India too has a Grand Old Party, just like America’s GOP! It just happens to be the ruling party, in power since mid 2004, the Indian National Congress or Congress Party. More than 60 percent of the time in the life of this young democracy – less than 70 years as an independent, united sovereign republic – the Indian National Congress (INC) has ruled. It has given India five prime ministers. So, now the question ahead of the 2014 general elections that will give a new government to more than 1.2 billion people is, will the INC (popularly known as the Congress Party) supply this country’s next prime minister? If so, then who will it be?
That the question is so hotly debated even before the party has actually fought and won the electoral battle for the next 5-year term to govern shows how close the media and political mindsets are to the American model of choosing the presidential candidate and then running the campaign rather than the British model of parliamentary elections, which India inherited from 200 years of British rule and chose to retain. Congress clings tightly to the British model of the party, naming the prime minister after winning the elections, to avoid naming a PM candidate before the elections. One may wonder why this diffidence in a party that is more than 100 years old? It has seen it all, and it knows how politics works. But one who knows how politics works must also know how it does not work, especially in a country like India.
To understand what exactly is happening within the Congress and why, one needs to revisit its checkered history since December 1885, when a group of well-meaning Englishmen got together to create the party, ostensibly to help improve coordination between the Indian elite and their British rulers. So the party began with a baggage of being elitist, and it has taken more than 125 years for Congress to shake off the epithet and turn itself into a pro-poor people’s party. Some of its leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, helped in this image-building, bringing India’s “hungry, loin-cloth-wearing millions” into his freedom-from-British-rule movement. But for the people of India, the Gandhi name also started the hand-in-hand stride of charisma and trauma.
Since 1857, the first rebellion against the white rulers, an underground freedom movement adopted “shooting to death” and “bomb blasts” as strategy, and the subcontinent has lived with these forms of violence since then. For Gandhi to be able to craft the world’s biggest nonviolent freedom movement against this backdrop was feat for a saint, indeed. He, however, left the Congress party, with this intangible heritage of nonviolence, of change without violence. The world adopted it, and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Suu Kyi all trod a Gandhi-inspired path. Political change through democratic nonviolent protests . . . this is what created the charisma that goes with the name Gandhi in India – for Indians and for the world at large. The trauma for the Congress party, as well as for India as a nation, came with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, felled in 1948 – allegedly at the behest of right-wing militant ideology, politically opposed to Gandhi’s way.
It is from this violent right-wing Jana Sangh-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) matrix that the current major opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is coming, and it is not only the Congress party that is worried, no matter how upbeat Christopher Wood of CLSA is on Narendra Mody’s prospective prime ministership. The Asia-Pacific focused brokerage CLSA has said that a recent rally in the Indian markets was partially driven by the hope of a Narendra Modi victory in the next general elections. The report came soon after Goldman Sachs suggested that Modi could win the next general elections. Woods wrote in his weekly column, “Greed & fear,” which reviews global markets and is widely followed by investment professionals and the media, that “This is because business confidence will rise dramatically, and with it, the chances of a new investment cycle.” The CLSA has also said that Indian stock markets will witness a dramatic rally if the BJP wins the Indian parliamentary (Lok Sabha) election coming May.
Another interesting comment Woods made is, “Modi is reported to be drawing 6 to 8 times the crowds that Congress’ Rahul Gandhi has been attracting in the past few days.” Dismissing Indian government protest, Goldman has said it is not politically biased. Nevertheless, the political color of outside champions (including nonresident Indians) like CLSA and Goldman is obvious. Indian markets are rallying because India’s economy has not soared and plummeted, is traditionally slow, and the last 10 years of moderate course correction is being reflected now. It has little to do with Narendra Modi being declared the BJP’s PM-in-waiting.
Rating agencies also forget that right-wing politics in India is associated with violence, assassination, bomb blasts and communal riots that have killed hundreds. A popular slogan plastered across city walls in India is “oust a government that cannot save women from being raped.” Yes, India is today seen as one of the most unsafe countries for women and children, with one of the highest incidents of reported rape and molestation of women and children, where trafficking is rampant and malnourishment is still worse than sub-Saharan levels.
India’s first reported rape story probably dates back to the Plague Commission of 1896, when W C Rand was charged by the government to “manage” Bubonic plague in the western cities of Karachi, Surat, Mumbai and Pune. Rand used police and the army to separate victims – the ill and not ill. Local Indians alleged Rand’s troops “molested and misbehaved” with women. Rand was shot dead soon after by fervent nationalists. With this kind of checkered history, it is anybody’s guess whether there is any merit in the BJP’s accusation that there are more rapes under Congress’ stewardship and women will be safer under BJP rule. Also, the opposition BJP is associated with strident right-wing Hindutva (a “for the Hindu, by the Hindu,” of the Hindu philosophy), and the time in India for Hindu godmen is not propitious – with a number of prominent ones in jail for rape and fraud.
The ruling Congress may not be able to protect India’s women and children, but at least, it can claim some progressive legislation during its current tenure. The BJP, on the other hand, has been loudly demanding capital punishment for rapists. This, India’s women know, is not a solution: better policing could be.
One contentious issue is having women legislators in 50 percent of the parliament and legislative seats across the country. One progressive law under Congress rule has been that at the village and town local government level, the head of government has to be a woman ( the panchayat leader). But this has not yet translated into even 33 percent of the seats in legislative assemblies and in the lower and upper houses of parliament for women, and even past BJP governments have not seen this legislation through. No party, not the ruling Congress, nor the opposition BJP, nor any of the 35-odd other parties in India, field women for even 20 percent of seats. This debate has been going on since the 1990s; election 2014 will see no difference.
Congress’ claim to good laws also extends to the national food act. It was in 1877, when 6 million people reportedly died due to famine in the country, that then-viceroy Lord Lytton appointed a famine commission to deal with famine and food insecurity. Almost 150 years later, India’s latest Food Security Act is a natural progression to some social cover, which the opposition is lambasting the government for. The law now provides for 75 percent of rural and 50 percent of the urban population to get five kg (less than 2.5 pounds) food grains per month at Rs 3 (4.6¢ US), Rs 2 (3.1¢ US), Rs1 (1.5¢ US) per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains or millet, respectively (between $20 and $21 billion), for three years. Where the money will come from is the opposition’s question.
Another lambasted piece of legislation by the ruling government is the national rural employment guarantee scheme which provides work to any Indian for 100 days every year at Rs 100/day, which is a way of ensuring that a person has the ability to earn Rs 100,000 at least in a year to be able to live at “poverty level,” a contested marker in India (considering that even the USA today has pegged around $10 as minimum wage, $2 is not bad at all for the poor in India).
The fourth path-breaking initiative of the ruling Congress government is a right to information act, a disclosure act, which no other political party, including the opposition BJP, supports.
The ruling Congress, though banking on the charisma of the Gandhi name for the masses, will not back Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate because of past memories of other assassinations – its two prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (mother and son, not related to Mahatma Gandhi). Because of the generally soft-spoken, even academic, character of its leadership, the party is also not able to cash in on any positive vibes its affirmative laws should naturally generate. Nor is it able to talk about the good monsoon and the good harvest rain-fed India will see this winter or about why the economy is resurgent. The outside world gives credit to the Modi-mania for market revival; no one gives credit to the common people of India and its ruling government for being able to maintain a steady course of peaceful development and keep away a military rule and dictatorship. India’s GOP is voiceless before Modi’s roar.