After Gandhi: into the abyss?

Wednesday, May 29, 1991

By Peter Boyle

Whoever planted the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi, be, this act of terror grows out of a seedbed of violent communalism that has come to dominate Indian political life.

Since independence in 1947, Indian politics have been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family. The violent death of the last of this dynasty comes at a time when "peaceful" capitalist rule of this impoverished country was increasingly showing itself to be at a dead end.

Despite his carefully crafted urbane image, Rajiv Gandhi and his party were themselves responsible for much of the communal character of Indian politics.

The Congress, which emerged with near complete political hegemony after independence, ensured that capitalism developed under the protection of government regulations, direct involvement in the economy and extensive subsidies to business. The Brahman elite which dominated the old Congress wanted the state to provide Indian capitalists some protection from the competition of the world market. Together with some minor redistributive reforms, this policy came to be known as "Congress socialism".

The strategy permitted a degree of industrialisation, and in the 1970s there was a massive boost to agricultural production through the introduction of new technologies (the so-called "green revolution"). As a consequence, the class of rich farmers and small business people grew dramatically and expressed itself in new political formations which challenged and eventually split the old Congress.

While India industrialised faster than many other Third World countries, the wealth was not shared around. According to Indian economist Raj Krishna, by the year 2000, 394 million people (equal to the total population at the time of independence) will be trying to survive below the official poverty line.

There have been sporadic outbreaks of struggle by the oppressed classes, but it has been the growing conflicts within the ruling elite which have dominated politics in the last two decades.

In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who had inherited the position from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister) imposed emergency rule and attempted to entrench her family as leaders of Congress and the country. The new Congress was even named after her — Congress (Indira). She ruled through terror and corruption until she was forced to call elections in 1977, in which she was defeated by a coalition of opposition capitalist parties called Janata.

However, in 1980, Congress (I) and Indira Gandhi were returned to government. Her second term was marked by the replacement of "Congress socialism" with economic "rationalism", austerity in welfare and social spending, an even greater concentration of power and increased corruption.

Her son Sanjay (who later died in a plane crash) organised Congress youth goon squads to raze slums, get rid of opponents and deliver votes. In response to a secessionist movement in the Punjab, Indira to attack the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most sacred shrine of the Sikh minority.

Most of the new parties which emerged in the '70s and '80s exploited communalist or regionalist sentiments, and the Congress (I) did the same. Each major party organised illegal paramilitary groups and goon squads, but according to many observers, the Congress (I) outdoes any other party in this regard.

The biggest paramilitary groups are organised within the majority Hindu community (82% of the population) and engage in bloody pogroms against the Muslim and Sikh minorities at the slightest pretext.

The biggest communalist massacre since independence was organised by Congress (I) thugs — the slaughter of some 3000 Sikh women, men and children in New Delhi after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

Rajiv Gandhi carried on the dynasty after Congress (I) won the 1985 elections with the help of the communal backlash from the assassination of his mother. While he cultivated the image of a "Mr Clean", his rule was marked by more corruption scandals, huge tax cuts for the rich, closer ties with the US and military intervention in Sri Lanka to suppress the Tamil independence struggle.

A recently completed official investigation found that during Rajiv's reign hundreds of phone taps were conducted against rival politicians, regional dissidents, trade unionists, religious leaders and even fellow cabinet members.

Rajiv's economic liberalism produced huge profits for the monopolies and a short surge in industrial development, but also an explosion of imports, leading to balance of payments and foreign debt problems (the IMF is demanding a meeting to discuss India's debts).

In the poor, populous states of the north-east, official and unofficial terror and blatant corruption by Congress (I) officials and their political allies prompted new support for opposition parties, and Congress (I) lost the 1989 elections. During two weak administrations that followed, the Congress (I) engineered a backlash against the lower castes and engaged in communalist politics on an even greater scale.

Ironically, Rajiv's manipulation of caste, religious and race issues helped bring into prominence the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the party almost solely identified in the commercial media as the representative of Hindu chauvinism.

BJP's leader, Lal Krishna Advani, has been dubbed the "Hindu Hitler" and has a background in the fascist-like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a Hindu chauvinist paramilitary group. The RSS is also supporting the Congress (I) in some electorates in the current elections.

The BJP entered the latest elections on the slogan "Roti (bread) and Ram". Ram is the Hindu god for whom the BJP want to build a temple on the site of the Muslim Ayodhya shrine in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Last year, the minority Janata Dal government led by V.P. Singh had to use troops to stop Hindu mobs demolishing the Gandhi's government allowed the chauvinists to lay a foundation stone for a Hindu temple at Ayodhya.

According to Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Hamish McDonald, the BJP's established constituency is among the upper castes and Hindu urban shopkeepers, small business people and underemployed professionals — layers which make up 20% of the population at most.

Some BJP officials are worried that the appeal to Hindu fervour alone may not draw in the lower castes while the Janata Dal is promising them a larger share of government jobs and greater social status.

Once the Congress relied for support upon the secular sectors, the religious minorities, the lower castes and the tribal groups, all of whom believed that it would stand up against Hindu chauvinism and guarantee their rights. Now almost all these sectors have been alienated. Congress (I) today relies on opportunist alliances with a range of regional power blocs, some of which are extremely reactionary.

One of the most heated electoral contests in the current elections, Australian Financial Review correspondent Michael Byrnes reported, is in the north-eastern state of Bihar. The Congress (I)'s big man in that state is "King" Mahendra Prahad, a multimillionaire who lives in Bombay but rules Bihar through a private army. In other parts of the country, entire communities' votes are "delivered" by local gangsters to the party that offers the highest price.

Some Congress (I) leaders hope that Rajiv's assassination might help them win the suspended elections with sympathy votes. But even if they succeed, they won't reverse the continuing degeneration of the Congress. With the secular and left forces only a minority of the loose Janata Dal coalition, Indian politics seem likely to be marked by increasingly violent communal conflicts.

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