Letter to India: The Platform of Hopeby Tabish Khair
The most predictable thing about national elections in India seems to be their relative unpredictability. At least opinion and exit polls get it vaguely wrong almost every time, and this time they were sometimes glaringly off the mark. Most experts had predicted a stand-off between the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA coalition, with the leftist-communist Third Front garnering 80 to 100 seats. The argument was that following the international financial crisis, the incumbent Congress-UPA coalition—headed in the government by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s economic liberalization—would suffer. It was also expected to suffer from the fact of being in power: the so-called “tiredness” factor.
Pollsters were roughly right about the Third Front: it now has 80 representatives in the 543-member Indian Parliament. Its staunchly “left” and communist constituents lost seats, but as a front, its tally of 80 is roughly the same as its 2004 tally in effective terms. It definitely did less well than leftists had expected in the wake of the financial crisis. Instead the ruling UPA, powered by a high-performing Congress party, managed to get 262 Members of Parliament (MPs), thus far outstripping the BJP-led NDA, with only 157 MPs.
The right-leaning NDA continued its downward trajectory from 2004: it had lost 89 seats in 2004 and it lost another 24 this time. The centrist Congress gained in strength to the extent that it will have to depend on far less support from the outside to form a government. This means that India will continue the economic and foreign affairs policies of the past five years, a factor reflected by a surge in the Indian share market following the election results.
There are various reasons for the inaccuracy of opinion polls in India: the expanse and complexity of the country (with a population of more than one billion, dozens of languages, religions, cultures, etc.) and the nature of the polls, which are mostly conducted by middle class urban graduates whose mere presence is likely to make poor, especially rustic, voters lie about their preferences. But whatever the technical reasons, the outcome of national elections in India this year was also marked by a preference for the politics of hope and moderation over the politics of hate or ideological rigidity, from the Left or the Right.
Both the rightist BJP, which mostly attracts conservatives, ultra-nationalists and Hindu fundamentalists, and the leftist Third Front (a combination of socialist and communist parties) ran on platforms which appear to have failed to convince the in-between voter. The BJP’s “national security” concerns and at least implicitly anti-Muslim rhetoric was as ineffective as the Third Front’s at times justified criticism of the lopsided economic development of India.
On the other hand, the Congress—fuelled by a group of charismatic young leaders (most obviously, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, not related to Mahatma Gandhi, “father of the nation,” but to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, and Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi, both Prime Ministers murdered by different militant organizations), undergirded by the efficient current Prime Ministership of the elderly economist, Manmohan Singh, and coordinated at the party level by Sonia Gandhi, Rajeev’s Italian widow and Rahul’s mother—managed to get its message across.
The elections in India can be read parallel to the earlier elections in the U.S., which brought the Democrats, led by Barack Obama, to power. It is a sign of the changing nature of national politics, that global factors come to play an indirect but significant role in national elections. This was reflected, at the incidental and humorous level, by a spate of shoe-throwing at various politicians during the Indian election campaigns during a hot summer when temperatures reached 45 degrees centigrade in some parts. Inspired by the shoe tossed at George Bush by an Iraqi journalist, Indian voters made free with slippers and shoes during this election: around a dozen Indian politicians, of all major parties, had to copy the evasive technique of Bush.
At a more serious level, Indian voters appear to have gone for the party offering them hope and the politics of moderation, in a way that reminds one of the reception of Obama in the U.S. If the BJP suffered by concentrating on abstract “nationalism” (tinged with xenophobia at times) and an easy down-playing of environmental and related socioeconomic issues, the leftist Third Front suffered by focusing on issues like environment and socioeconomic inequality, but in terms that did not offset negative criticism with enough positive hope. The message of the Congress was not always clear, or even entirely coherent, but it appears to have been largely hopeful—and more focused on the immediate problems of the voter.
Unlike major BJP leaders who dismissed or underplayed environmental issues in favour of “Hindu nationalist” ones and leftist workers who sometimes adopted an abstract “Green” tone, the Congress spoke of matters like water supply, irrigation, electricity, etc. Of course, the Congress’s increasing tendency to address matters of development, environment and social inequality, though in softer and less theoretical terms than the Third Front, can be seen as a moral victory for the Left, which has pushed the government in exactly those directions in recent years. However, finally, it was not the leftist language of criticism but the Congress’s rhetoric of hope that carried the day. This comes with its dangers: winning on a platform of hope always runs the risk of running into the wall of disillusionment. The Congress party in India, and Obama in the U.S. and internationally, will have to face that daunting prospect in the next few years. At the moment it appears that the recent record of the Congress-led government—which has, since 2004, combined cautious economic liberalization with increasing focus on developmental issues, including rural ones, affecting citizens who might not have a direct stake in the share market—has convinced a large number of fence-sitting voters.
But ordinary voters are not absolutely thrilled by the activities of Indian political parties, including the Congress. Criticism has been voiced of some “historical” problems that plagued these elections too. One of them was the cult of celebrity—in which all political parties vied with each other to field film stars, media personalities and cricket stars as their candidates. Some of these, though, such as Nafisa Ali, a one-time film star and major social activist and AIDS-worker, and Shashi Tharoor, the Indian English novelist and ex-diplomat, appear to have merited their nominations on credible political and social grounds too. Then the greater problem of candidates with criminal records also remained unsolved. Indian law does not allow those awaiting trial to vote, but there is no bar on people awaiting conviction to fight elections, even from jail. According to one estimate, about 40 percent of candidates belonging to leading political parties faced criminal charges ranging from extortion to murder. While a percentage of these charges might be politically motivated, it is common belief in India that at least half of these accused candidates are guilty of such charges. It is also common knowledge that getting elected might enable them to manipulate matters and avoid conviction.
However, these problems should not take away the achievements of the Indian electoral system, with all its flaws, or detract from the political consciousness of a nation where close to 60 percent of the voters go to cast their votes. There is a joke Indians like to tell. An American reporter lands in Delhi. His Indian counterparts flock to interview him. “What’s the event you are going to cover?” they ask. “It is a private visit,” he replies. “I am searching for God.” His Indian counterparts laugh: “We have lived here all our lives,” they say, “and we have found no trace of God. Do you expect to find God in three weeks?” But the American is back in Delhi within the week. “Gave up so soon?” his Indian friends ask. “Oh no,” he replies. “I found God. There must be a God for this country to keep running.”
If that is so, perhaps the democratic avatar of God is the Indian Election Commission, the high-powered non-party body entrusted to conduct elections and ensure their impartiality. Once again, the Election Commission did a good job. With all its flaws and pressures, this was a relatively well-conducted election, a feather in the cap of India’s thriving if imperfect democracy.
Tabish Khair is an Indian journalist, critic, novelist and poet. His latest book is the novel, Filming: A Love Story (Picador, 2007).