India’s parliamentary elections ended this week with the counting of the hundreds of millions of votes set to begin this Saturday.
Many commentators are predicting that the two main parties, the governing Congress and the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will emerge from the elections in a weakened state.
Both parties are known for their commitment to the free market and the idea that economic growth will ultimately lift the poor out of poverty.
These policies have become even less popular with the electorate with the onset of a global recession.
For years Congress and the BJP have horse-traded with regional and minor parties in order to build coalitions so that they can form a government. These alliances have become increasingly unprincipled and unstable.
The two big blocs – the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance – dominated the election.
But there is also a still-evolving Left Front bloc made up of some of India’s large, election-orientated left wing parties.
The 2004 elections saw the surprise defeat of the BJP government, which had unleashed neoliberal shock treatment upon the country while whipping up hatred of Muslims in an effort to divert anger away from itself.
The victorious Congress, which had used pro-poor rhetoric, was jubilant. But India’s first past the post electoral system had vastly exaggerated the shift in votes – and both Congress and the BJP got fewer votes than in the previous election in 1999.
The triumphalism of the BJP in 2004, with its slogan of “India’s shining”, saw it and its allies getting a hammering in places where they had confidently expected to win victories.
The strength of the alliance partners will be even more crucial in this year’s election as Congress has struggled to present itself as being on the left the way it did in 2004.
While in government it has pioneered more privatisation, reduced state subsidies for food and fuel, and overseen the spread of “Special Economic Zones” – where companies are free from normal taxation, health and safety laws and trade union agreements.
Taxation for the wealthy can be as low as 20 percent, making India a haven for the corporate rich while life for workers and the landless poor has become ever harder.
More than a million people in India have lost their jobs in the last year.
Over 150,000 poverty-stricken farmers have committed suicide in the last decade as debt-collecting vultures have circled over their heads.
In a move that further outraged its left wing supporters, the government completed an agreement to share nuclear technology with the UpS, making India a major player in the “war on terror”.
While Congress has moved to the right, the BJP has been forced to drop some of its more strident anti-Muslim rhetoric in favour of coded references to “internal threats” and the need for a tougher “security agenda”.
It has even softened its pro-market policies and now says it prefers public-private partnerships rather than full-blooded privatisation.
The elections should be a good opportunity for the Left Front to make gains.
It is headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is a mass party that has been a major player in electoral politics for decades. The Communists regularly win regional elections in at least three states.
Widespread revulsion at more than 20 years of neoliberalism could see their vote improve.
But disillusionment with political parties is not confined to the two main players.
The Left Front alarmed many of its supporters when it entered into a governing coalition with Congress in 2004.
It only pulled out of the government after the signing of the nuclear treaty with the US.
Fears were further compounded when a Special Economic Zone was established in order to attract multinational investment in Communist-run West Bengal.
Armed police violently displaced thousands of poor farmers from their land in 2007, killing at least 14.
This caused widespread demoralisation and disorientation on the left at a time when it should have been taking advantage of the ideological disarray among its opponents.
Hundreds of millions of poor people in India need a principled left that champions their cause on the streets, not just the ballot box, now more than ever.
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