Indian elections: Who feels good?

"It is generally the Indian middle class and the rich who are feeling good, but there are so many others, belonging to the lower middle class, belonging to the peasantry, belonging to the working class, who are not feeling good.” That view, from analyst Kumar Kaldeep, quoted by Radio Netherlands is important to keep in mind when the Indian election results will be announced next week.

If, as expected, the ruling BJP wins the elections, the ’shining’ Indian economy will be used as the explanation. And even if the less likely event of a coalition led by the Congress party heads the government, illusions about the economy will be dominant in media reports.

Forecasters predict an even race between the Bharatiya Janata party, BJP, and Congress. Reports say that the BJP is no longer in the lead in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest state, with 80 of 543 seats in parliament. Smaller parties, regional parties or based on caste, like Bahujan Samaj party (party of the majority), which hold the state government in UP, are expected to gain. After the election, the BJP alliance, the NDA, and Congress, will compete to win support from smaller parties. Turnout so far is reported to be lower than in 1999, "too many Indians still feel left out of the sun”, commented the London Guardian. The final result will be announced by 13 May.

Lower Hindu chauvinist profile

The BJP has lowered its Hindu chauvinist profile since the last election, and now attempts to be an all-Indian party. On these lines, the BJP won key state elections in December 2003. Some commentators believe it is a temporary move to get Muslim votes, and that the RSS roots of the party will come to the forefront after the elections, like in the pogroms which killed 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. (RSS, ’Organisation of national volunteers’, organises more than two million Hindu activists). The BJP chief minister in Gujarat, Narenda Modi, has not been disciplined for his role in these events (no-one has). At the moment, however, the BJP’s aim seems to be not to upset capitalist investors with more instability. The communalist mood seems to have chilled in the last two years. An opinion poll in Times of India showed that 75 per cent were opposed for the use of religion for political gains. The same factors are behind the recent peace talks with Pakistan.

Economic hype

The hype about the economic ‘miracle’ is everywhere, both in Indian and Western media, as well as in discussions among politicians. The growth of GDP in the last quarter 2003 was 10,4 per cent on a year-to-year basis, higher even than China.

This has led Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, to predict 6 per cent economic growth a year for the coming 50 years! But even the growth in 2003 was heavily dependent on the monsoon. Agriculture production increased with 9 per cent, from an actual decline the year before.

The Indian government, attempting to emulate the Chinese example, is now establishing 14 so-called special economic zones. The zones will have lower taxes and special labour laws. The spokespersons of capitalist globalisation are demanding more measures in this direction. "India is not as open as China”, commented the boss of the IMF in Asia, David Burton. Investment might even fall this year compared to last year.

India’s economic upturn is still relatively limited, compared to China. Imports last year were $70 billion compared to China’s $413 billion. The prestigious IT sector accounts for less than 2 per cent of GDP, with 770,000 employees. In 2008, according to analysts, this sector will be two million strong, but still very small in a country with up to 500 million in the workforce.

In other words, economic growth has not created large numbers of new jobs. The optimism is "based on hope rather than achievement”, concluded The Economist’s survey on India, 21 February.

Workers and poor are bypassed

The ’boom’ in India has by-passed the workers and rural poor. According to the United Nations, 35 per cent live on less than a dollar a day. In Bihar, the poorest state in India, only one household in ten have electricity. Less than 5 per cent have access to a telephone. One child in five receives no education.

"Unemployment is a growing problem. Both the state and private employers are reducing the workforce. The Indian state can definitely not afford more employees: the budget deficit is already among the biggest in the world ($50 billion US dollars). When India’s biggest employer, Indian Railways, last year announced 20,000 new jobs, 600,000 applied. In some cities young men were killed in the crush for a job. A rail job pays only €110 a month, but is seen as a safe job”, reported the Swedish daily, Svenska Dagbladet.

The Economist reports how 20 women and children were killed at an election rally 12 April, trying to get saris, worth $1 each that were given out free.

Turn to the right

Some left forces and former workers’ parties have moved further to the right in the election campaign. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is the ruling party in West Bengal, is "increasingly distancing itself from its Marxist ideologies”, commented a ’political expert’, Swapan Dasgupta to the Asian Times. For many years the CPI(M) and its twin, the CPI, have both been advocating "secular alliances” against the BJP, thereby opening the door for cooperation with the Congress party. Historically the main reason for the turn to the right is a political capitulation to the propaganda of the capitalist boom particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. However, the CPI(M) and the CPI have also rested on the mood amongst some sections of the population to choose the "lesser evil”, i.e. anything but the BJP, which can also be seen in elections in the US, Italy and elsewhere.

The CPI(M) is itself trying to attract transnational corporations to West Bengal. They have no orientation towards the working class. The leader of CPI(M) has declared young urban voters as ”non-political”. Even the Maoists, who do have some substantial support in the countryside, are following this trend. They are no longer calling for a boycott, but indirectly support Congress.

On economic policy, however, there is almost no difference between Congress and the BJP. It was Congress that started the market "reforms” in the 1980s and speeded them up in 1991. The election manifesto of Congress promises economic growth of 10 per cent a year. New waves of ’reform’ (attacks on the working class and rural poor) will follow whatever government is elected. The government will prioritise reducing the public sector deficit, 10 per cent of GDP, and the debt. Today, 43 per cent of government expenses are for interest payments.

Continued capitalist globalisation and new attacks from the state, including privatisations, will lead to new struggles. The Indian working class has not silently accepted capitalist globalisation. 50 million workers participated in one-day general strikes, in May last year and on 24 February 2004. There is a crying need for a genuine socialist party to give an alternative to the impoverished masses who are being crushed by neo-liberal policies and the drive for profits. This is the main demand raised by the New Socialist Alternative, the Indian affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, during the election campaign.

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May 2004