For political aficionados, the Indian parliamentary election
is the superbowl of superbowls. The largest electorate in the
world moves and, in that movement, scoffs at elites and cynics
all around the world who say democracy is not for the poor,
the illiterate or the backward. As its hand hovers over the
ballot box (or in this election, the touchscreen), it makes
and breaks the rich and the powerful in distant Delhi.
Twice in the last 30 years, a profoundly anti-democratic dispensation
in India has been overthrown by the ballot. On both occasions,
the coup de grace came not from the urban literates mouthing
the shibboleth of the day ('law and order' in 1977, 'economic
reforms' in 2004), but by the masses who saw things for what
they were. As the results gushed in on May 13, 2004 (electronic
voting making the counting of 400,000,000 votes a mere matter
of hours, plus the advantage of India not having a state called
Florida), it became clear that the people had defied TV-anchor
and editorial page wisdom and showed the ruling coalition the
election was also the first to be conducted entirely in electronic
format. That it went flawlessly is a tribute to the world's
largest democracy, and testimony to the country's increasing
facility with the computer.
wish one could say that the inheritors were clean knights in
shining armor. The Congress Party, which will form the next
government, imposed a fascist rule on the country between 1975-1977.
It was responsible for the mass murder of Sikhs following the
assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. It was
also the originator of economic liberalization (though it was
never so axiomatic about it as the current government) when
it reassumed power in 1991. And as soon as it seemed to have
acquired enough support to form a government, its first statement
was the obligatory one - "economic reforms will continue".
Through the five years of the ruling National Democratic Alliance
(NDA)'s cultural assault, the Congress often did little to resist.
But there will be time enough to deride the Congress during
the rest of its term. Today is a day for cheering.
Churchill challenged the British people asking for blood,
sweat and tears, Mr. Vajpayee scarcely said anything inspiring,
projecting only a smug, don't worry, be happy attitude.
opinion and exit polls - almost uniformly - predicted either
a majority for the ruling alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) or at the very least an assured position as the
largest bloc in Parliament. The Congress Party, led by Italian-born
but India-settled Sonia Gandhi (whose foreignness is strangely
troubling to expatriate Indians settled in far corners of the
world), was at first billed to do worse than the last time and,
though slowly upgraded, never expected to emerge as the largest
single party (its position for the first 30 years of independent
did this upset take place? Who knows? As the Urdu couplet goes,
"Ya subah ka ehsaan ho, ya meri kashish ho, Dooba hua
khursheed sarebaam to aaya..." (Whether it was the
kindness of the morning, or my irresistible attraction, the
sunken sun did come up after all).
we can recount some possible reasons.
NDA, and its leading constituent, Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee's BJP, became the standard bearers of globalization,
zealous in their pursuit of 'economic reforms', ardent water
carriers for America. To its shame, official India remained
mute when Iraq was attacked. Mr. Vajpayee's administration threw
its weight behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, and was
mightily proud of a projected US-Israel-India alignment in a
new world order.
The globalization policy, while delighting a rudderless urban
middle class drooling over the prospect of luxury at any price,
devastated much of the urban poor and village India. The aftermath
of joining the WTO has wreaked havoc among the farmers, of whom
it is reported that more than 25,000 have committed suicide
in recent years - a development not deemed worthy of serious
front page coverage in Indian newspapers, many of whom have
far more important stories to carry, such as Oscar Night and
identification with America came at a time when America's stock
was on the downswing the world over. Even the BJP's Hindu vote
base, though possessed of no great love for Muslims, could see
that Indian silence in the face of the invasion of Iraq, and
the frenetic energy with which Mr. Vajpayee's government tried
to preempt Pakistan and get in bed with the Bush Administration
in the latter's post-9-11 muscle-flexing, were hardly in keeping
with India's tradition of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.
And if America could launch a pre-emptive attack on a country
merely suspected to be developing nuclear weapons, it did not
take much imagination to see that a country with actual nuclear
weapons could be considered just as much of a target.
the domestic front, the government proceeded to systematically
carry out a controversial privatization initiative involving
the selling off of billions of dollars of public assets. India's
Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, declaring that
workers had no inherent right to strike. State high-handedness
was rampant and, to seal the deal, Mr. Vajpayee's government
pushed through a law called POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act),
which basically did away with large sections of India's constitutional
protections regarding arbitrary arrest, detention and due process.
To compound this general attitude
of callousness, the BJP, as its allies looked on mutely, oversaw
the worst communal pogrom in post-partition India. Thousands
of Muslims were killed throughout Gujarat state, in response
to the killing of Hindus in Godhra, a town in the same state.
The response of the central government was the rough equivalent
of 'stuff happens'. The Gujarat state government, also led by
a BJP chief minister, saw in all this nothing more than the
manifestation of the universal law of action and reaction. Even
now, many BJP supporters view this as just a tit for tat. They
would also tell you (quite factually) that thousands of Hindus
have had to leave the state of Jammu and Kashmir owing to fear
of militants. They miss a vital difference: in Gujarat, the
killings, rapes and lootings took place with the deliberate
inaction (and in some places, the active connivance) of the
state government (see, Riding
the Tiger in India).
Another aspect of BJP rule (again as its allies, including the
anti-fascist stalwart of 1975, George Fernandes, stood shamelessly
by) was the attempted cultural transformation of the country
in the name of 'Hindutva'. This term, originally coined by VD
Savarkar, the spiritual father of the BJP - and incidentally
an accused in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi - means 'Hinduness'.
In the dispensation of the last five years, the BJP and its
cohorts got to decide who was Hindu enough. Led by a bumbling
Hindutva enthusiast called Murli Manohar Joshi (who lost his
seat in the elections), the BJP pushed through the rewriting
of Indian history according to the Hindutava interpretation,
and created revised textbooks now used by millions of schoolchildren
throughout India. A friend of mine, who worked at the Indian
Institute of Technology (IIT) - one of the most prestigious
technical institutions in the world - told me how Joshi was
forcing IIT meetings to begin with a Hindu prayer (the Muttawain
would be proud), something spineless officials, swayed by the
atmosphere, readily acceded to. My friend died of cancer earlier
this year - how I wish he had been alive to see this clown trounced!
from such backdoor efforts to leave its imprint on Indian history
and culture, the NDA also countenanced with little demur the
burning of libraries, art exhibits, the threatening of artists
and others because they were deemed not to conform to the Hindutva
view of things. For all its cravenness towards things American,
the BJP had no time for the spirit of the First Amendment. When
the world-famous Bhandarkar Library in Pune, India, (a repository
of ancient Hindu manuscripts, among other things), was ransacked
and trashed in January because an American author of a book
critical of an Indian folk hero had thanked it for its help,
no political leader said a word, and both the state and central
governments stood by watching. No wonder the looting of the
Baghdad Museum did not strike the NDA Government as calling
for an outcry.
this may yet not have been enough to ensure the NDA's ouster.
But in the last few months, it spent public money like water
to blanket the airwaves and roadsides with ads and billboards
of "India Shining," showing off the great progress
India had made (neither the message nor its context was lost
on anyone during the election season). I was in Chennai (Madras)
early this year, and the city (run by a recent NDA ally) was
without drinking water, with the worst dry season still to come.
People were buying and storing water by the truckfull, and even
scheduling that was getting difficult. In the neighboring state
of Andhra Pradesh, the chief minister, another NDA ally, who
prided himself as the chief globalist of India and habitually
went about with a laptop computer, forgot that his state was
in the throes of a drought and that rural indebtedness had driven
many to despair. Three days before the parliamentary election
results, his party was thrashed in the state assembly polls,
presaging the rout of his partners on the national scene. "India
Shining" was a slap in the face of the average Indian,
something only a tone-deaf administration with its ear cocked
solely toward praise from the west would have missed. Instead
of pulling the plug, they continued the campaign for months
before being ordered to stop by the Election Commission for
being in violation of election campaign laws. Deputy Prime Minister
Lal Krishna Advani made much of what he called, "the Feel
Good Factor" under the BJP. It turned out to be Feel Good
in all, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, veteran of Indian politics
and regarded (wrongly, in my view, for what politicians do matters
more than what they say) as a moderate, came across as out of
touch, and some of his colleagues as epitomes of downright chest-thumping
zealots. Like the myth of George W. Bush being strong on terrorism,
there is one about Vajpayee being the master of foreign policy.
If India is regarded with greater respect in the world today,
it has little to do with Vajpayee, and a lot to do with the
purchasing power of its economy, a product of liberal education
and technological strength for which one must thank Jawaharlal
One is tempted to make an analogy
of Mr. Vajpayee's defeat with that of Winston Churchill in 1945.
Would that it were true... Churchill left behind the legacy
of a nation united in wartime and prepared to sacrifice. Mr.
Vajpayee leaves behind a culture of callous divisiveness and
selfish consumerism. If Churchill challenged the British people
asking for blood, sweat and tears, Mr. Vajpayee scarcely said
anything inspiring, projecting only a smug, don't worry, be
happy attitude. Churchill's words can ring with power even today.
The only place where Vajpayee's clever wordplay evokes appreciation
any more is amidst inebriated Indian audiences in foreign countries.
I speak as one who has attended many of his public meetings
and enjoyed his oratory (See Wanted,
An Orator ).
Conventional wisdom in India is that
Mr Vajpayee brought about, after several attempts, a kind of
a rapprochement between India and Pakistan. One may say his
heart was in the right place, of his surefootedness one is less
certain (see Neither
Pragmatism nor Principle - The Vajpayee record on Pakistan).
His visit to China was considered a success in building bridges
between the two Asian giants. This too is an imperative of the
times, and Vajpayee's abandonment of India's traditional sympathy
for the Tibetans has come in for criticism. The one achievement
for which he deserves credit is the holding of free elections
in Jammu and Kashmir.
the end, Atal Behari Vajpayee's tenure as prime minister of
India will be remembered, like that of Bill Clinton's as a squandered
opportunity, mistaking galloping consumption for real upliftment,
spiritual or material, leaving little lasting positive imprint
on the country's ethos.
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.
His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above article is also available at