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Sound Issues Trump Shrill ‘Isms’

By Michael Kugelman Email By Michael Kugelman
June 2009
Sound Issues Trump Shrill ‘Isms’

Last month’s extraordinary election in India resulted in a defeated, demoralized Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a re-energized, triumphant Congress Party. However, make no mistake: this election signifies a resounding victory not just for the incumbent party, but also for India’s common man—particularly the small farmer and others in the hinterland who voted on bread-and-butter issues.

Despite the hype about India’s prodigious economic growth and urban-led prosperity, the country is still largely rural and poor. In a country where 400 million people have no electricity and 300 million subsist below the poverty line, the general population’s chief concern is often about basic services. Such constituents have little interest in, or time for, warnings about Muslim extremism or shrill appeals to nationalism—both of which were frequently issued by the BJP on the campaign trail.

Consider the plight of farmers in the agricultural state of Chattisgarh. Saddled with falling water tables, plummeting crop yields, and rapidly building debts, 1500 farmers reportedly committed suicide in April. In one district of Chattisgarh last year, 200 farmers took their own lives. This trend has emerged in other areas of India as well. Many of India’s rural poor face immediate concerns about their lives and livelihoods, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to tragedy.

No wonder, then, that in the weeks before the ballot, some Indian voters were quoted saying they would simply vote for the party that brings them water. Given the context of the current global economic climate, such voter sentiment is both widespread and understandable—and not just in India. For example, voters in Pakistan’s 2008 elections made it very clear that their main desire was to end the country’s grain and energy shortages.

While perhaps inaccurate to label Congress as a pro-farmer party, it is undeniable that the party has accorded considerable attention to farmers (and other rural laborers) and their concerns over the last five years. Congress rose to power in 2004 on a platform of better conditions for the rural poor. Representing India at the now-collapsed Doha Round negotiations in July 2008, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath—a senior Congress leader—vociferously opposed the elimination of subsidies and other protections for Indian farmers. This position may have helped torpedo the talks, though it surely earned Congress some goodwill from India’s rural electorate. Additionally, the Congress-led governing coalition, flush with cash from India’s macroeconomic gains, has allocated generous levels of funding to the social sector It has also financed expensive job and loan-forgiveness programs to poor farmers.

At first glance, Congress might appear to be a party of contradictions. Even while implementing pro-poor policies that suggest populist tendencies, it has remained a pro-business party and often sparred with its leftist coalition partners in the last government—most famously over the U.S.-India civil nuclear accord, on which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staked his political survival. Interestingly, one of Congress’s coalition partners in the new government will be the All India Trinamool Congress. It is perceived as anti-business yet also known for its campaigns on behalf of farmers, most notably its actions last year against the Nano car manufacturing plant in West Bengal.

What may appear to be contradictory, however, can better be described as wise politics. Congress understands the importance of both business and farming, and how they encompass varying yet essential dimensions of India—its cosmopolitan cities and wealthy new entrepreneurs, as well as its hundreds of millions of rural laborers. Promoting the issues important to these very different constituencies is a basic yet sure-fire way to garner votes on Election Day—and it worked.

What lessons can the BJP draw from this?

The BJP must recognize that its campaign platforms and messages often did not reflect India’s collective pulse, and instead mobilized a relatively small segment of India’s billion-strong population. The BJP will need to sharpen its populist bona fides and widen its appeal, while toning down its piercing rhetoric about Muslims—of whom there are after all 150 million in India. Without taking into account India’s economic and demographic realities, the BJP’s electoral failures will be doomed to repeat themselves in the future.

[Michael Kugelman is program associate with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for research, programming, and publications on South Asia]

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