Indian Politics: Understanding the Present Dysfunction

An explanation of how India’s major political parties have shaped the politics of the country.

The present political setup in India is dysfunctional. Following is a historical explanation of how India arrived at the present situation.

In the pre-independence era before 1947, the Indian National Congress was the biggest nationwide political party. It thrived on propagating a progressive future vision for all Indians, irrespective of their caste, religion, class, language and any possible divides. Indisputably, the Congress was then a highly inclusive and progressive party.

Apart from the centrist perspective of the Congress, the rival political ideologies of the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Communist Party had support in some sections of society. The Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha were, in a way, mirror organizations with regard to religious politics. The Muslim League’s efforts were aimed at securing the socioeconomic rights of Indian Muslims and their politics were based on spreading anti-Hindu propaganda and fear among Muslims: “Support us; else you will be slaves of Hindu Banias and Brahmins for the rest of your lives.”

The Hindu Mahasabha’s narrative was right-wing, nationalistic and designed to oppose both the divisive Muslim League and the inclusive Congress, which attempted to have dialogues with Muslim separatists (Mahasabha deemed such dialogues as appeasements). The communists, on the other hand, strove for a socialist political setup and idealized the Soviet model. It is noteworthy to mention that all of these parties opposed the widely popular civil disobedience campaigns led by the Congress Party to achieve Indian independence from British rule. Hatred towards the Congress was so great that these parties refrained entirely from participating in the push for independence, obstructing Congress during the historic Quit India Movement of 1942. Despite their tiny stature, the pressure these parties applied on the ideology of the Congress resulted in a political equilibrium with a centrist perspective, which eventually was ruptured during the partition of India.Historians, political scientists and sociologists have talked a lot about the innumerable negative consequences of India’s partition. But hardly anyone has mentioned its effect on the Congress Party. The partition was based on an absurd religious divide: naming areas of Muslim majority as Pakistan and areas of Hindu majority as India. Almost the entire Muslim League shifted to Pakistan, resulting in the establishment of an Islamic country. Because of the nationwide stronghold of the Congress, India attained a pluralist democratic structure. Nonetheless, the bloody partition resulted in increased right-wing pressure on the political equilibrium; moreover, the absence of any significant non-Congress Muslim voice in the political sphere created a vacuum for minority representation politics. These factors tilted Nehru’s Congress towards the left to balance the rising right-wing momentum and to protect the rights of the minorities. In a speech in the Lok Sabha on December 21, 1955, Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, said:

“….if I may venture to lay down a rule, it is primary responsibility of the majority to satisfy the minority in every matter. The majority, by virtue of its being a majority, has the strength to have its way: it requires no protection. It is a most undesirable custom to give statutory protection to minorities. It is sometimes, for example, to backward classes, but it is not good in the long run. It is the duty and responsibility of the majority community, whether in the matter of language or religion, to pay particular attention to what the minority wants and to win it over. The majority is strong enough to crush the minority, which might not be protected. Therefore, whenever such a question arises, I am always in favour of the minority.”

In this post independence period of the ‘50s and ‘60s, though India led the Non-Aligned Movement with its enormous moral power, it was going silently through a gradual leftist swing. This leftist shift of the Congress developed further as India deepened ties with the Soviet Union. Socialist economic policies were adopted and the state controlled almost all key areas of the country's economy, either centrally or on a state-wise basis. Rigorous laws and license rules put a great degree of restraint on the free execution of industrial policies. Even farmers, along with business leaders, found themselves at the receiving end of rigorous state control policies and high taxation. Poverty and unemployment were widespread throughout Nehru's governance. When Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, came to power in ‘70s and ‘80s, India became more socialist with the nationalization of banks and oil and coal industries. The economic picture became grimmer.

Indira’s commitment to socialism and minority politics was demonstrated in 1977, when India, a declared sovereign, democratic republic, added two terms to the preamble of its constitution: ‘secularist’ and ‘socialist’. In addition, government policies and programs increasingly targeted the axis of religion and caste and special privileges were provided to religious minorities and socially backward communities. When incentives are targeted at groups of people based on castes and religion, voters belonging to these groups find incentives to vote as one unit. This strategy is known as votebank politics. It is needless to mention that if a strategy works once, it is bound to be repeated again. The Congress’ formula was then adopted by various regional parties, each trying to please its respective votebank. This regressive election winning strategy, which ignores the bigger picture of comprehensive long term growth and security, has continued until present within most parties and during most elections.

However, this strategy created a political vacuum for right-wing politics. The Indian government had never really had enough resources to provide services and incentives to the entire population. For the most part, it ended up favoring religious minorities and socially backward communities. Policies like state negligence for Kumbh Mela (a Hindu festival and gathering), subsidies for Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) travel, negligence of the high-caste poor and quotas in jobs and college admissions for certain minorities and communities, irrespective of their economic conditions, made higher caste Hindus increasingly wonder about their political representation. Amidst this feeling of political isolation among the people of majority, the Ram temple issue (a holy site disputed by Hindus and Muslims) acted as a catalyst due to which, right-wing politics gained nationwide momentum in late ‘80s and ‘90s. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had won only two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha election, emerged as the largest party with 187 seats in the 1996 election. It formed the government in 1998 and became the first non-Congress party to complete its full term. It continued economic reforms which had begun in 1991 and established an “economic feel-good factor”. However, it could not secure a win in the following election in 2004. BJP’s loss can be explained in brief as following:

  • Though the BJP won the election from a rightist position, it adopted a centrist position on vital issues such as the Ram temple, Kashmir and relations with Pakistan. This clearly disappointed its right-wing supporters. Publicly expressed differences between BJP and RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) support this point.

  • Middle class neutral urban masses, who supported BJP with the hope of bringing some change to the political culture, found themselves betrayed by BJP’s silence and inaction after the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which a large number of the victims were Muslims. In addition, Muslims are much stronger politically than many other communities in India and with the help of liberal Hindus they were able to generate a strong nationwide campaign against a few BJP personnel for perceived non-action. (It is worth mentioning that more tragic riots have occurred in India in the past, but failed to generate such nation-wide relentless agitation due to lack of political muscle. For example, anti-Sikh riots in 1984 directly linked to the Congress Party, the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pundits in 1990 by fundamental Islamists, anti-Hindu and anti-Buddhist violence in the northeast by the Christian militant organization National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT)).

The Congress’ leftward shift has provided limited room for the leftist parties to gain nationwide significance. There has, however, been newly realized room for Dalit politics in recent years. Since ancient times, Dalits have been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Indian society. The Congress has always projected itself as a ‘Dalit-friendly’ party, and it has been successful in attracting Dalit candidates and voters to some degree. The Bahujan Samajwadi Party’s (BSP) emergence in this decade as a single majority party in the most populous, and therefore most politically influential state of Uttar Pradesh, has hinted at new political permutations. BSP is ideologically a party for Dalits, but it projects openness for higher castes and religious minorities in order to stimulate political expansion. Parties like BSP along with the support of leftist parties have the potential to create a third front and to challenge the two dominant coalitions: Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Today’s India supposedly has these three choices: UPA, NDA or the Third Front. The UPA won the last two elections in 2004 and 2009, respectively. Its win in 2004 can be attributed to NDA’s aforementioned failure. In 2009, it won mainly for the following reasons:

  • India’s increased economic prosperity, increased awareness about India’s economic boom, and international praise of India’s growth story created positive momentum, despite global financial crises.

  • The perception of the prime ministerial candidate Dr. Manmohan Singh as an honest man and the introduction of the historic Right to Information Act helped establish the image of transparent governance.

  • Programs like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act helped market a pro-poor image of the Congress.

  • BJP’s prime ministerial candidate lacked popular appeal.

In addition, Dr. Singh, who served as finance minister in Narasimha Rao’s government and who is an eminent economist, is the person given credit for India’s economic liberalization in 1991. During its earlier term from 2004 to 2009, the Congress had restricted degrees of freedom to implement financial reforms, as it needed the support of left-wing parties to stay in power. This time it had enough seats and faced no such limitations. Naturally, people had high expectations for economic reforms. Almost all those expectations have fallen flat so far without any significant reforms. With one scam after another being made public by the media, the government is crippled. By all accounts, it is perceived to be one of the most corrupt governments in Indian history. The Congress is clueless when it comes to dealing with corruption and its claims of clean governance have repeatedly proved themselves wrong. Whenever the government is attacked, it counterattacks the BJP and other parties and cites alleged charges on their personnel, but fails to respond to charges against itself. In addition, it goes back to the minority politics card, projecting itself as the only inclusive nationwide party, while accusing its major rival BJP of communal polarization. It repeatedly fails to understand that by doing so, it is only distancing itself further from the majority, and corroborating the widespread perception of itself as a ‘minority appeasing party’. In addition, the Congress has still not succeeded in shedding the image of a ‘party of political dynasty’. It is simply unable to function independently without the support of the Nehru-Gandhi family. How can a party establish meritocracy in a country if it chooses ministerial candidates based on their decsendence from a particular family or their loyalty to that family?

On the other hand, BJP is a confused party. It calls itself a rightist party but takes both rightist, centrist and even leftist positions on different issues. For example, it opposed nuclear deals with the US and the opening up of the retail sector, issues that a rightist party would be expected to initiate rather than hinder. It also changes its stance on same issue depending on whether it is in power or in opposition. On the Kashmir issue, Vajpayee, the prime minister when BJP formed the government, advocated dialogues with all stakeholders including Pakistan. Since BJP has shifted to opposition, it has taken a hard-line approach and is completely against dialogue with Pakistan. More importantly, it is in a dilemma about what ‘Hindutva’ is and finds it difficult to discuss issues like the demolition of the Babri Masjid and right-wing radicalism. It seems that it has realized that in order to have a political majority, it cannot afford to make minorities feel insecure. But, by trying not to take a stand against minorities, it disappoints its right-wing fundamentalists. In this way, BJP is walking on thin ice. Though BJP-led NDA governments in various states are doing much better than Congress-governed states, the party desperately needs a strong leader in Delhi to help re-establish a connection with the masses, the way Vajpayee had.

The Third-Front is too fragile at present and it is not yet empowered enough to challenge either UPA or NDA. In addition, the poor performance of leftist parties in recent elections has decreased their national impact. Some regional parties with negative impressions of both the Congress and the BJP usually join this front. In the past, such coalitions have formed governments but remained unstable, as parties would withdraw support if their demands were not met.

Given these three options—the corrupt and minority-subservient UPA, the confused and faceless NDA, or both of the former with the Third Front, and all three focusing on respective votebanks rather than on the population as a whole, I believe the present political setup in India is dysfunctional.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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