21 May 2009
The ruling Indian National Congress-led coalition has just emerged victorious after the five-week-long national elections that saw a 60 percent voter turnout from the over 700 million eligible voters. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, captured a decisive 262 seats in India’s 543-seat Parliament, just ten seats short of an outright majority. The Congress is now seeking allies from smaller regional parties to form the new government.
The biggest defeat, however, was for the left parties, that had their worst showing in more than thirty years in their traditional strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala. Prakash Karat, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), acknowledged Saturday that the left had suffered, quote, “a major setback” this year and vowed to continue cooperating with non-Congress, non-BJP secular parties.
Democracy Now's Anjali Kamat speaks to Balmurali Natarajan to provide some insight into why the left was trounced in the recent Indian elections. Natarajan is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Gandhian Forum for Peace and Justice at William Paterson University of New Jersey. He writes on caste, race, globalization, politics and culture, and is a member of the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, the South Asia Solidarity Initiative in New York City, and the International Campaign to Free Binayak Sen.
ANJALI KAMAT: And what’s your sense of why the left, you know, performed so badly this year? Last time around, they had the largest number of seats ever, and this time, in 2009, it’s their worst showing in three decades.
BALMURLI NATARAJAN: That’s true. I think the left has a lot of introspection to do. Contrary to what is being spun by many commentators about what is the meaning of this election—and I really want to stress that we’ve had elections, and we need to be very clear what democracy means. It’s a necessary but not a sufficient condition for it.
So the left, in fact, can be said to have lost precisely because it aggressively tried to push through neoliberal economic reforms, which is what the Manmohan Singh government has been trying to do in a large national sense. So, Nandigram and Singur, for example, are two very important sites in West Bengal, in which pro-people’s movements have very much opposed the ruling left coalition and the way in which they had tried to sell off prime agricultural land for special economic zones and things like that. So, there’s a lot of introspection on the part of the left as to in what sense are they pro-poor and pro-people?
ANJALI KAMAT: The special economic zones are not something that are only promoted by the left. I mean, clearly, even though they seem antithetical to a left agenda, they might be promoted by the left, but they’ve also been promoted by other parties, as well.
BALMURLI NATARAJAN: Absolutely right. Indeed, if you go to Rajasthan, the western state where actually the Congress beat the right-wing BJP, the BJP had also started doing a very aggressive program of neoliberal reforms with privatization and special economic zones. And in some sense, one has to be clear as to what is a mandate for the Congress. I believe that the mandate is for very good governance, transparent governance, but also in ways that the Congress was initially very suspect about moving on pro-poor policies, such as the NREGA, or the National Rule Employment Guarantee scheme, but then later on became one of its best votaries, including the right to information. So, in that sense, the mandate is for the Congress to continue to be very careful about pushing through neoliberal reforms, do it in ways that are actually not deteriorating the democratic institutions of India.
ANJALI KAMAT: Now, the left has been one of the main voices speaking out against the Indo-US nuclear deal. What’s your sense of the future of this deal under the new Congress-led government?
BALMURLI NATARAJAN: I think the Congress has been very clear that it wants to push it through, and perhaps now is the best time for it to do that. The debates tend to get very complicated with both the left and the BJP opposing the nuclear deal, but, really, no one talking about the fact that South Asia really needs to be completely rid of all nuclear weaponry. So, that somehow has been off the table. And I think progressive forces need to be very careful in pushing this through.
ANJALI KAMAT: And what’s your sense of where the different parties stand or where the new government will stand in terms of relations with Pakistan?
BALMURLI NATARAJAN: I’m very optimistic about the Congress foreign policy being a non-jingoistic policy that actually looks at ways in which the citizens of Pakistan and the citizens of India can come together on the same table and not go overboard with pushing through terror laws that have had a very, very negative repercussion on civil liberties in India and, therefore, have their way of playing it out in Pakistan, too.
ANJALI KAMAT: I want to turn in a moment to a clip of an interview I did with Ilina Sen, who’s the wife of Dr. Binayak Sen, who’s sort of the most well-known figure in India who’s been arrested under these terror laws that you just mentioned. But before that, I want to talk—ask you about a few states in central India where the BJP actually did win, and these are largely states with large indigenous or Adivasi or tribal populations. Can you explain why the BJP won here and set up the situation of Binayak Sen before we go to the clip?
BALMURLI NATARAJAN: Yes, Anjali. I think for many months to come, people will be analyzing this over and over. To repeat, I think the mandate is very clearly for the Congress at the national level, but what exactly the mandate means needs to be discussed at some length.
In the mineral belt, which is right from Gujarat right through Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to Jharkhand and parts of Orissa, the BJP has actually held onto almost all of its seats, with a little bit of a loss in Madhya Pradesh. This also happens to be the place where 75 million Adivasis, or aboriginal groups, most of them live in this region. So, a combination of minerals that can be extracted with super profits at a very large cost to the indigenous people, this is where the BJP government has consistently shown that it is capable of massive state repression, and definitely many forms of fascism there are right now on the ground.
Right here, the mandate of the people is not very clear to me. And we should not read this as a loss for the BJP. It has definitely clipped their wings a little bit and showed them that they’re not the great national party that they are. As far as a popular vote goes, both the Congress and the BJP have more or less held onto about 50 to 60 percent of their votes and the seats. So, we have to be very clear what this is.
To read the full transcript of this interview, please click here.
© 2009, Democracy Now.
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