Indian Election: Of Computer Mice and Men

India's surprise election results from last week have left everyone struggling to understand how the powerful BJP could lose so decisively in a time of economic prosperity. The answer, suggests S. Nihal Singh, a former editor of the Statesman of Calcutta and the Indian Express, lies in the unequal distribution of India's growth. Though the globalization of India's technological industry and market has led some to join the ranks of the world's rich, most of the rural population has been left in the dust. And, as a democratic country, Indian politicians have now got a lesson that growth for the few will not translate into a strong performance for their party at the voting booth. Analysts do not have to look far to find evidence of this frustration in the high suicide rates among farmers in certain regions or abysmal poverty in urban slums and in the countryside. The BJP failed because their election slogan – 'India Shining' – meant nothing to too many of their constituents. This should be a lesson to all developing nations who are struggling to balance the interests of the few versus the many while joining the globalized world: sometimes the many will find a way to make their voices heard. – YaleGlobal

Indian Election: Of Computer Mice and Men

The ruling BJP lost because their version of globalization left out the poor
S. Nihal Singh
Monday, May 17, 2004
Supporters of the Congress Party celebrate victory: Their globalization has to include the poor. (Photo: T. Narayan, Outlook, 2004)

NEW DELHI: Has the bullock cart won against the computer in the recent extraordinary Indian general election, as some newspaper headlines suggest? Here was the coalition led by the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemingly coasting along to a preordained victory. The economy had been racing at a false clip, the monsoon had been bountiful, and the country's foreign exchange reserves were bulging.

What then went so wrong? Many factors added up to the rout of the BJP. As regional parties have gathered strength, local and regional factors have grown, making prediction that much more difficult. Unlike in the decades of the dominance of one party the Nehru-Gandhi family-led Congress Party there is no wave sweeping the country in favor of or against a leader or policy. There is also the proverbial graph of rising expectations as consumerism takes hold of urban areas.

It was above all, one factor seems to have influenced the bulk of the voters who reside in the countryside and among the disadvantaged in the cities. It was what goes under the rubric of globalization as it was interpreted by the BJP and, even more importantly, perceived by the majority. The BJP has been particularly aggressive in promoting economic reform, ranging from privatization to liberalizing an economy that had been gradually shedding its Fabian socialist rhetoric of the past.

The BJP made Information Technology the hallmark of its modern outlook, the controversy over outsourcing to India in the United States serving to enhance Indian pride. The computer gurus - Andhra Pradesh's Chandrababu Naidu, an ally of Prime Minister Vajpayee, and S.M. Krishna of Karnataka state whose capital Bangalore is India's Silicon Valley - were the new icons. The titans of Indian industry spreading their wings around the world on the cusp of friendlier policies became equally respectable.

It was again with some pride that India conducted its mammoth general election for an electorate of 680-odd million people entirely on home-produced electronic voting machines. And for an exercise of this size, there were remarkably few complaints or incidents of violence. Everybody, including the losers, accepted the election result. The BJP, the self-conscious modernizer, avidly followed its new enthusiasm for technology in organizing the party's election campaign. There was the India Shining campaign, an effort to showcase the economic progress made in the country. The recorded voice of Prime Minister Vajpayee greeted individual mobile telephone users to seek their votes, and a flood of television commercials portraying all progress as the party's doing.

It would appear that the BJP was so much taken up with the romance of its own impending victory on the wings of technology that there was a disconnect between it and the bulk of the electorate. Although the core organization of the BJP, the Indian Volunteer Association Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has its feet firmly planted on the ground, its cadres were dispirited by the very technology the BJP was touting. For an organization that believed in the virtues of swadeshi (the home-produced), the flood of imported consumer durables was disconcerting. Above all, the BJP's attempt to appeal to a broader constituency by emphasizing development, rather than its traditional focus on Hindutva (Hindu-ness), was anathema to the RSS cadres.

For the marginal farmers and the poor, the slogan of India Shining proved counter-productive because all the goodies they saw advertised on the tube even in villages with single battery-operated televisions were unattainable, inviting resentment and envy. It is instructive that the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, who has been feted by Bill Gates and others as the harbinger of India's computer revolution, suffered a disastrous defeat. Chief Minister Krishna in Karnataka, the state which is the home of India's IT capital, Bangalore, fared somewhat better but lost his majority in the state. While Naidu the computer evangelist launched ambitious IT-based governance programs - some of them of great benefit to his state - farmers in villages were committing suicide, unable to cope with drought wiping out their marginal earnings.

The BJP's contribution to India's development during the past five years has been its aggressiveness and purposefulness in promoting a modern reformist agenda. Perhaps for the first time, the stigma of being rich, attached to Indian industrialists and businessmen in a traditional socialist-influenced milieu, was removed. It was the Indian equivalent of Chinas Deng Xiaoping's proclamation: To get rich is glorious. Second, the BJP brought many of the programs initiated or conceived by the Congress Party out of dusty files to begin work on such projects as world-class highways linking the country's major centers.

Indian businessmen and industrialists were enthused, as were members of a growing middle class in the metropolitan areas high on a consumerist spree, with multiplexes and shopping malls springing up like mushrooms in suburban areas. They have never had it so good, but the poor and less well-educated and the majority the farmers were left outside this charmed circle of new prosperity and indulgence.

Compared to China, India chose an elitist model of development after gaining independence from Britain in 1947. In effect, it meant that the uplift of all the people was postponed in favor of rapid state-sponsored industrialization. The effort to help farmers was through the ultimate fruits of large dams and other enterprises and a community development program whose record remained patchy and uneven after the initial phase. In India's democratic set-up, farmers had sufficient clout successfully to resist income-tax payments and receive other sops such as free or subsidized electricity from time to time. Most Indian farms, however, remain dependent on a bounty of temperamental monsoons and many aspects of globalization, such as freer imports, have worked to marginalize them.

The irony, of course, is that whatever the shape of a future government, only the pace of globalization can change. There can be no going back to the old days of a socialist economy. It is conventional wisdom that a Congress party government under P.V. Narasimha Rao brought in the first far-reaching economic reforms in the early 1990s. The BJP's contribution in power since the previous 1999 general election has been that it has displayed boldness in continuing reforms, sacrificing many political holy cows in the process. There has been much less hand-wringing in the BJP than in the ranks of the Congress party.

The lessons of the BJP's defeat are that while India must proceed along the path of modernization and reforms, a better balance must be found to promote the interests and welfare of the farming community.

How the Congress party squares the circle remains to be seen. In its present incarnation, it is hobbled by the compulsion of seeking communist support in running a coalition government. The Congress won 145 seats in a lower house of 539, with three results to come, while the Marxists increased their strength from 32 to 43. The Left Front combine claimed 62 seats, thanks to the anger of India's vast under-privileged electorate. While the Communist Party (Marxist) ruled West Bengal government has shown signs of pragmatism in its recent economic policies such as banning strike by workers in the IT industry, the party apparatus remains hidebound. The Marxist leader Sitaram Yechuri sent a chill down the spine of the primary Bombay stock exchange by suggesting that he would abolish the Disinvestment Ministry. The Congress must negotiate these shoals to place globalization where it belongs on the front burner while caring for the welfare of farmers and the less fortunate.

S. Nihal Singh is a former editor of the Statesman of Calcutta and the Indian Express as well as of the Khaleej Times, Dubai.

© 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization