The world seems suddenly to have woken up to the fact that India is in a mess—because it has been extremely badly governed. British liberals and socialists have been among the chief perpetrators of the myths that India is a democracy and that the forces of democracy are (or have been) embodied in the Congress (or in part of it).
India is not in trouble because it is over-populated. Agricultural land is more than adequate. There is twice as much cultivable land per capita as there is in China; per person engaged in agriculture there is twice the amount available in Vietnam—and four times that available in Egypt. Everyone knows about India’s spectacular problems: 50 per cent more cows per head than Switzerland, which is a dairy farming country (India’s bovine population is under-productive through malnutrition); 75 per cent of all potential animal fertilizer wasted—and of the 25 per cent that is collected three-quarters is exported. This is all so irrational it would seem only rational to ask why. Yet the blindingly clear answer —because of the country’s social structures—has been incessantly evaded by ‘friends of India’ from the New Statesman to the Times via the Economist. It has also been evaded by the Congress. Professor Bettelheim has shown convincingly that the problems of agriculture can only be solved by collective solutions—which the régime has done nothing to implement. In the one area where a land reform looked likely—Kerala under the Namboodiripad government in 1957–59—the central government, in the person of Indira Gandhi, intervened to get the administration overthrown. Yet the projected land reform was actually less radical than the Congress’ own programmes on paper. This, even more than the assault on democracy in the formal sense, indicates the nature of Congress rule. It is utterly wrong to confuse the Congress administration and the Indian people. Support for the Indian people does not entail support for the Congress— it precludes it.
The first task of socialists here is to present the facts. The facts are that most of the leaders of Congress are either corrupt or reactionary or both. It is ridiculous to go on claiming, as many people have, that people like Indira Gandhi or Asoka Mehta are ‘left-wing’. Indira Gandhi
It is obviously impossible to abstract purely political behaviour from the social background. No doubt India is in some senses a politically alive country. This is partly a product of despair, which can only manifest itself in violence or apathy. Thus both the present wave of massive violence and the country’s incapacity at any level to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation must be explained by this deep and deadly despair which pervades every-day life. India has plenty of resources; but they can only be mobilised if there is a simultaneous assault on the social structures. Thus, for example, in Bengal a survey showed that on an average each farmer was having to cultivate eight different plots of land, averaging about 1/3 acre each. The same province has also produced instances of up to forty layers of intermediate tenants. A vast body of parasitic intermediaries lives off those who are actually working. In these conditions it is almost impossible for anyone farming a small unit to take the risk of introducing any kind of technical change—and yet willingness to innovate runs in almost directly inverse proportion to the size of the holding. Unused capacity in industry can be gauged by business’ ability to boost production in certain goods by as much as 60 per cent overnight when prices become more attractive. This is the great tragedy of India: its vast unused or misused resources, of which labour is the most abundant. The Congress government has done virtually nothing to mobilize this vast reservoir for development. Mobilization does not have to be ‘idealistic’; labour on public works projects in China after the revolution was paid. But the labour was mobilized. Until this is done in India the economic situation cannot improve—nor will it be possible for the vast mass of Indians now stagnating in their villages and the slums of the cities to take any conscious part in altering their own way of life. It is absurd to think that a political system functioning in these circumstances can be called a democracy—or that the organization which has presided over these 20 years of immobility can be thought to embody dynamic progress.
Political behaviour in this situation is bound to depend very much on local factors. The personal situation of the majority of most voters is so desperate it is impossible for them to extend their horizon beyond the problem of staying alive. Moreover, it is quite impossible to consider politics as homogeneous nationally. Even where an organization such as the Congress exists throughout the country it differs greatly
The absolute predominance of local issues has been vividly demonstrated by the recent elections; voter response has also tended to be both non-ideological and negative, in the sense of often being purely anti-Congress. Abstentionism has been high among literate groups as well as the peasantry. Disenchantment with the Congress has at last seeped into all strata in virtually every area of the Union—from the highly literate states (Kerala, Madras) to the economically advanced (Punjab, West Bengal) to the economically depressed (Orissa) and the politically backward (Rajasthan). Yet the reasons for the defeat of Congress are different in each area. Thus the party leaders, who are often better known than the party itself, went down for different causes. Atulya Ghosh, the boss of West Bengal, demunicipalized part of the Calcutta public transport system and lifted price controls on rice to raise money for his lavish campaign—but thus ultimately lost himself too much of the popular vote. Patnaik in Orissa had already been tried and found guilty on graft charges and admitted owing the government vast sums of money in back taxes. Patil was blamed in the public eye for a series of spectacular train crashes during the autumn (some of them due to sabotage), as well as frequent hijackings of grain consignments. Kamaraj went down because he had lost much of his local base (the dmk already controlled the two largest towns in Madras state and had thus undermined Congress’ vote-raising machine) and was held responsible for his failure to block the imposition of Hindi as a national language (Madras state has three times the national average of English-speakers and hence would stand to lose heavily if English is abandoned).
Non-Congress control of so many states will have to be accepted by the central government. The most important effect of this in the long run will be the erosion of the Congress patronage machine at the local level, which must be the prelude to a massive Congress defeat at the next general election. At the same time the new state governments will be in a position to highlight the acute contradictions between local state interests and those which the Congress will attempt to impose from the centre—these contradictions will be most acute and most visible in the questions of taxation and food. The central government will in theory be in a position to strangle any local administration it disapproves of, unless there is a big change in the existing taxation laws (which the dmk and others are pressing for). But the financial contradictions are bound to generate considerable social momentum, and at this stage, state isolationism would not necessarily be a bad thing. Kerala, for example, earns India four times as much foreign exchange in