all the caste-based smaller parties of north India, has made Modi’s task more difficult, for it has removed most of the natural checks to cultural authoritarianism within our democracy. However, absolute majority has also created one silver lining: Absolute power brings with it absolute responsibility. For the last five years the BJP has played the role of a spoiler in India politics, constantly stoking religious and cultural animosities, disrupting the functioning of parliament and ensuring that an already weak Congress is able to do nothing. Absolute majority has put an unambiguous price upon that kind of irresponsibility. That road is now therefore a costly one for the party to travel. One can only hope that its leaders will realize this before they have had the time to do further damage to India’s social fabric.

The Congress has only itself to blame for its rout, for in the past six years it has given the country the worst government it has ever had. The list of its mistakes, and of the opportunities it has missed, is too long to accommodate in this essay, but one stands out above all others because of the misery it has inflicted upon ordinary Indians, and because it became the launch pad for Modi’s rise to power. This is the complete dog’s dinner it made of the economy.

In the last four years GDP growth has halved from 8.4 percent (in 2009-10), to a little over four percent in the past year. Industrial growth has collapsed spectacularly — a 16.4 percent drop from 14.5 percent in October 2009 to March 2010, to minus 1.9 percent in January to March 2014. This has devastated the economy. The construction industry is moribund: the skyline of Gurgaon and NOIDA in Delhi is pockmarked by the silhouettes of half-competed skyscrapers. The growth of real fixed investment has fallen by 80 percent from the level reached in 2010-2011. There has been only one large Initial Public Offering of shares by a private company for an industrial or infrastructure project, since Reliance Power’s 7,500 crore IPO in February 2008, and that too occurred as long ago as in January 2011. Over 200 blue chip companies, that had borrowed heavily or issued convertible debentures abroad, are staring a debt default in the face, because of the collapse of their share prices and the 40 percent devaluation of the rupee in the past five years. Within the country tens of thousands of small companies have gone quietly bankrupt, with no one even bothering to keep count. Data on employment collected by the National Sample survey and the Ministry of Industry suggest that at least 40 million job-seekers have lost, or failed to find, jobs and been deprived of a future.

Had the collapse been caused by forces beyond the government’s control there would have been misery but not the level of anger that they have shown at the polls in the past five months. This anger has been fed by the suspicion, that has hardened into conviction, that the government’s faulty polices were responsible. While they may not have understood precisely what the UPA did wrong, they have not believed its repeated assertion that the economic collapse had been caused solely by the global recession. If this was true, they have wondered, how did industrial growth bounce back in July 2009 within less than a year of the start of the recession when the global recession was at its height.

To industrialists, shopkeepers and workers unorganized sector workers, if not to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s legion of economists, the mistake has been obvious for three years. His government became obsessed with fighting inflation in order to retain its popularity, and did not realize that unlike the inflation of 1993-95 and all previous bouts of inflation in India, the inflation that began in the summer of 2006 was not driven by an excess demand but by global and local shortages of supply. From January 2007, therefore, it began applying the wrong remedy. It kept raising interest rates and cutting down money supply to lower demand when the cause of the price rise lay in a relentless rise in global commodity prices fueled by China’s voracious demand, by freakish weather conditions and limitless exports of vegetables and fruits regardless of what that did to domestic prices.
Not only did the government start raising interest rates as far back as January 2007, but it persisted in doing so for seven years in the face of unequivocal evidence that these had had absolutely no effect on the cost of living. Instead of giving price stability and economic growth all that the Manmohan Singh government gave the people was stagflation and despair. Untramelled power was therefore the Congress’ gift to the BJP, perhaps the last gift that it will ever be in a position to give.

Indian politics has entered uncharted waters, but these are not as unfriendly as many secular and liberal intellectuals believe. As of 7.00 PM on Friday, with the counting almost over The Congress’ share of the vote had fallen by almost 10 percent to 19.8 percent. This is huge and probably spells the end of the party as an all-India party. But 19.8 percent is 1.4 percent more than the BJP got in 2009. So the Congress is down but not necessarily out. Whether it will continue to decline will depend on its capacity to stay together in defeat and to realize that the slavish sycophancy that it fostered within itself by clinging to the so-called Gandhi-Nehru charisma has outlived its purpose and become a millstone around its neck.

Second and more important, the Aam Admi Party may have got only 2.2 percent of the national vote but for the poor and underprivileged it has opened the gates to an empowered future. Not only has it won four seats in Punjab, but starting with nothing in a totally alien town, Kejriwal collected 36 percent of the vote in Varanasi. And although it didn’t win in Delhi it retained 33 percent of the vote.
Indeed, had the regional and caste based parties known any history, and realized the danger that the combination of prolonged economic distress and a powerful orator promising immediate economic relief could pose to them, and had AAP got out of its nihilistic mood, understood the reasons for its sudden rise in Delhi, and planned its electoral campaign around a national platform of reforms that would empower the have-nots, the result of this election would have been far more balanced.

The Mayawatis Mamatas and Yadavs of the world may not have got the message before, but it is difficult to believe that they  have not got it now. This is that the days of fighting national elections on the basis of caste, creed and community are rapidly coming to a close. A Yadav or Kurmi or Chamar’s vote is not a party’s entitlement. It has to be earned. Throughout the electoral campaign Kejriwal and Modi had one thing in common – neither of them once appealed to the voter to caste his or her ballot for anything other than performance and justice. Therein lies our hope for the future.

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The Aam Admi Party (AAP) is riding a wave. Ever since it hurled the Congress out of power in Delhi and chipped away a sizable chunk of the BJP’S vote, it has been making the headlines every single day. To its leaders nothing seems impossible – they are confident of enrolling one crore members throughout the country and talk openly of replacing the Congress as the second tent pole of Indian politics. To the millions of ordinary people, living increasingly harsh lives in our congested cities, who are queuing up to join it, it has become a beacon that promises to guide them to a better future.

But the wave they are riding is a wave of anger. It has been generated by the growing injustice of a political system that is dominated by a corrupt, criminal and predatory class that has somehow seized democracy by the neck and turned into an instrument of disempowerment, when it should have been the precise opposite. The anger has been visible and has been growing for the better part of four decades. Exceptionally high growth between 2003 and 2010 held it in check for a while. But the collapse of growth, the disappearance of jobs, and the return of acute insecurity in the past four years, has made it erupt again. When he decided to form a political party and fight the Delhi elections Kejriwal opened a new channel for the dispossessed to express this anger through. The Delhi vote shows how strong it was. Its electrifying aftermath shows that this anger is turning into a virtual Tsunami. If it is not controlled; if it is continuously stoked, it will not reform Indian democracy but destroy it.

Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, this is exactly what the AAP is leading the masses into doing. To say that victory has caught the party unprepared would be an understatement, for apart from announcing highly populist cuts in electricity tariffs and water rates, all it has done in the past four weeks is to feed the self righteousness of the underprivileged masses and lead, or encourage, them to take shortcuts in their search for redress.

One episode, that occurred within hours of their accepting power, reflects just how unfit the party is, at least at this moment, to govern a city let alone a country. Late in the night of January 21 the AAP’s new law minister Somnath Bharti led a mob that broke into a house in south Delhi inhabited by four (or five) Ugandan women, accused them of running a drugs and prostitution racket, forced them to provide samples of their urine, stormed to a police station and demanded their arrest without a warrant.

Had Kejriwal allowed the law to take its course, Bharti’s attack could have been dismissed as an aberration, but instead he summoned a ‘Khap Panchayat’ of his own senior party men, who decided that Bharti had done nothing wrong and, instead put the blame on the central government for insisting upon retaining control of the Delhi police. As if that was not Kejriwal personally led a ten day Dharna demanding that the central government hand over control of Delhi’s police to his government forthwith. And in a supreme act of contempt for the Indian State and Republic, he chose to hold his dharna in a manner calculated to disrupt the Republic day parade. When asked why he was bent upon doing so one of his lieutenants retorted “parade ko Goli Maro”. He withdrew his remark only when he remembered that TV anchors and audiences do not have a sense of humour.

This single common strand in this chain of actions was an utter contempt for the Indian State. Its institutions and legal processes can be brushed aside because they have all been perverted into instruments for protecting the power of this class. It showed that while Kejriwal talks of reform his purpose is to destroy the present edifice of the State and replace it with an ad hoc ‘peoples’ rule masquerading as democracy.

One swallow, his defenders may argue, does not make a summer. But when many swallows take to the air at the same time, a change is definitely in the air. On February 3, the AAP cabinet took two decisions: the first was to prosecute former Chief Minister Sheila Dixit on the grounds that she had hurriedly regularised 1200 unauthorised colonies in order to curry favour with the electorate, and to favour slum landlords and corrupt builders. The second was to pass a Jana Lok Pal bill for Delhi state that would pointedly include the sitting chief minister within the ambit of this seven member body’s investigative and prosecutorial powers. What is more, knowing that the bill is unlikely to receive the President’s assent because it goes against the recently enacted Central Lok Pal act which explicitly keeps the prime minister and the judiciary out of its purview, Kejriwal announced that he would not ask for the president’s assent to the bill but would call a special session of the Delhi state assembly to bring it into law.

The Jana Lok Pal bill is clearly intended to show up the cronyism of the centre. Sheila Dixit’s prosecution will, Kejriwal hopes, force the Congress to choose between backing her and leaving her to her fate. The former option will brand Mrs. Dixit as corrupt in the popular mind; the latter will brand the entire Congress.

Kejriwal is therefore clearly spoiling for a fight. His goal is to force the Congress to withdraw support from his infant government in Delhi and further tarnish its own image while sparing the AAP from having to fulfil its populist promises. Had he stopped there he might have got away with it, for it is possible conceive of an Indian Union in which State governments pass more stringent laws than the centre advocates. But Kejriwal wants to bring the Delhi Lok Pal Act into being without any reference to the central government. And that is not an attack on corruption, or even on the Congress: it is a direct attack upon the Indian State. For if one state succeeds in dispensing with presidential assent for its enactments, all will follow suit. That will be the end of the Indian Union.

What Kejriwal has no inkling of is the power of the wave he is riding and the near certainty that if he loses control he will be its first victim. For this wave has built up when India is at the dangerous point in the transformation from a traditional to a capitalist market economy at which it can either build the political and economic institutions that are necessary to make the transition acceptable to the common people, or fail to do so and regress into violence, anarchy and disintegration.

Other countries have come to the same critical point and not all have been able to negotiate it successfully. In Europe Britain, France, Belgium and Holland did so with relative ease. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, and Rumania did not. Germany succeeded initially, but regressed into failure in the 1930s under the combined onslaught of defeat in war, hyperinflation and the great depression of 1929.

The challenge that all of the above countries faced was the same as the one India is facing today. The most salient feature the early and middle stages of the capitalist transformation is that it creates a profound sense of insecurity. This arises from a growing desire to accumulate wealth – the key to prosperity in the market economy, rapid urbanisation and the consequent dissolution of the social bonds and relationships of traditional society. In India this change is visible in the inexorable dissolution of the joint family system, and the network of caste and community obligations that provided the social safety net for people in the past. In absolute terms, while this change has physically impoverished only the bottom ten percent of Indian society, the insecurity it has created now permeates its entire spectrum.

The acceleration of growth in the nineties and 2000s increased the pace of dissolution and therefore heightened the insecurity of the masses, but in the rapidly growing urban areas the resulting feeling of helplessness was held in check by the plenitude of jobs and market opportunities that the growth created.

However, when growth stalled in 2008, and Dr Manmohan Singh and his advisers deliberately sacrificed growth for the next six years as they chased the will-o-the-wisp of inflation, this urban, very recently empowered, population saw its businesses failing and jobs disappearing and realised that it had been robbed of its future. This is why the corruption, cronyism and lack of accountability that people had lived with for decades, suddenly became unbearable and unacceptable.

The Aam Admi Party has been able to tap into this vein of anger. But if Indian democracy is to survive it has to be assuaged, and the feeling of helplessness it breeds has to be removed. If the AAP does not pull itself together and offer a well thought out and ‘do-able’ programme of political and economic reform that both restores their future and makes it more secure, the disillusionment that will follow will make huge swathes of the people lose faith in democracy altogether. History is full of examples of rebellions arising from economic distress — the most recent being the chaos unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring. But the precedent that Indians should consider most closely is the death of the Weimar republic is Germany.

World war I destroyed most of German industry and the German hyperinflation of 1923-24 destroyed the purchasing power of the old German middle class. By 1928, however, Germany had begun to struggle back on its feet with the help of a new class of small entrepreneurs – the Mittelstand – when it was struck, like a bolt from the blue, by the Great Depression. In less than three years industrial production fell by 42 percent and unemployment rose from 8.5 to 30 percent. This second collapse destroyed the Mittelstand and caused armies of small bourgeoisie and workers to flock to the standard of the Nazi party. Between May 1928 and March 1933 its share of the vote rose from 2.6 percent to 43.9 percent and Hitler came to power.

The AAP is bent upon inflaming the expectations of the people. But the more it does so the more surely will disillusionment follow. Should that happen voters will have only one place left to go. And Narendra Modi, who is promising an industrial renaissance and a culturally homogeneous Hindu India, will be waiting to receive them.

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