Guest post by GAIL OMVEDT
The 2009 Lok Sabha elections in India were projected to be a historical turning point just as the 2008 Presidential elections in the U.S. were a turning point. But the nature of that expected turning point was very different.
Five years ago, even two years before the elections, no one in the U.S. would have expected that a “Black” man with two Muslim names and one African name could have been elected President of the United States. Yet it happened, and it happened not simply because Barack Husain Obama ran a brilliant campaign and is proving the most effective president in dealing with the economic and social crises besetting the world today, but also because of the racial transformation the U.S. has undergone in recent decades.In India, the 2009 elections have seemed to project an equally significant turning point. Throughout the election campaign, it appeared as if the two major “national” parties, the Congress and the BJP, were losing their hold, that a coalition would be formed based on regional leaders, that a “hung parliament” was in the offing. Even the most optimistic pro-Congress prediction – emerging from Meghnad Desai of the U.K. – had seen the Congress emerging as the largest party but with only 160 seats. At the same time, what most Indians have termed “identity factors” (caste, religious affiliation, region) seemed to be emerging as of primary importance. Symbolizing these were a host of “OBC” leaders representing different regions, and above all Mayawati, the Dalit woman leading the Bahujan Samaj Party. Of all the contending non-Congress, non-BJP leaders, she was the one who captured major national and international attention, whether favorable or unfavorable (Newsweek described her as “Anti-Obama”, others more sympathetically). She was obviously compared to the U.S. President Obama, as representing aspirations of the sections of society previously considered most “low”, deprived, “untouchable.”
We know now, or seem to know, that this has not happened. “Regional” leaders have been sidelined; Mayawati’s BSP “has failed,” the Congress has emerged as the single largest party, practically capable of forming the government on its own, humbling previously dissident allies like Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party, rejecting the help of Mulayam’s SP and similar smaller parties, apparently able to form the government. The CPI(M) – experienced as “fascist” in West Bengal, opposing every kind of “liberalization” at the centre while courting capitalists in its Bengal stronghold – has suffered the worst blow in history. Most of the “national” and “international” commentators have been breathing a sigh of relief, and not only because the Congress now appears “free” of its Left allies’ demands. Even more than the demise of the Left, the commentators have been celebrating the apparent demise of regional/caste/religion-based politics. Three examples from The Indian Express of 17 May will illustrate this:
“Celebrate the defeat of opportunism, obfuscation and obscurantism…the era of votebank politics as we have known it is over” (Pratap Bhanu Mehta)
“2009 is a historic election. It ends the idea that our politics will fragment” (editorial).
“Politics of aspiration has won over politics of grievance….The Indian voter has always rejected arrogance and pomposity but has sometimes been forgiving towards those with whom she might have found affinity of caste, religion or ethnicity. By junking that, the voter has now shown new maturity” (Shekhar Gupta).
Gupta’s politically correct use of “she” is amusing, given the lack of significant progress in putting women representatives in the Lok Sabha. Aside from this, it is clear that “votebank politics” and similar phrases are but code-words to say that caste issues, the problems of religious minorities, and questions of linguistic-national identity seemed to be overcome: one again a “national” party, with a rhetoric primarily of development (“inclusive development” is the codeword), has re-established itself. This is the celebration we are confronted with in most national “analysis”.
Yet, aside from the Left’s debacle, the celebration is hogwash. Two “regional” leaders remain, proudly holding to their own states, perhaps more unconcerned about the central government than the centre is concerned about them. Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, show the continuing force of regional (linguistic) nationalism. In Punjab, in spite of the fact that after the shoe-throwing incident forced Congress to withdraw Tytler and Sajan Kumar from New Delhi, in spite of the fact that the Badal family controlling the Shiromani Akali Dal (the main current representative of Sikh nationalism) was notorious for treating the region as its fiefdom, the SAD actually polled a larger percentage of votes in 2009, its best since 1966 when Punjab was reorganized on a linguistic basis.
In Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena – which might be described as the distorted, “goonda” face of national-linguistic Marathi/national sentiment, won over a lakh votes in every one of Mumbai’s six constituencies. The result was to split the BJP-Shiv Sena opposition votes and give the victory to Congress in five constituencies; only Priya Dutt won by a larger margin than the votes of the MNS. In Tamilnadu, Congress continues to depend on “Dravidian” parties in Tamilnadu; it has no significant presence of its own. In Andhra, the Telegu Desum Party and the new, Kapu-based party of Chiranjiivi, remain significant deciders in the voting. Finally, in Kashmir, if the apparently high voting in 2008 was call“vote for democracy”, the 2009 overall percentage of about 26% in the Valley should be called, according to one commentator, a “vote against [Indian] democracy.”
In one of the more perseptive analyses, Atul Kohli challenged the idea of a “historic mandate” to Congress and summed up the situation as follows:
“more than half the voters continue to vote for parties other than the two main ones….the electorate has not switched away from voting for a variety of local parties based on caste, class, religion and charismatic individuals. The underlying fragmentation of the electorate is real and continues” (Indian Express, 19 May)
And the BSP is far from being a failure, even if the hype had been raised too high. It has gained in seats since 2004, and is now – with 6.09%% of the national vote – the third largest party in India, after Congress (29.02%) and BJP (19.2%). It has increased its seats from 19 to 21 – in contrast to the Left (decline from 59 to 24) and BJP (decline from 138 to 116). Congress may look good in terms of seats won, but this is solely due to the “first past the post” electoral system. The long-term decline of India’s major “national” party has not been arrested (see Appendix).
Caste and linguistic-national (“regional”) identities are linked. Caste-conscious political analysis has always stressed that the centre represens Brahmanic control; the states a non-Brahman, even anti-Brahman, “dominant” caste control. This is true in varying ways, since caste itself has its regional-linguistic specifics. Nitish Kumar has not only given development; he also represents a nonBrahman politics. Naveen Patnaik, in turn is a Kayastha (Karan in Oriya terminology; and the conflict between Kayasthas and Brahmans is a historic one throughout India: the Kayasthas represented a “shudra” intelligentsia that rose to power by providing services to Muslim rulers equal to those of Brahmans. In Maharashtra, for example, the “Thackerays” are Kayasthas, and Bal Thakre’s father, Prabodhankar Thakre, was a part of the nonBrahman movement of his day.
Sikhism, in turn, the domimamt force in the Punjab, has had a strong anti-Brahman streak from the beginning, continuing in spite of the problems of Jat Sikh “dominance.”.
And what of Mayawati? Most of her dalit supporters are now saying that “sarvajan” politics has failed; what they mean by this is the much celebrated alliance with Brahmans (who constitute approximately 12% of the area’s population. But with the BSP the problem is different. Not only Mayawati, but her Dalit supporters have continued to use the term “dalit” and to see things in terms of “dalit”. This emphasis on Dalits (as opposed to OBCs or “bahujans”) is a problem of the last decade or two. Mayawati’s party is after all the Bahujan Samaj Party, and was built deliberately by Kanshiram to unite Dalits with the “ex-shudra” castes and with religious minorities. He himself – when he came to Maharashtra and other southern states after the first BSP victory in UP in 1993 — was ready to court the Kunbi-Maratha, knew that Shivaji had been taken as a shudra until he bought off Brahmans enough to get a “ksatriya” coronation, and brought, along with Ambedkar, the names of Jotirao Phule, Shahu Maharaj, and Periyar to national attention. Kanshiram was also interested in a program of alternative development, which has had historical roots in the approaches of Phule and Shahu Maharaj.
In other words, the BSP was – before Mayawati – the only political party in India to consciously project itself as a broad, national, party of the majority oppressed castes and religious groups. BAMCEF – the name of Kanshi Ram’s first organization, Backward and Minority Classes Employees Federation – expressed this. BSP still has the potentiality of becoming this – a national opposition party representing what Maharashtrians call a “Phule-Ambedkarite” alternative developmental ideology that would contrast with the “Gandhi-Nehruvian” standard developmentalism of Congress. (This would also have its regional/national specifics: Basava-Ambedkar in Karnataka, for instance; Periyar-Iyothee Thass-Ambedkar in Tamilnadu). But the BSP has failed to project any genuine political-ideological alternative in the last few years. Should it do so, it would be a potentially much more forceful alternative as a national party.
“OBC” politics, as we have noted, is linked to the question of “regionalism,” or national-linguistic sentiment not only in India but at a subcontinental level. There are today many movements going on directed towards some kind of autonomy in the region, within India and on India’s borders. Tibet (with echoes in regions of HImachal Pradesh in India), Kashmir, the former Khalistani/Punjabi movement (which echoes in Punjab-Pakistan), the Madhesi movement in Nepal which has its social structural similarities to Bihar, the autonomy/independence movements in Nagaland, Mizoram, even Manipur, the currently defeated movement of Tamils in Sri Lanka with its links to Tamilnadu in India.
All of these movements have had tremendous force, but they all of these have so far been articulated separately, without any effort at communication among themselves. The possibilities – “spectre” in Marx’s terminology – haunting India and the other existing “nation-states” of the subcontinet is that of a political force that might pose an alternative federalism, a genuine decentralization, a stripping of the gross powers of the centre in India and neighboring countries. National-linguistic sentiments up to now have often taken a distorted form, have sometimes been connected with regressive social forces. For example, the desire for a separate identity for Sikhs has been expressed in terms of forcing dress codes on women. If such distortions are overcome, and an alternative federalism is posed to unite the different linguistic nationalities, it would have tremendous implications not only for India but for the entire south Asian region — and for the neighboring areas of China and Russia as well.
Year Cong BJP BSP
1952 45.00 03.10
1957 47.80 05.90
1962 44.70 06.40
1967 40.80 09.40
1971 43.70 07.40
1977 34.50 —–
1980 42.70 —–
1984 48.10 07.40
1989 39.50 11.50
1991 36.50 20.10
1996 28.80 20.29 3.64
1998 25.72 25.38 4.66
1999 28.3 23,75 4,16
2004 26.44 22.16
2009 29.02 19.12 6.98