India votes for Secularism and Poverty-Alleviation

The shocking victory of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress-led coalition known as the United Progressive Alliance or the UPA in the Indian general elections has invited tremendous praise for Indian democracy and the Indian electoral process. Very few people believed that the Hindu nationalist BJP would be routed in the elections.

The BJP-led coalition didn’t do a bad job for the 5 years that it was in power. Atal Behari Vajpayee will definitely go down in history as one of the best Prime Ministers that India has ever had. The BJP under Mr. Vajpayee abandoned its demand that a Ram Temple be built in place of the Babri Mosque and pleaded with the religious groups to work together on a compromise. The party also changed its outlook and approach towards the minorities. It took tremendous courage for Mr. Vajpayee, a life long RSS (a hard line Hindu organisation) member, to abandon the fundamental ideologies that were imbibed into him over 50 years ago. Mr. Vajpayee’s “hand of friendship” gesture towards Pakistan was the key factor in the normalising of relations between the neighbours. While it’s true that it was Mr. Vajpayee’s government that put troops on the Pakistan border after the attack on the Indian parliament, Mr. Vajpayee showed a generation of Indians and Pakistanis what the power of forgiveness and letting bygones be bygones can do. “Atalji” is loved and admired by the people of Pakistan for his sincerity and efforts made towards the peace process.

There were two main factors that turned the electorate against the BJP: The promotion of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi (largely-held responsible for the post-Godhra Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002) as a star campaigner and the BJP’s nauseating “India Shining” advertising campaign.

Secularism is the backbone of the Indian nation. The shock defeat of Chandrababu Naidu, the man who transformed Hyderabad into one of India’s IT hubs, can be attributed to the fact that Naidu’s Telegu Desam Party refused to pressurise Prime Minister Vajpayee into dismissing Narendra Modi for not protecting the lives and property of the people of Gujarat. The secular populace of India were bent on removing the communal elements from the government. States like Maharashtra, which were strongholds of the right wing Shiv Sena, also voted for the Congress. In Bombay, which was always known as Shiv Sena country, the party was routed. It wasn’t just the secular Hindus that voted against the BJP. Most members of the minority Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities as well as members of the lower castes voted for the Congress and its allies.

“India Shining” was the expensive pre-election Government of India campaign that was unleashed on voters. Millions of Indians saw the television and newspaper advertisements, which tried to show that India was shining by harping on the relative economic progress of the last year. The campaign annoyed poor and middle-class alike. The poor felt betrayed by the BJP. Although India only admits that 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, taking the UN’s definition of “people that live on less than one dollar a day”, around 45% of India’s population lives below the poverty line. These same poor people believed that the Congress was the party of the aam-aadmi (poor man). Their selective memory fails to remind them that it is the same Congress that kept them poor for over 50 years. Or maybe the simple attitude was “let the government do nothing for us, but they dare not help the rich”.

Middle class residents in India’s cities were equally appalled that so much of the taxpayer’s money was being spent on the ridiculous campaign, when most Indian cities have appalling roads, poor infrastructure and insufficient public transport systems. To make matters worse, India’s Human Resources Minister, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, the man famous for his plans to rewrite Indian history textbooks, wanted to interfere with the running of the world famous Indian Institutes of Management. These institutions, which provide world-class MBA degrees, are the aspiration of India’s middle class youth. A degree from an IIM is looked upon as a key to the good life. The HRD minister’s interference was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as India’s middle class was concerned.

Some BJP members weren’t gracious in defeat. An undignified campaign to prevent Sonia Gandhi (the Italian-born widow of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi) from becoming Prime Minister wasn’t thwarted by Mr. Vajpayee. This ugly campaign, where BJP workers even threatened suicide if Mrs Gandhi was made Prime Minister, was a blessing in disguise for the naturalised Indian. Sonia Gandhi voluntarily gave up the opportunity to be India’s Chief Executive and made Dr. Manmohan Singh, a famous economist who was responsible for India’s economic revival of the 1990s, Prime Minister. Mrs Gandhi’s masterstroke has elevated her in the eyes of many to the level of Mahatma Gandhi or even Gautam Buddha.

Indians take great pride in the fact that India now has a Muslim Scientist President and a Sikh Economist Prime Minister. The new government, which is a large coalition, has a tough job on hand. Dr. Singh will have to play a balancing act keeping his allies, which include the leftists, low caste parties, Tamil and other regional parties and minority leaders, happy and at the same time push India more towards the path of secularism and poverty-alleviation.