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There was a politics of development and social reform in the first decades of independence. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that identity politics came to the fore. What is new today is the politics of capitalist development. That does not mean questions of social identity will disappear; they will move to the background of politics.
All this said, the actual economic performance of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s government has been inferior to that of Narasimha Rao. In 1991, When Rao came to power, India was in the middle of a multifaceted crisis. By the time he was defeated in 1996, most of the crises had been resolved or contained. This was achieved despite massive sabotage by the BJP in Ayodhya on Nov. 6, 1992. Under Rao, Manmohan Singh had the political protection he needed to take on vested interests such as the monopolistic public sector and protected domestic industries. Two destructive vested interests were eventually left for Vajpayee to handle. These were tax cheats and opponents of labor law reform. Vajpayee turned and ran before them. Had Vajpayee put his own prestige on the line and gone after them with determination early in his term, India really would have been shining today. What has actually happened is that the Indian economy continues to live off the difficult reforms undertaken by Rao. The growth rate for the last five years has been a bit under 6 percent.
Poverty has declined under Vajpayee, continuing the earlier trend. But there is no acceleration. Human development indicators, such as literacy, life expectancy, and infant mortality have improved, but by very little. The greatest initiative in this area since 1991 has been due to Arjun Singh, the minister for Human Resource Development under Rao, who initiated the National Literacy Mission. In that ministry Vajpayee has put Murli Manohar Joshi, who has pursued a series of crackpot schemes. The Indian people have paid a high price for that selection.
Vajpayee does deserve credit for his initiatives in roads and schools, and the voters are acknowledging that. Vajpayee has presided over the IT and BPO booms, but the hard political work to make those happen was done decades earlier. The growth of industry and of merchandise exports has been unimpressive. The Vajpayee government has allowed tax revenues as a percentage of GDP to erode. India has among the worst tax ratios among developing countries, and Vajpayee has not treated this as a serious problem. The damage from this has been felt in all areas. Agriculture has stagnated due to the erosion of public investment in irrigation and other inputs. Public investment, social welfare generally, and aspects of national security have suffered.
The NDA’s record of promoting social justice and peace is not worse than that of predecessors. Bad as the Gujarat riots were, the nationwide riots of 1992-93 were worse. Moreover, for all the accusations against Narendra Modi, the fact is that he acted more swiftly and effectively to contain violence against Muslims than did the Congress Maharashtra government in 1992-93. One should not confuse his contemptible rhetoric with his law enforcement actions. There was undoubtedly collusion between some authorities and rioters in Gujarat, as there was certainly in Mumbai 10 years earlier. The death toll in Gujarat was as high as it was because, for the first time, there was major communal violence in villages. That was not because of BJP communalism, but because of larger processes of economic development.
India has enjoyed an improvement in its international position under Vajpayee. Most of that is due to continued economic growth and changes outside India that Vajpayee did not control. Nonetheless, his counterinsurgency campaign, and foreign and defense policies did contribute to the outcome. Vajpayee has moved deftly in counterterrorism and diplomacy. It was Narasimha Rao who initiated the policy of tough counter insurgency in Kashmir, human rights indoctrination and discipline for troops, and drawing as many Kashmiris as possible into constitutional politics. Vajpayee deserves credit for continuing Rao’s policy and responding appropriately to a series of diplomatic and terrorist challenges while the contradictions of Pakistan’s jihad played out.
Vajpayee’s overall diplomacy toward America has been successful. After the Kargil episode, there has been a substantial convergence of Indian and American perceptions on security matters. The American approach to Pakistan does not always meet with Indian approval, but it has clearly been a moderating force on Pakistan.
For all the weaknesses and lost opportunities that can be blamed on the NDA, a major reason for their popularity is the Congress. It is simply true that Sonia Gandhi has kept the NDA in power. She brought the BJP to the helm of government in the first place by pulling down a perfectly adequate ministry of Inder Gujral in 1997. For all her cries of secularism today, the fact is that she deliberately risked the BJP coming to power so that the non-Congress secularist parties could be put down for the sake of herself and her coterie.
Sonia Gandhi is a dynastic throwback at a time when the Indian polity, both people and politicians, are maturing. The BJP and NDA have demonstrated a degree of social creativity in politics. Congress has not demonstrated anything like this under Sonia Gandhi. The epithet “Sonia Gandhi Private Limited,” accusing her of running her party like family property, is on the mark. Instead of replacing her, or at least looking to build new social coalitions and a realistic developmental vision, the Congress is dallying with the next generation of the dynasty.
By setting such a low standard of opposition, Sonia’s Congress has done harm to the causes it proclaims to uphold. The best outcome available now is the defeat and disintegration of Sonia’s Congress so that space can be cleared for a more effective anti-BJP coalition.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
The economic challenges Vajpayee failed to meet in his last term remain ahead. Most likely, if NDA wins Vajpayee will retire before the next election and Advani will replace him. Advani himself is as old as Vajpayee, just a bit healthier. After Advani there is no clear successor. The breakup of the BJP is a distinct possibility.
New challenges in Hindu-Muslim relations will arise. Since independence, Hindu society has been politically divided by caste. The social evil of caste inequality has had a good effect, of preventing an exclusive Hindu bloc that would exclude and marginalize Muslims. Consequently, Muslims have been able to subscribe in large numbers to a separate social identity and still retain access to political power. As Hindu society has reformed and become more equal and politically homogenous, Muslim social identity has become more expensive. Something will have to give.
Among Hindus, the continuation of the trend toward social equality and homogeneity will require a deeper breakdown of caste divisions. At this time, among upper castes, only the BJP has the credibility and social vision to pull them along in this direction.
In relations with America, India will have to withstand the outsourcing backlash. However, there have been several anti-trade backlashes in America in recent decades, and all have receded. The current one is particularly premature. There are fundamental features of American capitalist society that have preserved relatively free trade, and these features persist. America does face a crisis of growing income inequality, but trade is not the cause of it. The security partnership between India and America is very likely to grow. A Kerry administration would need India badly to help fill the security vacuum it would need to create.
China continues to enjoy a massive economic boom, and Indian exports to China are almost doubling annually. India will benefit further from China’s success, but will pay a political price for its own delay in second-generation reforms. It is entirely possible that China itself will become more risk-averse as it becomes wealthier, and will dabble less in building up Pakistan’s missiles and nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, India and China will have to conduct a much more profound negotiation as India becomes a significant military power astride China’s energy sources and supply lanes and China rises as Asia’s engine of economic growth.
At this juncture it is possible to be realistic and more optimistic than before about India’s future. The great festival of democracy starting in April will add to that optimism.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.