The magic of Indian democracy: questions for Antara Dev Sen

Rajeev Bhargava
26 May 2004

Antara Dev Sen provides a wonderful overview of the magic and surprise of the Indian election, and especially the way the media separated themselves from Indian realities. The ordinary Indian voter yet again showed the door to a smug, overconfident ruler. The forced exit of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was indeed a momentous day in the history of Indian democracy – one that now has a Muslim president, a Sikh prime minister, and a Christian woman of foreign origin as one of its tallest leaders: elected or endorsed by a Hindu majority!

Rajeev Bhargava is responding to Antara Dev Sen’s luminous account of the week when Indian politics turned upside down; see “India’s benign earthquake” (20 May 2004)

But the suddenness of an outcome no one expected should be a starting-point for further questions as well as a moment for acclamation. Victories embraced and delighted in can easily become short-lived wonders. The defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which dominated the NDA, makes possible a change of direction towards secularism in India, but with no guarantee that it will not be reversed.

Let’s start with Sonia

In principle, a fractured verdict does not unambiguously give any single party or person the right to rule. Yet the nature of our constitutional democracy means that if the election was a vote for any one person, it has to be Sonia Gandhi. She is responsible for the current rejuvenation of the Congress party. It is she who made judicious alliances and led an efficient campaign across the country. And now, the sycophancy embedded into the current ideology of the Congress notwithstanding, Sonia Gandhi stands out as a decent politician who is deservedly the undisputed leader of her party.

The BJP had launched a vicious, chauvinist personal campaign against her on account of her Italian origin. But for a voter in rural south India, for example, Sonia’s Hindi is as accented as their own and she is as alien or non-alien to them as (say) an urban north Indian.

Nevertheless, it is asked even by those beyond the BJP’s orbit, does she “really” understand the spirit and soul of India? Should not an Indian prime minister be contextually sensitive to the way issues in India are culturally framed, and can any leader have good practical judgment without this understanding?

Rajeev Bhargava’s openDemocracy articles offer an unmatched insight into the deep forces at work in India’s politics:

Well, many who are born into a culture never learn its fundamentals. Some who are not born into it can learn it much better - by hard work and proper initiation. I am not here saying that Sonia Gandhi herself has a better grasp than others about how issues in India are framed; only that this issue cannot be settled merely by citing a person’s origin or place of birth.

If Sonia’s decision to refuse the prime ministership took the wind out of the BJP’s sails, the period of uncertainty before her announcement revealed to the world the true colours of many of those now in opposition. In their abusive language and intemperate demands, they disregarded the constitution, flouted democratic and legal norms, and embraced “terror tactics” without qualms. In her dignified response, Sonia has made her opponents - such as Sushma Swaraj who threatened to shave her head, and Uma Bharati who hastily resigned her chief ministership – appear (as one newspaper put it) “moral pygmies”.

The paradoxes of reform

Does its election setback mean that the BJP bubble is about to burst? As Antara Dev Sen well describes, the party’s “India shining” election campaign proved a disaster. In a society with huge disparities of wealth, it flaunted the idea that India is “shining”, when for all the growth it is clearly not shining for everyone. To proclaim the outward glow of riches to everyone could not but compel regular people to compare, look inwards and ask if the shine rubs on them. When they found that it did not, they felt aggrieved.

In so far as “reform” in India has come to mean a neo-liberalism that sells Indian assets to foreign investors, relentlessly dismantles anything state-owned, and regards any state intervention in the economy as wrong, then the election results can plausibly be seen as a rejection of reform. But if “reform” can be viewed as well-chosen privatisation, the connection of domestic markets to the global economy, and ridding India of mindless bureaucratic intervention in the economy, it is far harder to interpret the results as a vote against reform.

All this became clear in retrospect. The decision by the NDA to hold an early poll seemed reasonable. We had had a good monsoon. Real growth may have been less than the claimed 8% but the economy was indeed doing very well. Investor confidence was bubbling, foreign exchange reserves are still embarrassingly high, consumer markets are bursting with goods that could once be bought only in international malls. A fascinating new economic competition was beginning to take hold over world imagination - a race in which the Indian turtle was tipped to beat the Chinese hare.

In the end, the ordinary citizen voted to puncture the illusory aspects of this success, with a vote that was less against economic reform in principle as against the perceived indifference of its champions to the plight of those excluded or adversely affected by it. The literate, middle class may have alternative avenues to register their complaints, but where else can the ordinary, often barely literate person go but the ballot box?

But here, in the ordinary voters’ judgment, there is warning as well as satisfaction. Democracies are coded for impatience. Voters can wait, but not indefinitely. They do not demand equal distribution of resources and goods but they legitimately ask why they get so little, or even nothing at all.

This impatience must be fully attended to, and in its distinctive Indian context.

Sonia Gandhi has, by example if not intention, drawn attention to the massive moral resource that the Congress party has inherited but which, in the last three decades, it has continuously disregarded or squandered: its liberal democratic and secular ideals and a deeply humanistic civilisational ethos. Can Sonia’s efforts now help renew this into a lasting force for continued democracy?

India’s challenge

This election is not a definitive test of the success or failure of big principles or even ideologies. It does show that pan-Hindu identity does not matter to all Hindus; that to many Indians, “smaller” particular identities vastly more consistent with secular values have greater significance. It is hard, then, not to conclude that the people’s verdict is a victory for secularism - but it is equally difficult to believe that entire societies can benefit from sudden, collective good fortune. So it is more accurate to say: no, no, this was no victory for secularism, but it was a setback for religious extremism and ultra-nationalism and a gain for coalition politics, for a more rooted pluralism.

This undoubtedly “progressive” election outcome, however, carries the danger of retrenchment of corruption and a culture of deal-making. If economic growth stops through incompetence or fraudulence, the punishment of Sonia’s Congress party will be ruthless and unforgiving. The BJP will enflame the voter impatience that turned against it this time. Its hardliners will blame the party for not being Hindu enough.

Secularism has been badly weakened in India, first by Congress’s retreat from its principles and then by the period of the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance government that has just ended. The 2004 election is thus a true test for India’s democracy. Sonia’s dignified refusal of power is a good start, but the alliance she led to success must now deliver from what is still a position of weakness.

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