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Issue 44, September 1999

BJP election victory - a challenge to Indian workers

India's 13th Lok Sabha (national parliament) elections saw the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retain its hold on power at the head of the 24-party coalition National Democratic Alliance. Jagadish Chandra, of Dudiyora Hora'ata, the Indian section of the Committee for a Workers' International, reports.

THE 1999 INDIAN general election, which began on 5 September and ended on 3 October, was a farce, where none of the fundamental problems faced by the people were addressed. In the pre-'liberalisation' era, elections saw the political parties speak, at least rhetorically, about the problems of poverty, unemployment, the status of women, the lack of fundamental necessities such as water and sewage systems, and the burgeoning diseases that were killing hundreds if not thousands of Indians.

But this election was in marked contrast to those of the past. Both the key contenders for power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, were agreed on the basic economic issues. The mantra of free market economy and the policy of unbridled liberalisation were the favourite tunes of the contending bourgeois parties. Congress unabashedly claimed to be the architect of the economic reforms (to the poor and downtrodden 'reform' means cuts in living standards) brought in by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991. The BJP, on its part, pointed to its record to show that it was the only sure bet to continue the liberalisation process on a fast track.


Even on the issue of defence and nuclear arms, both the BJP and the Congress were vying with each other to be more hawkish. But the short-term war in the mountainous Kargil region of Kashmir this summer gave the BJP a slight edge.

Kargil definitely helped the BJP to retain its hold. Nevertheless, many political pundits expected that the BJP would do much better in the poll. It was the class issues, however, and the spontaneous consolidation of the religious minorities and dalits (low caste) against the right-wing BJP, that prevented such a disastrous outcome.

top     The lack of a workers' alternative

IT WAS CLEAR from the apathy shown by the voters that there was little to choose between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress camp. Out of the 620 million-strong electorate, fewer than 300 million cast their vote. In Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, in some areas of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and also in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, whole villages protested the elections by boycotting the polls. They put forward conditions for participating by asking for rudimentary facilities such as potable water, pukka roads and sanitation.

The BJP failed to increase its tally of Lok Sabha seats while Congress received an historic rebuff, falling to its lowest-ever total of 112 seats. This shows that both these bourgeois parties are not preferred by the majority of the electorate. In fact, the share of the vote of both these parties put together were less than 50% of the total votes polled. Though the BJP maintained its original score of 182 seats, its vote-share went down by 2.5%. Neither the Kargil factor, nor last year's nuclear blasts at Pokhran, have had much sway on the people.


Although all the parties campaigned on the plank of 'stability', the underlying reality of social and economic instability is time and again surfacing in the form of unstable parliaments and state legislative assemblies. It is a fashion these days of bourgeois analysts, when a ruling party is voted out of power either in the centre or in the states, to ascribe this to the so-called 'anti-incumbency factor'. But, in reality, this is nothing but a reflection of the incapacity of the ruling parties to fulfil their promises of ending unemployment, alleviating poverty and providing basic necessities. The general pattern, seen again in these elections, is one of a lack of a genuine alternative for the working class and the poor. It is in this regard that the role of the so-called Communist Parties - the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) - is one of shame and class betrayal.

The policy of making a choice between the devil and the deep sea, of 'lesser evilism', has made the Communist Parties an increasingly irrelevant factor in Indian politics today. The Left Front, led by the CPI-M, took a beating in the 13th Lok Sabha elections. The CPI(M), the largest partner in the front, retained its strength of 32 MPs but, in the overall picture, the left as a whole lost out this time. In loss of seats the CPI was among the worst hit and is even likely to lose its national party status. In Bihar the CPI's toehold was wiped out, along with the rest of the left which failed to secure even a single seat. In Andhra Pradesh, where the two CPs had an established traditional vote, they lost heavily this time, with their share of the vote declining by as much as 50%. In West Bengal, which is known as the bastion of the left, an alliance of the BJP and the Trinamul Congress (a split from national Congress in West Bengal), was able to wrest as many as five seats from the CPI(M) alone. This underscores the tendency of the Communist Parties to become increasingly 'islanded' in the three states of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.


The Communist Parties' leaders' support of Congress as a progressive bourgeois force, capable of defeating the Hindu-communal BJP, is fatally undermining their own existence as a relevant political force. The decision to back Congress, and its 'hereditary' leader, Sonia Gandhi, has virtually split the Left Front, with constituent parties such as the Forward Bloc (a nationalist leftist party, based in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP - the left-centrist party based in West Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh) completely opposed to the idea. It was this policy which pushed the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh (TDP - a bourgeois party based on Telugu identity) to land in the lap of the BJP.

top     In the service of the rich

ALTHOUGH THE BJP-LED National Democratic Alliance is gloating with its success in securing a majority, the much-hyped stability is still elusive. The National Democratic Alliance looks like a peculiar breed of dog, with a tail which is stronger than its trunk. The tail is bound to wag the dog.

In the past, the BJP's main electoral base was in the states of the Hindu-dominated, Hindi-speaking belt, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In recent parliamentary elections, however, this base has been eroded. For example, the BJP lost 30 seats in Uttar Pradesh. This is increasingly forcing the BJP to lean on regional parties, such as DMK of Tamil Nadu, TDP of Andhra Pradesh, and the Trinamul Congress of West Bengal, building instability into the edifice of the National Democratic Alliance.


The BJP's alliance partners, such as the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamul Congress, have an interest in remaining as professedly secular parties, to retain their following among the religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. The recent anti-papal campaign of the Vishwa Hindu Parishat (VHP), which is considered to be the think-tank of the BJP, rang alarm bells in the minds of the Telugu Desam and Trinamul Congress. The Telugu Desam chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who supports the government from the outside but keeps his distance by refusing to join the government, issued a stern warning to prime minister Vajpayee to restrain the VHP and other right-wing Hindu forces.

But the contradictions within the National Democratic Alliance are much greater than the cohesion it claims to have. Contentious issues, such as the building of the Hindu Ram Temple on the same site of the demolished Babri Mosque, the issue of a uniform civil code, and abolition of article 370 of the constitution which gives special status to the India-occupied state of Jammu and Kashmir, have been put on the back burner to accommodate the coalition partners. This, however, has enraged the right-wing hard-liners within the BJP. They are now attacking the leadership on the grounds that the failure to increase the number of BJP seats in parliament is the result of these emotive issues being left out. In the coming months these questions could still tear the coalition apart.

For the present though the ruling class have been celebrating the continuation of the right-wing BJP regime. The stock market index soared to an all-time high of 5,000 when the results were announced. The Confederation of Indian Industry insisted that Yashwanth Sinha continue as finance minister, as he was seen as a fast-track 'reformist'. There is no doubt that the new regime will do everything in its command to please the bosses and the super-rich.


Even before the new BJP-led cabinet took its oath, a 35% rise in the price of diesel fuel was announced (raising the bus fares and transport costs enormously in all the states). The tabling of the Insurance Regulatory Authority bill in parliament, which allows foreign giants to enter the insurance sector, shows that the reincarnated BJP government is going to go full speed on the issues of privatisation and deregulation. The announcement that food subsides will be drastically cut shows that this government will use its majority to implement a wide range of anti-working class and anti-poor policies.

The return of the BJP to power with a relatively comfortable majority is a set-back and a warning to the working class and the left movement. But the spontaneous consolidation of Dalits, Muslims and Christians against the BJP's allies have put a check on the hydra, the BJP and its semi-fascist kin. This goes to show that a viable class alternative, cutting across the communal, caste and language lines on a socialist basis, would have been able to have won wide support.

The new government was greeted by a five-day truck strike and a one-day insurance employees' strike. The Bank Employees Unions and the Insurance Employees have already started preparations to go on strike in February to resist the privatisation and liberalisation plans.

Although the BJP victory is a challenge to the working class, the economic and social attacks that are likely to come from this regime will throw up enormous spontaneous resistance from workers and other downtrodden sections. The class issues will once again come onto the agenda. The defence of the food subsidies, anti-privatisation struggles and anti-disinvestment campaigns, will hold the key to the future. The socialists under the banner of the Dudiyora Hora'ata (Workers' Struggle) will be in the forefront of these struggles to defeat this communal capitalist regime and to herald a new socialist alternative.


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