The BBC, as usual, has the best reporting from India, though their lead headline, Gandhi triumphs in India election, may overstate the case. While this is indeed a kind of restoration, with the Congress party and the Gandhi family back in power (descendants of Nehru, including former prime ministers Indira and Rajiv, no relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi or Ben Kingsley), I think the results are better interpreted as a rejection of the status quo. After all, in Kerala, where the Congress Party held power, they were soundly defeated by one of India’s communist parties.
Indian politics are incredibly convoluted and difficult to parse, complicated by language barriers, illiterate electorates, rampant political corruption, and the country’s sheer hugeness. As such, drawing large conclusions is always a difficult game. Still, I think there are some important messages in this election.
1) India is a secular country. The BJP rode to power on a wave of Hindu nationalist emotion, having played a key role in the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, which led to anti-Muslim riots that killed over 2,000. And in 2002, when anti-Muslim riots broke out in Gujarat, the resulting nativist feeling helped the BJP win that state’s local elections.
All that would seem to demonstrate that the BJP’s ill-defined but divisive policy of Hinduttva, or “Hinduness,” was a sure winner at the ballot box. But India is a land of minorities, with substantial Muslim and Christian populations. And even among Hindus, there are divisions at least as wide as those between, say, a Polish Catholic and a Texan evangelical. Most of India’s south is uneasy about the BJP’s Hindi-centric nationalism; after all, Hindi isn’t even in their language group, much less in their local languages. Tamil Nadu especially has a long history of domination by northern rulers, and they fear losing their language rights and their cultural heritage. And among northern Hindus, caste differences still matter: the BJP has tried to win votes from the lower castes and Dalits (untouchables) by playing them off the Muslims, but the relationship has always been uneasy.
Gujarat was the biggest surprise in this election full of surprises. The voters there rejected the communal violence of two years ago, which has devastated their economy, and chose instead the party of inclusion.
2) The economic reforms are working. The central plank of the BJP’s platform was the economy. It’s booming, and the BJP’s economic reforms are to a great extent responsible for transforming India from a sluggish cryptocommunist backwater into an economic up-and-comer. The positive effects of these changes are visible everywhere: MTV, fancy new shops, better cars, cellular phones. The trouble, however, is that while these benefits are visible, they’re still unattainable for most Indians. The economic changes have benefited the rich and the urban middle classes, but India’s majority is still rural and poor. The government that spent the election campaign crowing over stock market results and GDP increases also overlooked fundamental matters such as water shortages and rising electricity prices, and they paid for their neglect at the polls. Indians are pleased with the economic boom, and I don’t think the new government will lead the nation back into socialism. But the Indian people are right to insist that the fruits of the recent success be distributed more widely.
So this election is not a rejection of India’s new economy. On the contrary, had there been no boom and only business as usual, India’s voters might not have been disgruntled about not getting their fair share.
3) Indian democracy works. The voters surprised the pundits and made real choices that were based on enlightened self-interest. They didn’t fall prey to apathy or nativism. This is a rare case of a great mass of poor people making their voices heard through a legitimate democratic process. The new government will be all too aware of the power of India’s voters to pay attention and turn them out of office if they don’t satisfy people’s basic needs. In a country of nearly a billion people, the government has been held accountable for the state of the nation. This is a triumph for India, for democracy, and for humanity.