SINGH ON A TIGHTROPE - Can the Congress please its allies and also keep India Inc. happy?

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By Partha Chatterjee The author is director and professor of political science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
  • Published 23.05.04

It is no longer fashionable to talk about class. But without taking into account the changing relations between social classes in India in recent times, I believe it is impossible to understand the larger picture behind the recent elections.

Until the Eighties, it was widely accepted that the capitalist class in the cities shared power with the dominant land-owning classes in the countryside.

Some analysts included the professional and salaried upper-middle class as a third element within this coalition of ruling classes. They shared power within the federal structure of the Indian state — capitalists had more influence over the Central government, the rural landlords over the state governments. They also shared power by virtue of the ability of the ruling Congress party to make complex, and often shifting, alliances between different social groups and classes at local, state and national levels. An important mechanism here was the position of the supreme leader — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. While individual Congress leaders were often identified with this or that caste group or local interest or business lobby, the supreme leader was like Caesar — standing above all particular interests, representing the party as a whole and, in the days when the Congress was the ruling party, claiming to represent the nation itself. Even though it produced an autocratic decision-making structure within the party and a culture of fawning sycophancy, the Caesarist leadership was crucial for the Congress to play its role as the political body managing the contradictory interests of the three dominant classes and steering their agenda through the treacherous terrain of electoral democracy.

This structure fell into crisis after 1989. Since then, the Congress has never secured a majority in parliament. Between 1991 and 1996, it ruled as a minority government. In 1996, it got a mere 140 seats in the Lok Sabha, slipping down even further in 1999. As a party capable of ruling on behalf of the dominant classes, the Congress seemed to have lost all credibility. In 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party successfully staked its claim to this role by devising a series of alliances. Even though it had only 182 seats, it managed to secure enough allies to command a majority in parliament. But how was it able to hold together and act on behalf of the dominant class coalition? How could it put together a combination of policies that would keep all of them happy?

Apparently, there was a sea change in the balance of social forces in India in the Nineties. Manmohan Singh, taking over in 1991 as finance minister of the minority Congress government against the backdrop of an acute foreign exchange crisis, initiated the process of structural reforms of the economy by telling parliament: “We have to accept this. There is no alternative.” Government controls were gradually removed; the economy was opened up to foreign goods, capital and services. Not all sections of Indian capitalists were initially enthusiastic about foreign competition. But the neo-liberal economic doctrine was now globally ascendant. Buoyed by the rising tide of the new consumer economy, the print and visual media assiduously purveyed the message that rapid growth was the panacea for all social ills: get the annual growth rate to seven or eight per cent and poverty will vanish, inequalities will be reduced, everyone will have a chance to get rich and, who knows, people might even forget to hate their caste or communal rivals. Running a coalition government in the last five years, the BJP settled perfectly into the rhythm of this game. Those in charge of the economic ministries deregulated and privatized with the zeal of revolutionaries. Sometimes they would come up against opposition from their coalition partners and, on a few occasions, from within their own party. When this happened, they would simply “roll back” the decision, waiting for a more opportune moment in the future.

The Indian capitalist class, especially in the last five years, has been lulled into the belief that it does not need to share power with anyone. It has persuaded itself that what is good for capital is good for the nation. But it appears to have forgotten that the national good is not an objective truth demonstrated in textbooks of economics; it has to be produced in the real world through an actual political process. Capitalists and their spokesmen have reacted to the recent elections not merely with shock; they seem to think that the results are a scandal. The crash in the stock market was their way of announcing what they expected from the next government. Whether the crash was manipulated by a few or whether it was the spontaneous instinct of the herd of gamblers who inhabit Dalal Street will probably never be known. But what they appeared to be saying was virtually this: that they didn’t care a hoot whether the prime minister was responsible to parliament, but that he or she had better be responsible to the Bombay Stock Exchange!

What do the results show? It is hard to insist that there is now a mandate for the Congress. In fact, the Congress now has the same number of seats in the Lok Sabha as it did in 1996 when the United Front formed a government with Congress support. True, this time there was a pre-poll Congress alliance that has secured 217 seats, but even that alliance cannot rule without support from at least the Left Front. So rather than a mandate for anything, the national-level results can only be interpreted as a verdict against the BJP.

The post-election survey carried out by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (published in The Hindu, May 20, 2004) shows that it is only among the middle classes that there is an articulate feeling that conditions had improved in the last five years. All other groups felt there had been little change, while a significant section among the very poor thought things had got worse. More specifically, in Andhra Pradesh, showcased in the media as a model of the marriage of the new economy with new governance, farmers overwhelmingly blamed the Naidu government for lack of irrigation and unremunerative crop prices and demanded free electricity. There is little evidence to show that economic reform, much flaunted by the BJP in its campaign, is electorally popular — not even in the metropolitan cities where the BJP and its allies were routed.

The question has now begun to be whispered: can a rapid growth rate be sustained in this political climate, or will the capitalist class have to make compromises with farmers and the government-dependent middle class? Sonia Gandhi as prime minister would have been an unsettling reminder of Indira Gandhi’s Congress and its soap-opera populism. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, business circles are hoping that somehow he will keep charging ahead, regardless of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan or the left. But the Congress refuses to think of life without Caesar. It has made an astounding constitutional innovation by electing Sonia Gandhi as chairperson of its parliamentary party and authorizing her to nominate the leader of the parliamentary party. It sounds as though the prime minister of the country will hold office at the pleasure of Sonia Gandhi who is, of course, formally speaking, just another member of parliament.

So the old structure is back in place. Only this time, it is a coalition government — something the Congress has never handled. Inside the alliance, members from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu will push relentlessly for concessions to farmers. Outside, all across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the backward and oppressed sections have coalesced into a social bloc whose self-identity is deep and sustained — this solidarity can last a generation or more. The same has happened in neighbouring West Bengal among the rural poor. These are constituencies the Congress will ignore at its peril. So can it keep India Incorporated happy?

The stock markets, I suspect, have been kept in readiness to crash at the first slip-up.