The 2014 Indian parliamentary elections
On 16 May, the results of the 16th General Election in India were declared. These results were as much a surprise to the winning party as to the losers. The BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) emerged from these elections with an absolute majority of seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament (the Lok Sabha), securing 283 of them out of 543.
It is the first time in three decades that a single party in India has secured an absolute majority in parliament, the last time being when Rajiv Gandhi, riding on a wave of sympathy following Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, won 405 seats.
The Congress Party which has governed India for 54 of the past 67 years, was thoroughly trounced, securing a humiliating 44 seats – a number not large enough to earn it the title of the official opposition. The Congress representation in parliament is only just ahead of two regional parties, namely the AIADMK, headed by Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalitha, which secured 36 seats and the Trinamool Congress of that shrieking freak, Mamata Bannerji, presently West Bengal’s Chief Minister, which got 34 seats. Many other parties, including the Socialist Party which governs UP (Uttar Pradesh), the largest Indian state, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which not so long ago had over 40 members in parliament and governed the state of West Bengal for three decades, did very badly, with the Socialist Party winning just 5 seats and the CPI(M) 9.
Although under India’s first-past-the-post electoral system the BJP won a large number of seats, its actual share of the vote was a modest 31%.
Considering its right-wing and reactionary credentials, how was the BJP able to score this surprise electoral victory? Primarily because the Congress Party had forfeited the trust of the man in the street and Indian corporate interests alike, not to speak of international finance capital. While the ordinary voter was disgusted by, and angry at, the levels of monumental corruption, a succession of huge scams close to the heart of government, a culture of crony capitalism, double-digit inflation, hand in hand with fast-eroding incomes, corporate interests for their part were dissatisfied with the performance of the government in a number of areas, ranging from a widening fiscal deficit, retrospective taxation and business regulation to the government’s social spending, which they variously perceived as “excessive”, “wasteful” and “exorbitant”. They criticised most vociferously increases in food procurement prices, government subsidies on food, oil and fertilisers; they dubbed all entitlement programmes as wasteful; and they characterised increased pay settlements as exorbitant, and all business regulation as capricious.
After 10 years in office, during which time it served the bourgeois-landlord ruling classes most faithfully, the Congress Party had lost its shine and looked tired and too discredited to serve any useful purpose for the corporate Ã©lite. As a result, Indian big business jumped the sinking Congress ship and threw its weight behind the BJP, in particular its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, the erstwhile Chief Minister of Gujarat for over a decade.
While denigrating the Congress government’s economic record, the corporate media hyped up Modi’s perceived successes in Gujarat and promoted him as the person to spread these alleged economic miracles to the rest of the country. This propaganda barrage was patently false on both counts:
First, the economic record of the outgoing Congress was far from dismal. During its remit over the past decade, economic growth in India averaged 7.7% a year – the fastest in any decade in Indian history – raising average incomes by 75% in real inflation-adjusted rupees. However, the growth rate of the economy declined during the last 3 years and stands at 4.5% today.
As to Modi’s Gujarat model of development, here are the facts.
ÂŸ According to eminent economist Utsa Patnaik, a minimum of 2,200 calories per person is needed to survive. Those who cannot afford to purchase these minimum calories should be held to be below the poverty line. By this standard, almost 76% of the rural and 66% of the urban population of Gujarat could be regarded as living below the poverty line. And this ratio is higher than that in rural areas in states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and in the urban areas in Odisha, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
ÂŸ The main driver of policy within the Gujarat state is the growing landlessness in rural areas, which increased exponentially between 2009-2010, as a result of policies promoting corporate agriculture and contract farming as the centrepiece of the Gujarat model.
ÂŸ The rise in female labour in Gujarat outstrips that of male labour, indicating a growth in low-paid wage labour.
ÂŸ Real wages in Gujarat are among the lowest in the country. Whereas a regular urban worker in India receives Rs 450 a day, in Gujarat the wage rate is Rs 320 a day. The wage of an urban casual labourer in Gujarat, at Rs 145 per day, is lower than the all-India average of Rs 170 per day and ranks 20th among all the states.
ÂŸ In rural areas of the state, the average wage of a casual labourer is Rs 113 per day, lower than the all-India average of Rs 139 per day – again Gujarat ranks 20th among all states in terms of rural wages. Female workers fare the worst, receiving on average Rs 89 a day – their cheapness being the main reason why there has been a marked increase in the female rural workforce in agriculture.
ÂŸ On the basis of solid statistical evidence, more than 70% of the rural population in Gujarat live below the poverty line (below the monthly per capital expenditure of Rs 1,480 per person), while in the towns 65% do so (i.e. below the monthly per capita expenditure of Rs 2,377 per person).
[Information in the above bullet points is extracted from ‘Poverty and dispossession’ in Gujarat model of development’, by Archana Prasad, People’s Democracy, the weekly organ of the CPI(M), 17-23 May 2014].
This, then, is the reality of the much-touted Gujarat Model about which the corporate interests and corporate media, Indian as well as foreign, wax so eloquent. The motive force behind this model of corporate development is a large army of labour conjured into existence through multiple channels of dispossession, thrown on to the market to be exploited in return for starvation wages. And this is the model that both Indian big capital and imperialist finance capital are trying to extend to the rest of India – all in the name of efficiency and development.
Money and media power
Having decided to throw their weight behind the BJP’s Modi, the Indian corporate Ã©lite spared no effort or money to promote him. The BJP spent gargantuan amounts on its election campaign. How much it spent and who paid for it is a question that the BJP and its big business backers refuse to answer. The truth is that the technology that permitted Modi simultaneously to address 100 rallies in the form of a 10-foot high hologram, while images of the crowd were beamed to him at BJPs Ahmadabad offices, cannot have come cheap. Nor could the scores of trucks and buses, not to speak of the army of 4,000 workers needed to transport and instal the satellite dishes and projectors at remote site after remote site.
Billboards and newspaper front pages bearing Modi’s face were ubiquitous. Television broadcasts of the Indian Premier League cricket matches also carried a number of Modi advertisements during commercial breaks. The BJP spent $500 million on traditional media advertisements alone. During the 8 months of campaigning, the BJP spent $670 million.
Although campaign spending is capped by law at between Rs 5.4 million and Rs 7 million ($93,000-$120,000) per parliamentary constituency – depending on its size – various loopholes make this limit virtually meaningless. For one thing, there is no spending limit on general campaigning by
political parties. Then there is no transparency. Technically, political parties are obliged to report all contributions in excess of Rs 20,000, but in reality they simply slice large contributions into multiple tranches each smaller than the Rs 20,000 reporting threshold, entering them as cash receipts. This accounting trick allowed large corporate donors to contribute vast sums under the table to the BJP’s electoral war chest.
During his slick campaign, Modi promised voters efficient, accountable and corruption -free governance. Letting voters in on how much he spent on his campaign and who paid for it would be an excellent way of beginning to implement that promise.
Added to the money power propelling his campaign, Modi made much of his modest origin as a humble tea seller battling against the Nehru-Gandhi citadel of power and privilege. He travelled more than 300,000 km, participating in 5,187 events, and addressing 440 public meetings, harping on this theme, revealing as little as possible of his agenda, apart from pledging clean and efficient government and high growth, the same as he claimed to have achieved in his home state of Gujarat.
He even went to the length of distancing himself from the Hindutia (Hindu chauvinist) ideology of which he is a product, by asserting that “India First” should be the government’s religion and the Constitution its holy book; that a government headed by him would be dedicated to ” the poor, the youth and women”. He even borrowed a line (“Toilets before temples”) from Jairam Ramesh, a prominent Congress Party leader, in a clear reference to the 2011 census data according to which nearly half of Indian households have no access to toilets, obliging people to defecate in the open. More Indians own a mobile phone than a lavatory of their own.
Modi’s general promises of development, good governance, and bijli (electricity), sadak (roads) and pani (potable water) struck a chord with the voters. Millions of them, putting their faith in his promises, voted for jobs and growth – not for his brand of Hindu nationalism.
Thanks to the support he received from the richest tycoons, the BJP’s campaign was a glaring display of money power and an extremely well run exercise in event management.
Lacklustre Congress campaign
By contrast, the Congress Party campaign was lacklustre to the extent that it could not manage even to drive home its own achievements of economic growth and the extension of constitutional rights, as, for example, the right to education, the right to information, the rights of tribals to forest land and produce, and the right to rural employment. The vice-president of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, who fronted his party’s election campaign, gave every appearance of being uninterested to the point of incompetence. Although there had been growth of 7.7% annual growth in GDP during the decade of Congress rule, it meant very little for the vast masses of the people, as its benefits went mainly to the Ã©lite, while the masses suffered from unemployment, rising prices of daily necessities, declining wages and an astronomic rise in inequality.
According to the OECD, India’s income inequality doubled in the two decades to 2011 – a period that includes the years from 1998 to 2004 when the BJP, with its allies, was the ruling party at the centre. This glaring fact was characterised by its absence in Rahul Gandhi’s TV interview in the run-up to the election, as well as in Modi’s Republic Day blog on his ‘idea of India’. Swaraj, a book by Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Adami Party (Party of the Common Man), is also silent on the question, such is his concern for the common man. This is a perverse position considering the state of India’s major cities which are hosts to some of the worst inequality in the world, as well as the worst slums.
Inequality in India is even worse than in Brazil. The net worth of India’s 59 billionaires grew 12-fold over the last 15 years; their assets account for a third to a half of India’s GDP. At the other end, 800 million Indians have to survive on just 20 rupees a day. Not surprisingly then, 38% of the Indian people live below the poverty line, while 40% of India’s children are malnourished and, to repeat, 50% of Indians have no access to a toilet. India is home to a third of the world’s poor people, where 400 million live in poverty, although government figures, which grossly underestimate poverty, put the percentage at only 22% of India’s 1.2 bn population. India’s per capita GDP stands at a tenth of that of the US and half that of China.
During the election campaign, one of Modi’s slogans was: “Less government and more governance”. No one knows what it will translate into in practice. The truth is that there is a striking convergence of economic thinking between the Congress Party and the BJP. That is precisely the reason that there was little debate during the election on economic policy, and why both the parties avoided the question of wealth inequality like a thief avoid the place of his crime.
By vague promises of poverty reduction and job creation, and soft-pedalling on the controversial Hinduva side of the BJP’s ideology, Modi was able to galvanise, with not a little help from the powerful corporate media, the urban youth and middle-caste Hindus as well as Brahmins to vote for him. Even 9% of the Muslim vote went to the BJP – twice the number it secured at the previous election.
Be that as it may, Mr Modi was sworn in as India’s new prime minister on Monday 26 May 2014. He had taken care to invite to his swearing-in ceremony the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), followed by a banquet and a series of bilateral meetings. To everyone’s surprise, included in the list of invitees was Nawaz Sharif, prime minister of Pakistan.
‘After the Lord Mayor’s banquet – the dust cart’
‘After the Lord Mayor’s banquet – the dust cart’ runs an old English saying. Now that the election, BJP’s victory and the banqueting are over, the new government will be judged on whether or not it is willing and able to deliver on the promises it made to the Indian people, more of whom voted in this election than ever before – both the absolute numbers (551 million) and as a share of those eligible to vote (66.38%), including 70 million new voters who cast their ballots for the first time – ignoring the calls for a boycott issued by a section of the Naxalites.
The BJP and Modi have made promises to the corporate Ã©lite as well as to international finance capital which run counter to the promises made to the masses of people and are not reconcilable. The Modi government cannot help the corporate Ã©lite except at the cost of the vast masses; and it cannot improve the lives of the latter except, among other things, at the cost of the former. It will find it impossible to square this circle.
The corporate Ã©lite have high hopes on the Modi government keeping its promises to corporate India as well as foreign multinationals. It is not for nothing that the Indian stock market registered a rise of 20% in the run-up to the election on hopes of a Modi victory. What is more, they have the economic power to coerce the Modi government to abide by its side of the deal.
Besides, Modi has promised to extend the high-speed rail network across the Indian subcontinent, clean up the Ganges river, create 100 new cities, revive the stagnating manufacturing industry and upgrade the country’s infrastructure generally. All this will require massive funds which, under te conditions of capitalism, can mainly be accessed from private investors who would demand their pound of flesh before they part with their money. These investors are bound to demand dilution, if not complete abrogation, of labour laws, which protect working people but the exploiting classes regard as ‘disincentives’ to employment. They are bound to demand a balanced budget and an end to all subsidies, including food subsidies for the poor. They are bound to demand liberalisation of prices, including energy prices. Their mantra can be summed up as fiscal consolidation, employment de-regulation and privatisation. In other words, they will demand the right of capital to unhindered exploitation with no safety net for the victims of this exploitation.
International finance capital, dying to penetrate further into the Indian market, is demanding a revision of foreign investment rules so as to have access to easy investment opportunities in this vast country. It has been pressing for many years to be allowed to enter the retail sector of the economy.
Complying with the demands of capital – domestic and foreign – will put the new government on a collision course with the broad masses of the Indian people. Take the question of the retail trade. There are 12 million so-called ‘Mom and Pop’ stores, which account for 95% of India’s $330 bn retail industry and provide livelihoods to 40 million people. While there are considerable hurdles against the entry of mega foreign retailers, big Indian capitalists have begun to make inroads into this market. Reliance, the Indian conglomerate, has opened more than 350 very large sores since launching in Hyderabad in 2006 – 20 of these in the state of UP with a population of more than 170 million. Removing all barriers to the entry of big capital into this area would arouse protests on the part of millions of small shopkeepers, most of whom are an important part of the BJP’s electoral constituency.
Half of India’s 1.2 bn people are under the age of 26. They are disgusted by the grotesque inequality of wealth in India ad they are impatient to find secure and rewarding employment in a country where 10 million young people join the labour market each year. There is a limit to their patience, as shown by the developments in the Middle East and elsewhere. If their needs are not met, young India – this demographic dividend – could morph into a social explosion – and not a day too early.
Another crucial area which is problematic for Modi is that of inter-communal relations between Hindus and Muslims. With his background in the right-wing Hindu nationalist RSS, and his role as Chief Minister of Gujarat where 2,000 innocent Muslims were massacred on his watch in 2002, the Muslim community will be keeping a sharp eye on his government’s policies. If he tries to give precedence to toilets over temples, he carries the risk of provoking his RSS constituency which contributed significantly to his electoral success. If, on the other hand, his government decides to go for the realisation of the RSS’s agenda, there is a real danger of rousing the Muslim community to fury. Only a government of mad men and women would want to declare war on the 175 million strong Muslim population of India.
In the sphere of external relations, the new government faces formidable problems in its relations with Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China and the United States. Although at this stage in time one can do no more than conjecture, things may turn out better than most people expect. Fifteen years ago it was the BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who signed the treaty with Nawaz Sharif – who was shortly afterwards overthrown in a military coup by General Musharraf. In inviting the same Mr Sharif, who is once again Pakistan’s prime minister, to his inauguration, Modi has given the impression of following in Vajapayee’s footsteps.
Since 2002, while being Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Modi has visited Japan 5 times and China on 3 occasions. On his most recent visit to China, he was met by four members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and he was received – exceptionally for a provincial leader – in the Great Hall of the People. Japan and China hold great fascination for him as countries with the ability to bring to fruition mega projects and create an industrial base – areas in which India can learn from them to its advantage. It is very likely that these would be the countries he would visit as prime minister before any other country.
His personal, if not his government’s, relations with the US are somewhat frigid, as he was denied a visa to visit the US (the ban has been lifted only recently) following the Gujarat killings of Muslims in 2002. He is reported to be in no hurry to go there and is likely to land on US soil, armed with a US visa, for the UN Summit in New York next September. He is not then expected to travel to Washington.
Before that he is expected to attend the BRICS Summit in Brazil this July and be photographed with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, accepted India into the club of nuclear weapons states. Obama completed the deal and laid out his first state dinner to Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister, flattering him as his guru. He followed it up by a visit to New Delhi in 2010 and declaring his support for India’s membership as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – a huge offer made to no other country.
Modi’s assumption of Indian prime ministership coincides with Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ and its 30-year China-Russia gas deal worth $400bn. At a time when relations between the US and Russia, as well as between the US and China, are much troubled, and when most of the BRICS countries are moving away from the US, India is a crucial ‘global swing state’ of the 21st century, to use the apt expression of a bourgeois journalist, with the US making every attempt to swing it America’s way.
The US want a liability waiver on nuclear plants it supplies to India. This will not happen, especially not after the Fukushima meltdown. Thus, the US is most unlikely to reap the commercial dividends of its nuclear deal with India, which has a limitless appetite for energy and, consequently, the Indian government, even the one headed by Modi, is likely to take any pipeline on offer, whether originating in Russia or Iran. As Modi comes to office at a time when relations between Iran and the US appear to have thawed somewhat, there is likely to be far less fierce resistance from the US to a pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan, which will be of enormous benefit to these three countries.
Performance of the Left
The major losers in the 2014 elections have been the communists, whose share of the votes has declined and whose representation in parliament has been reduced dramatically. The combined share of the vote secured by the CPI(M) and the CPI amounted to 4% (3.2% for CPI-M and 0.8% for CPI). The CPI(M), the largest Communist Party in India, which had won 44 seats in 2004 and a dramatically reduced 16 in 2009, has secured a mere 9 seats in 2014. The CPI, which won 10 seats in 2004 and 4 in 2009 now holds just one.
Even in the state of West Bengal, a stronghold of the Left Front led by the CPI(M) and where the Left Front governed for more than 30 years, it has lost ground to the BJP which received 17% of the votes – a threefold rise compared to 2009. The Left Front’s share of the vote dropped from 40% in the 2011 Assembly elections to 30% in 2014.
The Aam Admi Party
The Aam Admi Party (AAP), which exploded on the political scene with its victory in Delhi in December 2013 on an anti-corruption platform, fielded 400 candidates, including some of its prominent leaders, a host of celebrities, professionals, activists of social movements, and corporate executives. It secured 2% of the vote and won 4 seats, all from Punjab. Although a creditable performance for a party which did not even exist a year ago, it is a far cry from the pre-poll hyped-up expectations of it emerging with at least 50 seats and well-positioned to swing the formation of the central government.
Be it remarked in passing that the rise of the AAP, which has very little to offer to the masses, is sadly a testimony to the failure of the communists to fire the imagination of the poor and the destitute of India and galvanise them against the exploiting classes. The communists need to return to class politics by ditching the game of party politics and the fruitless search of anti-Congress and anti-BJP mirage of a third front.
The communists alone can offer a programme for the liberation of the Indian people from exploitation and all its attendant ills – mass unemployment, homelessness, misery, starvation, destitution, violence, oppression and inter-communal strife. No government of representatives of bourgeois-landlord parties can be an instrument of their relief from the hell which is their lot under the present economic and political dispensation. In the just-elected Lok Sabha, 442 members – 82% – have, according to the Association of Democratic Rights, on average assets to the tune of Rs 140 million, which is 173% higher than in the 2009 parliament, when this average stood at Rs 50 million. This parliament of multi-millionaires cannot be expected to represent the interests of the Indian masses. On the contrary, it is only capable of representing the interests of corporate India, of the rich and the Ã©lite.
Let the communists rise to the occasion and lead the Indian people to expose this racket and work for a People’s Democratic Revolution as a prelude to socialism.