Big losses for India's Congress Party

NEW DELHI – Provincial elections held recently in three states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chattisgarh – went heavily in favor of right-wing, Hindu nationalist forces and their political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The results represent a severe setback for the Indian National Congress. Of the four provincial elections held on Dec. 1, the Congress Party retained control only in Delhi.

Wrong economic policies, infighting, corruption charges and of course anti-incumbency factors troubled the Congress Party and its allies.

BJP leaders put forward a hardcore “hindutva,” or Hindu nationalist, line, and were able to gather all Hindu communalist elements under one umbrella. The anti-Muslim platform of the BJP has been a force in Indian politics for more than a decade.

With the support of the BJP’s right-wing central government, BJP leaders pumped in millions of rupees to buy votes. Multinational corporations from all over the world donated handsomely to the BJP alliance. The BJP’s large-scale vote buying was a new phenomena in these elections.

In Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest state, the BJP bagged 172 seats out of 320. The Congress Party got only 39 and others 19. The Congress Party has been in power in Madhya Pradesh for the last 10 years, and it followed economic policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The result has been utter poverty. Unemployment in all sectors is at its peak. Industries have come to a standstill due to the lack of electricity.

The BJP’s election slogan, “No electricity, no roads, no votes,” tapped into public disenchantment with the Congress Party and its Chief Minister Dig Vijay Singh. As a result, Uma Bharti, a Hindu woman, was elected the new chief minister from the BJP. Bharti’s oratorical skills attracted a large following, and helped the BJP to capture a large segment of the Hindu masses and some indigenous communities.

In some remote villages in Madhya Pradesh, upper caste Hindu landlords did not allow their laborers to cast their votes.

The BJP also scored a victory in Rajasthan. In the 200-seat assembly, the BJP bagged 120 seats, while Congress got 56 and others 24. Ashok Ghelot, the strong-man of the Congress Party, was the incumbent chief minister. His wrongdoings and corruption gave BJP a strong basis for defeating him.

Mismanagement of the water supply during the drought in Rajasthan was one of the main campaign issues, and it worked against the Congress Party. Rural communities fielded their own candidates but that indirectly helped communalist forces. BJP was able to split the votes using these candidates and to take advantage of the divisions.

The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Vasundhara Raje, is from Gwalior Palace, a traditional local kingdom. Internal feuds in the province’s Congress Party also played an important role in its defeat at the polls.

Chattisgarh, a tribal majority state, also went in favor of the BJP. Out of 90 seats they bagged 50 and Congress 36. Here again, corruption was a major issue. The outgoing chief minister from the Congress Party, Ajit Jogi, had collaborated with his son in obtaining millions of rupees illegally. BJP election managers skillfully exploited this to their advantage.

In Chattisgarh both the Congress and BJP leaders are corrupt. “Who is less corrupt?” became the only question before the voters, and they decided to remove Jogi.

Only in the national capital, New Delhi, did the voters rebuff the BJP. They re-elected Sheila Dikshit from the Congress as chief minister. Congress got 47 seats out of 70 and BJP got only 20. The influence of left parties, major university campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University, and well-informed citizens kept BJP at bay.

The BJP leadership is now eyeing its prospects on the national level. Prime Minister Atel Behari Vajpayee has asked all BJP MPs to go back to their own constituencies. The Congress Party, on the other hand, is in no hurry.

In states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, the left parties are prepared to compete in new elections. These are the left’s traditional strongholds. But in other states, where the BJP and Congress are the main rivals, Congress may lose big unless they change their policies. The BJP will further inflame communalist tensions and threaten India’s secularism.

M.K.N. Moorthy is the publisher of a progressive Malayalam language publication in Kerala, India, and a freelance correspondent for the World. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.