If, as Gramsci said, ‘the counting of “votes” is the final ceremony of a long process’—a process of persuasion and alliance-building—the 2004 Indian elections were an apparent anomaly for the Gramscian schema.footnote1 The surprise installation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in New Delhi could be called neither final nor ceremonial. Rather, a grim new dynamic has entered the unfolding political developments of the last decades. The rise of Hindutva—authoritarian Hindu nationalism—and its party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, were central to these. The two successive National Democratic Alliance governments—coalitions of the bjp with the majority of the country’s regional parties—in 1998 and 1999 had constituted their climax. The 2004 verdict has now entwined the Congress within this vortex.
The nda’s tenure witnessed a systematic ‘saffronization’ of state and civil society. The personnel, practices and philosophy of the bjp’s larger family of Hindutva organizations (the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Sangh Parivar), were embedded within the country’s cultural and educational institutions, the media, politics and the economy. Although controversies raged—over history textbooks, the teaching of ‘Vedic Mathematics’ and astrology, prayers in schools, the promotion of the Hindu hymn ‘Vande Matram’ to equal status with the national anthem, and the replacements of members of regulatory bodies such as Prasar Bharti (in charge of broadcasting) with Hindutva acolytes—the scale of the changes ensured the prosecution of most without significant comment or resistance. While events such as the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in bjp-ruled Gujarat could arouse widespread outrage, media commentary and statements from the country’s political and industrial leaders indicated a new conviviality between the bjp and the country’s possessing classes. Flourishing Indian tv and Bombay’s ‘dream-factory’ film industry, always an accurate political weathercock, celebrated high-caste Hindu values and barely gentrified anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments. Those who had chalked Hindutva’s political success up to its violent communal campaigns had to face the pervasiveness of these sentiments. No better confirmation of this could be found than the Congress’s explicit adoption of ‘soft Hindutva’ themes in the late 1990s.
The surprise verdict of 2004 interrupted, rather than consummated, these processes—as though their author had suddenly remembered the unfinished business of the fate of Congress and recalled it into the narrative of Hindutva’s rise; possibly for summary dispatch. Congress vaulted into government alright, but also into the crucible of a political system deeply transformed by Hindutva. Its future now depends on how the Congress deals with one simple fact: recent political developments have allotted it an electorate that consists overwhelmingly of the poor, the lower classes and castes, and the minorities. In some ways the Congress leadership recognizes this: for example, in its pro-poor, developmental and secularist election appeals.
Shouldn’t the Congress then take the next logical step and become the authentic party—politically and programmatically—of the poor and the minorities: to rally the constituencies of the Left as a counter to the bjp’s successful organization of the Right? Logical, perhaps, but unlikely. The Congress has rarely evinced the political will and ability to stand up to Hindutva and neoliberalism—indeed, the whole weight of Congress tradition militates against this. For its populist election appeals sit uneasily alongside a quite contrary desire to regain its position as the normal party of the bourgeoisie, a position from which it was rudely dislodged by the bjp. It is this desire that still orients the Congress’s politics, ensuring that any recognition of new electoral realities remains only instrumental.
The Congress might yet acquire another, ‘second-best’ vocation in Indian politics: as an alternative to the bjp but not to Hindutva or neoliberalism, seeking only to soften their impact on its constituency sufficiently to win elections with reasonable regularity. The Congress might become a second bourgeois party alternating in power, much like the Democratic Party in the us. In this instance the two main rivals—the bjp and the Congress—would rally alternative multi-party coalitions. Even this limited ambition involves balancing opposing pressures: the desire to demonstrate to the predominantly Hindu propertied classes that the all-important ‘reforms’ are on track, and the assertion of their Hindu identity licensed, so as to detach them at least partially from Hindutva; and the need to deliver some reward to its vast, predominantly poor and minority electorate, while navigating the perils of minority government in a highly volatile situation. Failure will spell the Congress’s political end, bringing what I have elsewhere called the ‘long death of the Congress party’ to its tragic, but possibly merciful, conclusion. Formally the Congress party may live on, as other institutions that have lost their purpose, but not their resources or personnel, have done. But it would be a ghostly after-life whose prating course will only recall what once was and, perhaps, what might have been.
For the surprise verdict was complex and fractured and has produced a deeply unstable situation for the upa government. There are four main sources of instability. The electorate was ambivalent, neither enthusiastically endorsing the Congress, nor unambiguously repudiating the bjp’s communalism and neoliberalism. There was, secondly, the profound discomfiture of civil society—substantial non-state socio-economic powers, pre-eminently capital, but also saffronized individuals and institutions—at the formation of a minority coalition government supported by the Left. The Congress is anxious to allay this discomfiture, but cannot end it conclusively. Thirdly, some of the Congress’s allies in the upa may be willing to contemplate coalitions with the bjp—indeed, a couple have done so in the past—raising the possibility of the upa government being toppled by bjp-led political machinations at some ripe moment when it falters on an important policy matter. The Congress will then have failed to run a stable government, in contrast to the bjp’s proven ability to do so; a fatal blot on its copybook in a bourgeois republic intent on getting on with ‘good governance’ and ‘reform’. Finally, the Congress remains torn between its political soul, which yearns to be the normal party of the bourgeoisie, as it once was, and the new electoral body of the lower classes, castes and minorities, victims of the communalism and neoliberalism of the bjp, which it has willy-nilly acquired. As if these pressures were not enough, a former us ambassador to India has already proclaimed that the upa government could not be expected to last long. Enormously wealthy sections of the Non Resident Indian community exert great informal power in the Indian political system; they are organized predominantly by the Sangh Parivar, and not merely to hold nostalgic ‘cultural’ fêtes but to mobilize the émigré community’s political influence on host-country governments, above all in Washington.
The 2004 result has been compared to the electoral upset of 1977, when the Indian electorate threw Indira Gandhi out of power after the Emergency; this time it had stopped the Hindutva juggernaut. But while 1977 was a major vindication of Indian democracy by an electorate that is all too often dismissed for its illiteracy and poverty, 2004 was another matter. The defeats of the bjp and the nda were stunning. The bjp came nowhere near its swaggering estimates of a 300-plus majority and lost seats in spades, falling from 182 seats to 136, while the nda as a whole dropped from about 320 to 189. However, the Congress victory was dubious. Despite a creditable campaign, with its emphasis on issues facing the poorer majority, indebted farmers in particular, the electorate—mindful no doubt of the Congress’s usually empty rhetoric—was not much enthused. Turnout, at 58 per cent, was lower than in the last general election. The Congress won 145 seats in a house of 545, a little over a quarter. Although the Congress’s alliances were designed to avoid splitting the anti-bjp and anti-nda vote, and although its allies had some rather unprecedented electoral luck in two large states—Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where the bjp and its regional allies performed spectacularly badly in terms of seats—the upa commanded a mere 219 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Left, whose 62 seats in the new Lok Sabha are their highest tally ever, lends outside support to the upa.