India Creaks as Congress Falls Apart

Article excerpt

Once again voters in the world's largest democracy have thrown the rascals out. As in four of the past five general elections in India, the ruling party has suffered a drubbing. And as counting in the 11th general election since independence goes into a third day, the country's political leaders are taking stock of the repercussions of the severe mauling that the ruling Congress Party of the outgoing Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao, has suffered.

The haemorrhage has been serious - Congress looks like losing between half and a third of the 232 seats it won in 1991 and being replaced as the largest single party in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Compounding its predicament is the fact that, having suffered defeat in the simultaneous local assembly polls held in five states, Congress now rules just 10 of India's 25 states, only three of which are large enough to carry any political significance.

But while Congress has emerged a clear national loser, the elections have failed to produce a national victor. As in the two previous elections (in 1989 and 1991), there has been no national trend in favour of any party or grouping. What we have witnessed instead is another stage in the regionalisation of Indian politics - the predominance of regional trends over national ones.

Consequently, while the BJP has increased its representation by something like one-third, it remains well short of a majority in the 543-seat parliament, and it has again failed to achieve a breakthrough in any of the 14 states of southern and eastern India that together account for two-fifths of parliamentary seats.

On the centre-left, the loose National Front/Left Front alliance has exceeded expectations by beating Congress into third place, doing particularly well in the south and east and presenting the main opposition to the BJP in the populous northern Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Finally, an additional element that could prove crucial in determining the shape of the next government is the variety of unattached regional parties that have made big gains.

The election results throw into sharp relief the extent of the decline of Congress, the party that has ruled India for all but four of the 49 years since independence. Contesting for the first time without a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm, it has been unable to overcome the decay of its local organisations. It has steadily witnessed an erosion of support among important social groups - upper-caste Hindus, the numerous lower castes, the erstwhile Untouchables and Muslims (who felt betrayed by the Congress government's failure to protect the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, stormed by militant Hindus in December 1992). …