India: Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan
1 January 1998
The centrist political platform held by Congress has become largely irrelevant.
The world’s largest democracy, whatever may be its quality, is up for elections again. The fallout of the Jain Commission report brought down the government of I.K. Gujral, Parliament has been dissolved, and the battle lines drawn. In February’s elections, the “stability card” will emerge as the make-or-break issue. Millions of Indians, who see economic growth and industrial development as more important than identifying the killers of Rajiv Gandhi (since it is already well known that the LTTE was responsible), are keen to elect a government that will last. The Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was the single largest party in the last Parliament, thinks it can hijack the stability card from the Congress.
The BJP leaders have cause for optimism, for the post-Rajiv Gandhi Congress resembles the Mughal Empire in decline. However, Prime Minister-in-Waiting Atal Behari Vajpayee would be mistaken if he believes that the BJP can emerge as a monolithic party like the Congress of the Nehruvian era. For the BJP’s conservative plank can never occupy the centrist political space in Indian politics that the Congress has held on to for fifty years.
Look at what the Congress was able to do: In Mizoram, northeast India, predominantly Christian, the Congress promised a “good Christian government” to upstage former rebel chief Laldenga in 1988. In other states, it appeased extreme as well as moderate Hindu and Muslim opinion to forge unbeatable electoral partnerships. In the Northeast and the South, it forged alliances with regional parties to win elections and form governments.
The BJP has a far too-well-defined a political agenda to be able to make friends and win allies with the ease of the Congress. It may engineer defections like it did recently in Uttar Pradesh, but that cannot be overdone by a party which claims the moral high ground. So for all practical purposes, the BJP itself will remain a “cow belt” phenomenon of the Hindi heartland. If the BJP wants to win more than two hundred seats, it will have to forge alliances with the regional parties. Not without reason did Atalji congratulate former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda for “bringing regional parties into the Delhi power structure, so that we were all able to interact and understand them”. This, even while other BJP MPs were lambasting Deve Gowda for a hundred failures, real or perceived.
The early-December massacre of three score Dalit children, women and men in Jehanabad, Bihar, served only to tragically emphasise the power of caste in “Hindi India”. This caste divide alone will prevent a cakewalk for the BJP with its slogan of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. When as Prime Minister, Raja V.P. Singh, opened a pandora’s box with the promise to implement the Mandal Commission report, the power tasted by the “intermediate castes” in successive state governments in Lucknow and Patna has by now ensured that parties like the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party will not fall before the sweep of a BJP steamroller.
If the BJP fails to sweep the polls in North and Western India, it can expect even less from the south and east. In these two areas, and even in Maharashtra to the west, the BJP’s only hope is to build a network of alliances. In east, south and northeast of India, the regional parties have come to stay.
Whatever their track record on governance, like the backward-caste parties of the north, these regional parties have built strong platforms by catering to the distinctive identity of the people. And in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala, the communists remain well entrenched.
And so, in all likelihood, India’s forthcoming elections will deliver the complete marginalisation of the Congress, its centrist political platform having become largely irrelevant. Societal polarisation will instead pit the BJP, with all its monolithic aspirations, against the regional parties, the backward parties, and the Left. Sentimentalism alone will probably not work, which is why fielding Sonia Gandhi may not be such a good idea for the Congress.
February’s elections will thus bring to centrestage the battle between India’s so-called mainstream, symbolised this time by the BJP, and the “other India”, represented by the backwards, the regional parties, and the Left, which aspires to lead them.
This marginalisation of the Congress will probably not be all too palatable to the “mobile Indian middle classes”, who have after all been the greatest beneficiaries of the modern Indian state. These are people who have lost their regional roots through the centralising process of the post-colonial governance. But, since for them, India is mahaan (great) if it delivers enough in consumerist items, today, these middle classes would want a decisive BJP victory.
But India’s other segments are perhaps not yet ready to give a complete mandate to politicised Hinduism. The BJP has grown fast, but not fast enough to totally substitute the Congress. And the power of the smaller parties cannot be underestimated either. Political pluralism, thankfully, may still have a place in post-Gujral India.