The pundits say that the Indian electorate does not cast votes, but votes castes. This is generally true but at key moments in its postcolonial history, the citizens of the world’s largest democracy – India’s population is just over a billion – have acted to punish the ruling elites. It is the subaltern’s revenge, unpredictable and unpredicted. Almost every Indian pollster forecast another BJP triumph before the election results were announced in May. Few believed that the Italian-born head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty could lead the Congress-dominated alliance to victory. In the 1990s, threatened by a possible challenge from Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, Bill Clinton declared that the American people would never elect a president whose surname ended with an ‘o’. In India, the BJP ideologues thought the electorate wouldn’t accept an Italian woman. Many others agreed. Several months ago, on a flight to New York, I met someone I had not seen for twenty years. A twig from a minor branch of the old Indian nobility, she said: ‘It’s a national disgrace that the Congress is being run by an Italian au pair.’ I pointed out that since an Englishman had founded the party, the transition to an Italian could be seen as progress and that Sonia Gandhi was surely preferable to the scoundrels in saffron. Conversation dried up. Her liberal days were long over and she was now sympathetic to the BJP: they were the saviours of India.
She must have been shocked to discover that the majority of voters did not share her prejudices. The people who voted for Sonia Gandhi’s Congress did so in the hope that she would be their next prime minister. They did not suspect that, in the extravagant language of one newspaper editor, ‘the jewel would turn down the crown.’ It was a shrewd move on her part, as was the choice of Manmohan Singh as prime minister, the first member of an ethnic minority to become the head of government.
The choice pleased secularists at home and capitalists everywhere were thrilled that such a seasoned ‘reformer’ (i.e. supporter of deregulation and privatisation) was in charge. Singh was the finance minister who inaugurated the ‘reform process’ in 1991 and became the financial magazines’ favourite politician. This time, slightly embarrassed perhaps, he was quick to announce that poverty had to be tackled and that he wanted ‘economic reforms with a human face’.
After the 370 million votes to elect 539 members had been counted, the Indian National Congress emerged as the largest single party in the new Parliament with 217 seats; the BJP came second with 185, while the Left Front, made up of the two Communist Parties (CPI and CPM) as well as some smaller independent left groupings, secured 61 seats, enabling Congress to resist the traditional haggling and blackmail from regional parties desperate to join a coalition. Within 24 hours of the Congress victory, the secular alliance had 322 seats. It was not an overwhelming victory but it was a famous one.
Basic roti-dal issues were the most obvious reason for the BJP’s defeat. In the words of Sawali Rai, a 34-year-old bank employee quoted in the New York Times: ‘it is the anger of the working class . . . privatisation, no government jobs, prices rising.’ ‘Shining India’, the BJP slogan, may have been popular with the monied diaspora in Britain and North America – the non-resident Indians who are provided with generous tax-breaks to invest in the Motherland – but neo-liberal economic policies weren’t so popular at home. There were 34,850,000 unemployed in 2002; by 2007 there are liable to be between 40 and 50 million. India has the largest pool of unemployed graduates in the world, despite its success in information technology. According to official statistics, in 2003 there were 740,000 applicants for 20,000 jobs in the lowest, Group D category in the Indian railway system, and many of them were overqualified engineers and accountants. A PhD may not be enough even to guarantee a job serving the European tourists who fly in to Delhi, travel on special luxury trains to Rajasthan for weekend shopping jaunts and then fly back to Paris or London.
The suicide rate in the countryside is rocketing; just under 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and 47 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition. There is no running water in Delhi’s slums, while the five-star giant hotels in the city consume 20,000 litres of mineral or purified water every day. The decline in living standards under the BJP is revealed by the UN Human Development Index, which showed India slipping from 115th place in 1999 to 127th in 2001.
Indian defenders of the ‘Washington consensus’ claim that with a growth rate of 10.4 per cent, GDP growing at 8 per cent and foreign exchange reserves in excess of $100 billion, the Indian economy has never had it so good. But they never ask who benefits. The growth is undeniable, but it has increased the gulf between rich and poor in both town and country, as well as widening the gap in living standards between urban and rural populations. The reason is that the growth has been mainly in information technology, manufacturing and the service sector, which doesn’t help the 65 per cent of the population that still live in the countryside. The increase in manufacturing has been concentrated on capital-intensive products – cars, washing-machines, dishwashers – rather than labour-intensive ones, and so urban unemployment has remained largely unaffected. Even the much celebrated beneficiaries of outsourcing who work long hours at call centres and try hard to develop American accents are little more than global ‘cyber-coolies’.
There are 800 million people living below the starvation line in the world (defined as consuming fewer than 1960 calories a day) and 223 million of them live in India, as compared to 183 million in the whole of Africa. Between 1990 and 2000, the world total fell, but this was thanks exclusively to improvements in China. In India the numbers stayed constant. If you wanted to be generous, you could argue that a third of the population benefited to some extent from the free market and deregulation, and the top 0.5 per cent of this third benefited hugely. Conditions for the remaining two-thirds worsened. In the brave new world of global finance, food subsidies are treated as a sign of weakness, which means that economic reforms tend to cause more deaths among the poor.
Some commentators in Mumbai’s influential Economic and Political Weekly have argued that the election result cannot be interpreted as a revolt against the BJP’s ‘reforms’ because the Congress initiated them. There is some truth in this, and it would in any case be ridiculous to overlook the anti-incumbency factor. With the exception of West Bengal, where the Communist Party-Marxist (CPM) has been in power for thirty years, and the partial exception of Kerala, where rivalry between the CPM and the Congress has resulted in very high public spending, existing regional governments all lost power. The BJP suffered the most, losing badly in strongholds such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat; the Congress lost Karnataka. Both locally and nationally, the main explanation for the results is the failure to satisfy the basic socio-economic needs of the great majority of the population.
There were, of course, non-economic reasons as well, and they help explain why the BJP’s defeat delighted so many Indians. Some regarded the BJP as an Indian version of fascism, though fascists don’t usually react so gracefully to losing elections. Others saw in the virulent Hindu nationalism espoused by the BJP a form of authoritarianism that could damage Indian democracy. They were closer to the mark. The crude cultural campaign to ‘saffronise’ the country’s education and information system provoked a great deal of anger. The gurus of the BJP insisted that the Hindu nation was the one true nation, that the Vedas were the only source of Indian culture, and that the Indus Valley civilisation of 3600 BCE was Aryan, not Dravidian. The Dravidian languages of the south? All derived from Vedic Sanskrit. The impact of Islam? Enforced by arms and of little real significance; Muslims should be reconverted to the Vedas. Christians, too. As for the caste system, that is the natural order of things. The only serious response to all this came from the historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and a few others. They soldiered on, responding to every attempt to treat mythology and tradition as history.
Murli Manohar Joshi, a leading figure in the BJP and minister for human resources development, was one of three cabinet ministers to lose his seat. It was under his watch that zealots had begun cleansing the curriculum of texts containing ‘hurtful sentiments’. Some of India’s most distinguished historians, Thapar and Habib among them, had been denounced. D.N. Jha’s monograph which demonstrated the absence of cow-worship and the prevalence of beef-eating at feasts during early Hinduism was temporarily banned. Even when the ban imposed by a lower court was overruled, the author couldn’t find a local publisher. Thapar’s texts on ancient India, a staple of university and school syllabuses, were censored because she had questioned the existence of Hindu deities.
The rewriting of Indian history hasn’t been confined to India. In no-questions-asked multicultural Britain, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the World Hindu Organisation, a global propaganda outfit allied to the BJP, was invited by local authorities to produce a guide to Hinduism. Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide for Teachers, which offers ‘teaching suggestions for introducing Hindu ideas and topics in the classroom’, criticises any challenge to the historical authenticity of the Vedas.
The BJP’s offensive against the minority communities pushed it further away from India’s Muslims – in themselves a powerful voting bloc. The pogroms of poor Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, under-reported in the Western media, shocked India. The UN didn’t intervene; nor did the EU or US. According to Amnesty International, 2500 Muslims were killed, hundreds of women and girls were raped, and more than 100,000 people became refugees in their own country. In their report, We Have No Orders to Save You, Human Rights Watch accused the state government of involvement in the violence:
Between 28 February and 2 March the attackers descended with militia-like precision on Ahmedabad by the thousands, arriving in trucks and clad in saffron scarves and khaki shorts, the signature uniform of Hindu nationalist – Hindutva – groups. Chanting slogans of incitement to kill, they came armed with swords, trishuls (three-pronged spears associated with Hindu mythology), sophisticated explosives, and gas cylinders. They were guided by computer print-outs listing the addresses of Muslim families and their properties, information obtained from the Ahmedabad municipal corporation among other sources, and embarked on a murderous rampage confident that the police was with them. In many cases, the police led the charge, using gunfire to kill Muslims who got in the mob’s way. A key BJP state minister is reported to have taken over police control rooms in Ahmedabad on the first day of the carnage, issuing orders to disregard pleas for assistance from Muslims.
The BJP lost half its seats in Gujarat. Finally, 27 months after the events, when he had lost the election, the outgoing BJP prime minister, Pandit Atal Behari Vajpayee, was reported in the Hindu on 14 June as saying that the state government’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, should have been sacked after the killings – not because of what had happened, but because ‘the opposition had politically manoeuvred the issue.’
Another point of disagreement between the Hindu right and the secular centre was foreign policy. Many in India, and not just on the left, were dismayed by the reversal of traditional Indian foreign policy under the BJP. The attitude to Bush after 9/11 and to Sharon (who was invited on a state visit after the Israeli offensive in Jenin) was not popular. The architect of the new turn, the foreign minister Yashwant Sinha, lost his Jharkhand constituency to a Communist, who won by a handsome margin.
And then there was the role of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. I happened to be in Delhi in 1982 soon after the release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. One sunny winter afternoon, a group of us were tormenting an Indian co-producer of the film, accusing him of selling out to Hollywood and all that. After several minutes he turned on us: ‘The film was not made for people like you. We wanted to show the ferangi’ – foreigners/Westerners – ‘that Indira Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter and no relation at all to Mahatma Gandhi. In this noble aim we succeeded. A small step forward for humanity. So why don’t you guys pick on someone else?’
Some months later in London, I sat next to the great director and asked him to confirm the producer’s story. ‘Oh yes, of course, that was the only reason,’ he grinned. ‘But it didn’t entirely work. After a White House screening, Ronald Reagan walked up to me and said: "Great movie. Great man. Just like his daughter."’
To recapitulate briefly: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of postcolonial India, had a daughter, Indira, who married a Parsi called Feroze Gandhi. They had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay. When Indira became prime minister she trusted few of her colleagues and encouraged her younger son, Sanjay, to take an active part in Congress politics. He began to transform the party in his own image: authoritarian, unpleasant, power-hungry. He then died in a plane crash and a reluctant Rajiv was dragooned into service. A genial airline pilot, he had little interest in government, and his Italian wife, Sonia, told friends that she would rather starve than let Rajiv enter politics. But the strong-willed Mrs Gandhi could not be resisted for long. Rajiv joined the party. His mother had quarrelled with the Sikhs and sent troops into their holiest of holies, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to defeat the Sikh extremists who had occupied the sanctuary. Soon afterwards, her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. The Congress high command hurriedly elected Rajiv as their leader and prime minister. He sent troops to Sri Lanka to contain the Tamil Tigers and stabilise the situation there; lives were lost on both sides. Several months later, during a pre-election campaign in south India, a Tamil suicide-bomber killed both herself and Rajiv Gandhi. Most commentators assumed that was the end of the dynasty. But earlier, in 1989, while attending the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan had shared a VIP box. Gandhi had confided to his fellow dynast Benazir Bhutto that his daughter, Priyanka, was determined to enter politics. ‘She doesn’t realise what a dangerous occupation it is,’ he said. He asked Benazir to try and talk her out of it, but she wasn’t in a strong position to do so.
Certainly, few imagined that Sonia Gandhi would accept the invitation of a defeated and tattered Congress leadership to take charge of the party. Even fewer believed she could lead it to victory. But she refused the big job, thereby making the eventual accession to power of her son, Rahul, now an MP, or Priyanka, who campaigned effectively in Uttar Pradesh, a virtual certainty.
Is it possible to say anything new about Jawaharlal Nehru? Judith Brown’s study, factually repetitive and analytically anorexic, is disappointingly conventional. Benjamin Zachariah’s book is far more useful, placing its subject in the international context of his times. The founding father of modern India was its best known and least demonised (Harrow and Cambridge were helpful here) postcolonial leader. Multivolume editions of his collected writings, including an often reprinted autobiography, have been supplemented by numerous popular and scholarly accounts. The three-volume biography by Sarvepalli Gopal laid everything except Edwina Mountbatten on the table. Most historians regarded Nehru’s trysts with her as politically irrelevant, which I always thought was unfair. It’s unlikely that couch-talk was confined to discussing the Maharani of Jaipur’s latest sari. The limited evidence suggests that intellectual affinities fuelled the affair. On the other hand, the sensationalists (including a number of Pakistani historians) who allege that Nehru’s intimacy with Lady Mountbatten helped India get a better deal than it deserved when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 are way off the mark. Credit for that must go to the weak-kneed leaders of the Muslim League.
The task facing the first post-independence government was enormous. India confronted ugly realities, and since neo-colonial solutions are becoming fashionable again, it’s worth remembering that apart from colonial necessities such as a strong administrative network, a disciplined army, an educated elite and an effective railway network, the British Empire, after two hundred years, left the bulk of India’s population in a depressed state. Industrialisation had been stifled and the native bourgeoisie kept under strict control. In 1947, the year the British withdrew, 85 per cent of India’s economy was rural and the overwhelming majority of midnight’s children were illiterate. The colonial legacy was summarised crisply by the Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. II c.1757-c.1970:
Capital formation (around 6 per cent of NDP) was inadequate to bring about rapid improvement in per capita income, which was about one-twentieth of the level then attained in developed countries. The average availability of food was not only deficient in quantity and quality, but, as recurrent famines underscored so painfully, also precarious. Illiteracy was a high 84 per cent and the majority (60 per cent) of children in the 6 to 11 age group did not attend school; mass communicable diseases (malaria, smallpox and cholera) were widespread and, in the absence of a good public health service and sanitation, mortality rates (27 per 1000) were very high. The problems of poverty, ignorance and disease were aggravated by the unequal distribution of resources between groups and regions.
The Congress Party, with Nehru as prime minister, attempted to create new industries, irrigate more land, and to instigate reforms that limited landholdings and were designed to weaken the grip of the big landlords in the countryside. Nehru and other Congress leaders admired Attlee and Bevan and saw themselves as implementing similar reforms in a much more difficult situation, but in India the dissenters were mainly on the left. In the first decade after independence the Communist Party of India was the official opposition and, in 1957, it caused an international sensation by winning the provincial elections in Kerala, where a veteran Communist intellectual, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, became chief minister.
Determined to topple the elected Communist government, the Congress Party imposed President’s Rule (rule by central government) and entered into an alliance with all the anti-Communist forces in the province, from right-wing religious parties to CIA-funded socialists. The plan was masterminded by Indira Gandhi and opposed by her estranged husband, Feroze, who regarded these intrigues as damaging to the new democracy. Because of India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Congress alliance won the subsequent elections even though the Communist vote increased from 35 to 44 per cent.
The Communists’ strength helped to bring the land question to the forefront of Indian politics. It was generally understood that a nationalist party needed a national bourgeoisie and that the one would help the other, but what about the countryside? It was here, in the most appalling social conditions, that the bulk of the population lived and died. For a majority of the Congress leaders – despite noisy denials – the only way to reshape rural India was to capitalise it, by giving subsidies to the rich farmers. Land reforms had ended the political and economic power of big landlords, but the poorest inhabitants were now at the mercy of enriched and powerful kulaks. In 1964, when Nehru died, children made up 2 per cent of rural wage-earners. Ten years later the figure had risen to 3.5 per cent. In roughly the same period, the number of landless peasants went from 17 to 21 million households. Nehru was aware of all this, but the Congress was an intra-class coalition. The rural rich had their supporters in government and an ageing Nehru usually favoured compromise.
In a series of public lectures in 1980, I.G. Patel, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (and later the director of the LSE), suggested that the root of the problem hadn’t been affected by the subsidies given to rich farmers: the writing-off of their debts and the approval of the high prices they charged had merely succeeded in crowding warehouses with unsellable surpluses. Patel argued that the key task of the government was to reduce inequalities of wealth and income:
As long as income-distribution remains what it is, there is no sense in piling up waste on top of inequality by unrealistic notions of the importance of agriculture. The same reminder is, I think, necessary also in relation to the argument that we should give the highest priority to agricultural production since the highest priority should be given to the satisfaction of the basic needs of the poorest people, and food and clothing form the bulk of these basic needs. An actual transfer of relative incomes in favour of the poor should precede – or at least accompany – any such priority. A mere shift in the nature of goods produced does nothing to alter the distribution of incomes in the desired direction.
Patel’s prescriptions were a far cry from the socialism espoused by Nehru in the 1930s, but they were too radical for Nehru’s daughter and grandson. Congress had been transformed into an electoral machine which acted as a magnet for power-hungry politicians. Sanjay had yuppified the party in the 1970s. The recruits were rich men who wanted to get richer; they owned small or medium-sized businesses and were keen to become agrobusinessmen. This was the Sanjay levy, which turned the Congress into a coalition of capitalists, landed gentry and a new intelligentsia that was linked to both – the social layer that needed the dynasty. Not possessing a history of its own, it adopted that of its leaders. Soon, many of them would refer to Nehru as ‘panditji’, as if they had known him.
For many decades the politicians of the religious right have been denouncing secular, Nehruvian values as the illegitimate offspring of the Enlightenment and modernity. To this they counterpose Hindu culture and tradition – i.e. religion. The BJP gave official sanction to the regular denunciations of secularism that became fashionable among certain metropolitan middle-class intellectuals in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Subalternist historians, aided by the odd cultural mystic, started by counterposing the soft Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi to the hard agnosticism of Nehru. In a Times of India column in 1991, Ashis Nandy explained the killing of Gandhi by the godfathers of the BJP as confirmation of his own, anti-secular thesis: ‘That is why the late Nathuram Godse did not kill the modernist and "pseudo-secular” Jawaharlal Nehru, but the "arch reactionary” . . . Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. After the murder, Nehru could only say that the killer was insane. The modernist prime minister found it too painful to confront the truth that Godse was sane, that he knew who was the real enemy of Hindutva.’ The truth is simpler. At the time of his assassination, Gandhi had been on hunger strike twice in an attempt to compel his countrymen to stop killing Muslims. He was about to visit Pakistan to show goodwill to the new state. The gangs which had been fomenting anti-Muslim violence were horrified by this and eliminated Gandhi.
The political saint in his loincloth who preached the virtues of the handloom and sexual abstinence represented Indian tradition. The modernist Nehru represented Western values, including secularism and socialism. This was a bogus dichotomy. Gandhi, as Judith Brown astutely noted in Gandhi’s Rise to Power (1972), was above all a cunning and able politician. But Brown’s view, like that of many historians, has since been affected by the incense that surrounds the Mahatma. Few can resist it, although Sarojini Naidu, a much-loved poet and one of Gandhi’s colleagues in the Congress, sometimes referred to him affectionately as Mickey Mouse. On one occasion, when it was reported to a Congress leadership meeting that it was proving difficult to book an entire third class railway compartment for Gandhi and his entourage, she snapped at him: ‘It is becoming increasingly costly for us to keep you in the poverty to which you’ve become accustomed.’
The pre-independence Congress Party was the product of Gandhi’s victory over Nehru. The modernist capitulated to the mystagogue. Nehru became the dutiful son and Gandhi his bapu (‘father’). Indian secularism – equal respect for all religions, rather than the equality of all citizens under a secular legal framework ” – was always a Gandhian notion. It was an acceptance of the carefully constructed and self-serving imperial model of two dominant religious communities in permanent conflict. This was a travesty of Indian history, but served a variety of political needs and soon became acceptable to every side and was the justification for Partition. Nehru rejected this view, but the Congress contained a communalist faction, the chief spokesman of which, the powerful Gujarati politician Vallabhai Patel, was the second most important figure in the party.
When Nehru died in 1964, the Congress elected the unassuming Lal Bahadur Shastri as its leader, but he died a year later. It was then that the Congress bosses, an unsavoury collection of regional warlords, decided that the election of Nehru’s daughter might be the best way to preserve their stranglehold on the party. To them she was a ‘dumb doll’, as Kamaraj called her, easy to manipulate. They made a big mistake: Indira Gandhi outmanoeuvred them at every turn. She finally split the party and won the 1967 elections with a giant majority under the slogan ‘Gharibi Hatao’ (‘Remove Poverty’), a sentiment recently reappropriated by her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Before too long, however, she became intolerant of opposition, declared a state of emergency and suspended Parliament. She went to the polls in 1977 and was destroyed by the electorate: then, as now, the poor in India demonstrated their fondness for democracy. Much has changed in India since her assassination in 1984. It is now virtually impossible for any single party to win an overall majority in the Lok Sabha. Coalitions have become necessary and regional parties are a real force.
The refusal of the left to join the new government is explained not so much by major policy differences (the CPM in West Bengal accepts a great deal of neoliberal economics, including curbing trade-union rights) but by the fact that in both West Bengal and Kerala the Congress has, until now, been the main rival. It was provincial opportunism rather than principle that kept them aloof. A great deal will now depend on what the new regime is able to deliver. Reversing the BJP’s cultural chauvinism will be relatively simple, but what about poverty? Will Priyanka be leading the Congress in 2015 under the slogan of’Remove Poverty’?