India is halfway through its general election process. It takes five weeks. There are half a million candidates and more than 800 million potential voters. Nearly a million polling stations will have been opened and closed in phases across the country - from the remote mountain areas of Ladakh in the Himalayas and the deserts of Rajasthan to the teeming cities of Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.
A relatively high turnout of 65% is expected and results will be released on 16 May. In the absence of opinion polls during the election itself, it is widely predicted that the rabidly right-wing Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata party, will become prime minister, though without an overall majority in the country’s 545-seat lower house of the National Assembly.
The Congress party has headed governments in India for 45 years of the last 67 years since independence, often in coalition with various regional and so-called communist parties. Attempting to cling to power, its prime ministerial candidate is Rahul Gandhi -son of former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president. The current prime minister, Manmahon Singh, has appeared incapable of taking decisive action on either economic or social policies. According to a new book by his former ‘spin doctor’, he has had little or no say in government policy for the past 10 years.
On his watch the Indian economy has slowed from quite spectacular growth rates, reaching more than 10% just over three years ago to a projected rate this year of just over 4%. Even while parts of the Indian economy flourished, the mass of the population fell further into poverty. While the number of poor farmers resorting to suicide continued to increase, oligarchs and well-placed politicians continued to rape and pillage – literally!
Last year 100 million workers took strike action for two days against crippling inflation. The general election should have been the occasion for the communist parties who were behind this strike to put forward a fighting, anti-capitalist programme including demands for price control, a living minimum wage and public ownership under workers’ control of all basic utilities.
The two main ‘communist’ parties – CPI (M) and CPI –patently fail to conduct an all-out offensive against capitalism and its political representatives.
In the vacuum created, a new political voice has appeared which aims to channel the anger and frustration of working class as well as middle class Indians against the dirty, corrupt politics at national and local level. The AAP or Common Man Party won 28 seats in the Delhi administration last December and held the Chief Minister’s position for 48 days before resigning, unable, as the leaders explained, to carry out the policies they wanted to implement.
More than half of India’s population is under 24, one third is under 15. Every third person in an Indian city is aged between 15 and 32. In this election there are 120 million first-time voters. A recent report by the UN commented that there is a ‘vibrancy’ among young people “but there is great anger too”.
As the Guardian newspaper elaborated on April 8, “Educational institutions are oversubscribed and under resourced… There is little guarantee of satisfactory employment… According to Indian government data, although growth averaged 8.7% from 2005 to 2010, only 1 million jobs were created, leaving 59 million new entrants to the labour market with nothing...
“Graduate unemployment can reach 30% for women in rural areas. Even for men in towns, it is at least 17%….In the cities or towns… power cuts are common. Potable water is rare. Bribes have to be paid for school and college places, to the police, to petty officials to ensure they perform basic administrative tasks, even for hospital beds.
“As elsewhere in the world, 18 to 25-year-olds in India are disproportionately victims of violence.… Young women living more independent lives than their mothers suffer systematic sexual harassment, and sometimes assault, in public and, increasingly in the workplace.”
The new generation of voters appears less prepared to accept their ‘lot’ or be interested in the old battles of the past which are used by the two major parties to discredit each other.
Some youth ignore Modi’s role in the slaughter of more than a thousand Muslims in 2002 and even his recent inflammatory statements - on abolishing the religious rights of India’s 150 million Muslims, abolishing the autonomous status of Kashmir, building a Hindu temple on the site of the Ayodhya mosque and repealing the ‘no first strike’ policy on the use of India’s nuclear weapons.
Many believe Modi’s apparent ability to develop a thriving, business dominated, modern economy in his home state of Gujarat can be replicated nationally and bring jobs and prosperity for all. This is mere wishful thinking. In the context of a new crisis in Asia, fuelled by a currency flight that has spiked inflation and hit India’s export capability, no capitalist party is likely to be able to restore the growth rates of the past.
The urbanisation of the Indian economy has gathered pace and a new middle class has developed, predominantly engaged in India’s IT international and domestic industry. But these industries and this layer of ‘consumers’ are not enough to maintain India’s GDP growth. It is once again ‘dot.com’ companies which face a new crisis world-wide. Neither does this layer determine the outcome of elections.
The majority of India’s population live on less than $2 a day – whether it be scraping a living in the vast rural areas or in the notorious city slums.
In Bangalore, for example, even the ‘new rich’ are fed up with living in a world class technology hub whose infrastructure is collapsing due to the pressure of a near doubling of the population in just 10 years. The city has the highest automobile density in the country, air-pollution is up to 8 times the world health organisation limit, water and electricity are in short supply, the city’s waste disposal system often gets literally clogged up. For them, the attraction of a new party which claims to be a ‘new broom’ – the AAP or Common Man Party – may cut across traditional allegiances.
Some remote areas of the country have always been without roads, without electricity and without fresh running water. Some are more or less run by Maoist guerrilla groups or separatist armed forces and are unlikely to be influenced by the existence of a new force claiming to act for the ‘common man’. Many AAP candidates are anyway said to be rupee millionaires and billionaires. They have jumped on the bandwagon of anti-establishment party feeling which runs through Indian society as in many other countries worldwide.
On the other hand, AAP candidates include well-known and respected leaders of the anti-nuclear, anti-multinational and anti-corruption campaigns in different parts of the country. Medha Patkar has a good chance of winning an important seat in Mumbai and Udhayakumar, a leader of the massive campaign against the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadhu can also amass a significant vote in the state where corrupted opportunist and privileged nationalist forces like the AIADMK of Chief Minister Jayalalitha vie with others of a similar nature.
Like the reformasi movement in Malaysia or the five-star movement in Italy, the AAP stands for ‘clean government’ but not against capitalism itself. But capitalism is a dirty system by its very nature.
Socialists explain that such populist-type parties can grow like mushrooms where no left party with at least a small mass base is advocating a programme of nationalisation and democratic planning to end the daily crises that workers, poor people and even middle layers face.
What support a force like the Common Man Party will get and how long it will last on the political arena is difficult to predict. But, by its very nature as a party of protest, it can lead to unforeseen consequences. If cheated on the electoral plane, its voters can rally to other forms of protest.
The political situation that emerges from the present election in India could be the most turbulent for decades. If the majority of regional parties line up with Modi, the communalist policies he advocates could whip up hatred and violence. Pogroms and riots could ensue – against Muslims, against Dalits, against national minorities, against the LGBT community and against organised workers. Movements of resistance and defence of communities would have to be organised.
New Socialist Alternative (CWI in India) has explained in an election statement that the Congress Party distinguishes itself from the communalism of the BJP without talking about secularism. But its slogan of ‘Defeat BJP - Save India’ nevertheless leads the electorate “once again into the blind alley of choosing Congress because it is secular rather than the BJP because it is communal”! The rise (since the early ‘90s) of communalism, as represented by the BJP and its ‘ultra’ RSS wing, has developed in parallel with the twin evil of neo-liberalism brought in by the Congress party in 1991. “In fact, if not feeding off each other, surely one has complemented the other”.
New Socialist Alternative has no illusions in the AAP being a new workers’ party but understands it can express the frustrations and anger of many voters. NSA advocates voting for genuine candidates “of the traditional left parties, smaller radical parties and those who focus on the issues concerning working people, the marginalised and downtrodden” and in this way “registering their protest against both communalism, neo-liberalism and capitalism“.
New Socialist Alternative calls for voters to “Reject all political parties of one shade or the other who stand for capitalism. Prepare to fight back against a communal totalitarian government under the BJP’s Narendra Modi. Build a genuine anti-capitalist, mass democratic socialist alternative to challenge the system”.
More analysis will follow on socialistworld.net as the election and its results unfold. The full statement of New Socialist Alternative can be read here.