A (Hopefully) Fair Primer on India 2014 – Part 1

After a full month of voting, the 2014 Indian election cycle has come to an end. To my peers here in the West, this first part of this primer will focus on the incumbent party because a look at them will give you some insight into the issues that led to today’s results.

But first, the results. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crushed the incumbent Indian National Congress Party (INC) and became the first Indian political party since 1984 to win an outright majority in the Indian parliament. It’s the first opposition party to ever do so at all without the need for a coalition against the INC, a political force that’s dominated Indian politics almost uninterrupted since India gained independence in 1947. The only other time when India had an alternative government that actually lasted for a decent amount of time and managed to implement a stable governing agenda was from 1998-2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP prime minister.

All this should give you an indication of just how powerful the INC was. I say “was” because their total count in the 546 seat Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament) shrank to a measly 45 seats, 62 if you count its fellow coalition members in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). By comparison, the BJP holds 284 seats, a majority of the lower house seats, and that’s without even counting the additional 55 held by its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.

So clearly the INC’s stranglehold on Indian politics, caused in large part by their prominent role in the Indian independence movement, has come to an end. For that, right or wrong on policy, the party can only blame itself. People have, and will continue to, write books listing their decades worth of grievance against the party, but here’s a common short list.

  • Dynastic Politics. A member of the Nehru-Gandhi family,     descended from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has either been leading the party from behind or as its prime minister for essentially its entire organizational life.
  • Sonia Gandhi. This Italian-borne chairwoman of the UPA coalition, widow of former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and mother to the party’s unofficial PM candidate, Rahul Gandhi, manages to antagonize essentially everyone not in the UPA coalition (did I mention dynastic politics yet?). Part of the angst comes from the fact that many don’t see her as legitimately Indian. The main thing is she’s thought to be the true power center as opposed to the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh. This is actually a mainstream point of view and continually leads to Singh being described as weak, docile, a puppet, etc. 
  •  History. Being a nearly a near-sixty year old ruling party has granted the INC some nasty historical legacies that stretch beyond its current tenure. Nehru’s brand of socialist economics shackled India’s economy for nearly half a century under the ironically named License Raj. What’s more, his  daughter’s premiership saw Indian democracy come within inches of death during what’s dubbed the Emergency, a period when Indira Gandhi held near dictatorial power in the 1970s. Human riots violations included political arrests, rule-by-decree, as well as sterilization campaigns by another of her sons, Sanjay Gandhi.
  • The Economy. The biggest issue. India’s growth has slowed down in the last two years, inflation, particularly on food prices, has risen to its highest point in twenty, and India just barely etched out a currency crisis involving a declining rupee, rising twin deficits, and vanishing foreign direct investment. Need I say more?
  • Corruption, more of it anyway. Prime Minister Singh served two terms. Once the second term came, a barrage of upper-level corruption scandals hit his government alongside all the bad economic news. The government also oversaw a fiasco involving a major anti-corruption measure, the Jan Lokpal Bill, which proposed an independent investigative body for the Indian government. It’s introduction also caused a massive activist campaign represented by people like Anna Hazare.
  • Incompetence. Need I say more? Throw all these issues to a weary electorate and you get a picture of a party that seems intellectually, morally, and institutionally bankrupt. Unsurprisingly, those parties don’t seem capable of governing effectively.

There were plenty of important grievances I haven’t touched on: foreign policy; India’s strange set of personnel laws and legal schedules that distinguish between various castes, religions, and ethnic groups; the terrible situation for Indian women (look back on one of my previous articles for a tidbit example); and the INC’s general association with the Indian elite were all hurdles it had to cross. Combine that with the BJP’s lightning rod of a PM candidate, Narendra Modi, and Rahul Gandhi’s overall failure to steer his party through a modern campaign, and you get an overall electoral drubbing. 

The drubbing was bad enough to where the Congress Party may not even have enough votes to become the official opposition within the Lok Sabha. But believe it or not, there are arguably good points that came out of Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Singh himself will likely not be associated as much with the 2014 disaster due in part to the Gandhi’s toxic reputations. He’s a renowned economist, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, who’s fame initially came about following India’s economic crisis in 1991. Under the tenure of another of India’s former Prime Minister’s, P. V. Narasimha Rao, Singh served as Finance Minister and was the architect of numerous liberalizing economic reforms that  are today credited with kick-starting India’s startling economic transformation. 

Indeed, his first term government saw economic growth hitting as high as 9%. None of this is to mention the general improvement in social indicators, the UPA government’s numerous social programs and initiatives, or the Civil-Nuclear Agreement with the United States that got India recognized as a nuclear power despite its failure to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (take that Iran).  

As I’m sure those critical of the INC will notice, much of my focus on “the good” has been largely on Prime Minister Singh. There’s a reason. Not much saving grace can really be given at this point to either the INC or the Gandhis. Even Singh hasn’t escaped the electorate’s wrath and there’s much to be said for his complicity in the failures that plagued the last ten years, no matter the degree to which the Gandhi family may or may not have had influence. 

At its heart however, there was one final proverbial straw for the INC, a straw common to many emerging economies. India has a world renowned growing middle class. As any political economist will tell you, rising prosperity engenders rising expectations. The failures of the last couple of years, indicative as they were of so many of India’s past failures, brought about with them a wave of justified anti-incumbent fever. The economy, infamously entrenched corruption, incompetence, dynastic politics etc. were all seen as roadblocks by the growing Indian populace, particularly the youth, to achieving a sense of economic fortune and security not thought possible for decades.

I admit, writing the first part of this election primer was actually easy. Being an Indian-American and visiting India as I do each year, it wasn’t difficult to stitch together a (very) basic narrative of why things went so wrong for the Indian National Congress Party. The harder part will be describing who exactly it is that’s now about to form the new government because its a picture that still needs to be painted, both in terms of who exactly these figures are and what they intend to do. It’s something, I hope, to bring into greater light in part 2. 




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