India: Forget ideology, give them onions!

India, often described as the world’s largest democracy, goes to the polls in four phases over three weeks in February and March. But the end of one hung parliament is almost certain to lead to another as the country learns to live with coalitions.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 February 1998 5 minute READ
India’s third experiment withnational coalition government came to an end in early December when the Congress party withdrew its support from the United Front administration installed eighteen months earlier. The parties in the hung parliament (Lok Sabha) failed to form an alternative government. The next government will take office in the ides of March. The general expectation, confirmed by four opinion polls, is that the twelfth Lok Sabha will also be hung. If this happens, India will have entered an indefinite period of coalition rule even though so far coalitions at the national level have been easier to form than to keep alive for the five year duration of a parliament.
There is, however, always a difference. The two main political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has markedly muted its Hindu fundamentalism, and the 11 2-year old Congress Party, with its prime days behind it, are both seeking electoral allies. The next coalition, unlike the two during the nineties, may well be headed by one of them.
Winter of discontent
The political crisis caught the country in the midst of the coldest season of the century, with an economic recession knocking ominously at the door. The election therefore finds India truly in its winter of discontent. No political party wanted the election and the voters were not in the picture, when, for more than a week, vain efforts were made to craft an alternative government.
As campaigning started in January, it became clear that neither ideology nor any major issue divided the contenders for power. They did not join issue on foreign policy or economic liberalisation. But new factors lent a certain distinctiveness to India’s twelfth national poll.
First, the BJP is no longer politically ‘untouchable’ for the secular parties. In 1992 the strength of its commitment to Hinduism was dramatised at Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh , when the party’s lumpen elements demolished the centuries old Babri mosque to allow a temple to be built in its place named after Lord Rama, the most revered kingly figure in Hindu legends and mythology.
This time the BJP has found several allies among local parties, none of them of much consequence in national polls. To dilute its fundamentalist image, the party has distanced itself from its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh or RSS, and its front org a nisations, the Viswa Hindu Parishad and the Brajrang Dal, all three aggressively committed to political Hinduism.
The BJP also has the country’s most acceptable political leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who has a quasi-secular image and who was briefly prime minister in May 1996 when the BJP, as the largest party, tried unsuccessfully to form a government. It could not secure a single ally among the parties nor win a single deserter from them.
Secondly, the Congress party which has governed India for forty-four of the fifty years of independence, is now without a leader commanding respect and popularity in the party, let alone in the country. A majority of members of the executive of the party known as the Congress Working Committee have desperately prevailed upon Sonia Gandhi, Italian widow of Rajiv Gandhi, to campaign for the party.
Rajiv succeeded his mother, Indira Gandhi, as prime minister on the day of her assassination on October 31, 1984, and was himself assassinated while campaigning in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu in the 1991 election. Indeed, the interim report of the one man Commission enquiring into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was the immediate cause of the Congress party’s withdrawal of support from the coalition in December.
The report indicted the Dravida Munnetra Kazakam (DMK), one of the two rival Dravida political parties in Tamil Nadu, for its complicity in Rajiv’s assassination. The DMK was in the opposition at that time while its rival, AIDMK, an ally of the Congress party, was in power. Both DMKs were sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka which claims to speak for the political aspirations of the Tamil minority in the island.
The DMK was part of the United Front government in Delhi; the Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, demanded that it be dropped from the ruling coalition. The coalition’s rejection of the demand led to the withdrawal of Congress support.
Though Sonia Gandhi opened her campaign for the Congress party at the town in Tamil Nadu where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, reportedly by a female suicide cadre of LTTE, the party is not making the DMK’s alleged complicity in the assassination an election issue.
A third factor which distinguishes the 1998 election from the previous ones that led to coalition governments, is that this time alliances are being formed before polling. Ruling combinations were put together after the election results became known in 1977, 1989, and 1986. This is a step forward in India’s learning the arts of coalition building and maintenance.
More than a dozen parties are strong in their local electoral pastures and some of them are in power in states, such as the four South Indian states and in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir. It is these parties which created ruling coalitions after the elections of 1989 and 1996.
These middle ground parties which include the Left Front – a combination of the two Communist parties and three other left parties, which has been in power in West Bengal for twenty years and currently rules two other states, Tripura on the north-eastern border and Kerala on the west coast – have formed two groups for this election. It is unlikely that the next coalition will be formed by a combination of these parties, but it is not unlikely that some of them will join Congress to keep the BJP out of power.
Coalition government should be the political order in so diverse and multi-lingual a country as India.1 They first appeared at the state level in the seventies, but became durable only in the eighties and nineties. In addition to the three states governed by the Left Front, the governing combinations in three other states, Maharashtra – whose capital Mumbai, formerly Bombay, is the financial hub of India – Punjab and Haryana, include the BJP as the junior partner. The Congress party alone is not a coalition partner anywhere in the Indian Union.
The Congress party’s long political domination of the republic has been its reward for leading the freedom struggle and working with the departing British Raj and the Muslim League to partition the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, transforming it from empire into two mutually hostile nations.
The party’s character changed as it enjoyed power decade after decade. Jawaharlal Nehru’s firm commitment to democracy was diluted by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who suspended democracy for eighteen months in the mid-seventies and ran an Emergency regime. She and her son, Rajiv, ruled for more than nineteen years. They brought Congress under their personal domination and introduced authoritarian devices by over-centralising power and resource in the hands of the Union government and by suspending party elections.
India’s national elite was charmed by the glitter of becoming a regional great power. The country was seen by its neighbours as a hegemon. The public sector occupied the commanding heights of the economy while a friendship treaty with the USSR assured a continuing supply of sophisticated weaponry and technology to maintain its predominant position in South Asia.
India became a nuclear capable power with the explosion in the Rajasthan desert in 1974. It has kept open its option to go nuclear without actually doing so and stayed out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It did not matter if Pakistan was also outside these treaties and built a nuclear capability without a nuclear test. Pakistan was no match for India.
Transfer of power
The Congress party gave India stable government. Only four prime ministers headed its forty-four years in power. In contrast, the multi-party coalitions had five prime ministers in six years. Still their achievements were significant.
The Janata government of 1976-78 amended the Constitution to make a second emergency regime virtually impossible and plugged several holes in the democratic superstructure. The eleven-months-old National Front coalition in 1990 changed the political dynamics of India by giving 27 per cent representation in central government services, public sector undertakings and professional colleges to intermediate castes known as Other Backward Classes. All political parties adopted this affirmative discrimination which was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court.
The transfer of power from the upper castes to the lower castes quickly broke up the social order in the Hindi speaking states of northern lndia. The great social disorder and realignment of social and political forces in the Ganges valley, which sustains nearly half of India’s 980 million population, is the single most important factor for instability in northern India. To the south, however, higher caste rule was abolished as far back as the sixties and a new social order has earned stability with the rise of intermediate and lower castes.
The departing United Front coalition will earn a place in history for radical change in India’s foreign policy. The Gujral Doctrine has gone a long way to erase the country’s hegemonic image from the minds of the peoples of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. A dialogue was opened with Pakistan which, while failing to make a dent in the core deadlock, created a relatively relaxed political climate.
The United Front government also eased the electronic media out of government control. There was greater state participation in the running of the Union government, greater transparency in decision making, and a trouble-free relationship between New Delhi and the state governments. Most important, it gave the country a welcome respite from the patina of corruption that had settled on the five-year Congress regime headed by P. V. Narastmha Rao.
India began to liberalise its economy and open it to the outside world in 1991 when Congress was in power. In the last seven years, an Indian style of liberalisation and opening up has continued regardless of party. The old regime of license and permit is dead, but a pretty high level of bureaucratic control and political intervention continues.
Total direct foreign investment is less than $3 billion; multinationals have been permitted limited entry with their consumer goods. The doors will remain ajar, not to be thrown open. Since the mass of poor people make and unmake of governments, India will move rather slowly and, after the currency turmoil on the Pacific rim, cautiously, even with the change of regime. With the price of grains, vegetables, fish and meat beyond the reach of even the middle classes, the Pioneer of Delhi carried an election story with the headline: ‘Forget stability, secularism, Voters want Onions!’