Cricket is over; now let’s get back to the real world. The first phase of general elections in the "world’s largest democracy" began on 20 April 2004. The ballot-boxes have been abandoned and the 670 million eligible voters are supposed to cast their votes by means of electronic voting machines.
During the election campaign, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has adopted a three-pronged strategy to garner votes: first, exploit prime minister A. B. Vajpayee’s misleading "soft" image by promoting a personality cult around him; second, generate hyperbolic "feel-good" propaganda and promote the myth that India is about to become a "developed nation" and a superpower; third, attack opposition leader Sonia Gandhi on the issue of her foreign origin (she is from Italy). This is a strategic deviation from BJP’s trademark agenda that revolves around three fundamental issues: the Ram temple, a uniform civil code, and abrogation of article 370. Banning "religious conversion" and "cow slaughter" are the other two priority issues that have been put aside for the time being, obviously to try to get Muslim votes.
The BJP-led government is looking unchallengeable, but definitely not for admirable reasons. Deputy prime minister L. K. Advani launched the BJP’s campaign on March 10 by starting a 33-day-long march from Kanyakumari, the southernmost city in India. Advani had announced a 33-day Bharat Uday Yatra ("India shining campaign") on March 3 in New Delhi. The journey covered 7,900 kilometres (about 5,000 miles) and 121 parliamentary constituencies, spread across 12 states and union territories, from March 10 to April 14 This "India shining" campaign of Advani’s is an attempt to legitimize him as Vajpayee’s ‘natural’ successor, and to mobilise RSS support for the BJP. Those who vote for the BJP’s ‘moderate’ Vajpayee version could end up putting Advani in the driving seat.
Addressing BJP workers after filing his nomination on April 15, Vajpayee said he had considered retiring from politics before the elections, but postponed his retirement because of pressure from aides and friends. Neither the (planned) succession of Advani nor the build-up of Advani’s image is new or surprising. The most obvious part of Advani’s recent rise is the creation of a new office for him (deputy prime minister) in June 2002, without any constitutional sanction. His acolytes have done their utmost to bolster his image: most famously in June last year, when BJP president Venkaiah Naidu declared that the BJP has two great leaders: Vajpayee and Advani.
The recent "India shining" campaign was Advani’s third major march in 14 years. The first was the Ram March in 1990 in support of the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, which led to the demolition of the Babri Mosque. The second was the Golden Jubilee March in 1997 to celebrate 50 years of independence and to popularize the BJP as the undisputed government. Advani’s campaign, in his own words, is aimed at spreading the message of the BJP’s "vision for the future".
It must be noted that, from only 2 seats in parliament in 1984, the BJP rose to become a party with 86 seats in 1990, and then to a ruling party in 1998. Advani’s campaigns have played a crucial role in the BJP’s growth. In 1990 the people’s support was rallied by exploiting the Ram temple issue. Today the new motto is "India shining". On March 17, speaking to the press and media at Hyderabad, Advani said: "Making India a developed country by 2020 and making it a global power appeals to...every Indian...and that has evoked this kind of response for this campaign." To project India as a superpower, a developed nation, is the latest aspiration of India’s ruling elite.
To be fair, most of the "India shining" claims are more or less true. But the development that Advani and the BJP boast of does not benefit more than 10 percent of the country’s population. The Sensex might be on a dream run, the markets booming and investors thrilled, but it’s worth recalling that all of this is happening in a country where 65 percent of households do not have a bank account; where tens of millions of farmers live and die in debt. The fastest-growing sector in "India shining" is not IT or software, textiles or automobiles, but inequality, which is now growing faster than at any time since independence. And with it has grown also the mindset that inequality breeds: one that dehumanises the poor.
It was in the "shining" years that India exported grain to foreign markets at prices far lower than those its own people, even those below the poverty line, were forced to pay. At the height of misery in rural Andhra Pradesh in 2002, the hungry were forced to buy rice at Rs.6.40 a kilogram even in drought-hit regions. At the same time the government was exporting rice at Rs.5.45 a kilogram. It was in these years that India slipped from 124th to 127th in the Human Development Index of the United Nations’ Development Programme.
The international press and media have done their best to add lustre to India’s "shine". In October 2003 the New York Times gave much space to the rise of the mall-culture in India: kids eating at MacDonalds, the "mushrooming" of fast-food joints, and other familiar phenomena. Rich Indians are consuming on a scale even they have never managed before. In the country with the largest number of malnourished children in the world, still home to about half the planet’s hungry people, where nearly nine out of 10 pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from malnutrition and anaemia, and where about half of all children under five suffer moderate or severe malnourishment or stunting, this is utterly disgraceful.
A few thousand youngsters in urban India are getting work at call-centres and the booming software industries. At the same time, between 1998 and 2002, more than one million organized-sector jobs vanished. In the villages the collapse of communities has destroyed social bonds and broken up families. The debt owed to money-lenders has mushroomed because farmers are often denied credit by banks. It is easier today, in India, to get a low-interest loan to buy a Mercedes Benz than it is to raise one for agricultural purposes.
As what little remains of the public health system goes under, people are more than ever at the dubious mercies of private providers. Health-expenditure is now the second-fastest-growing component of rural debt. Meanwhile, the rich patronise super-speciality hospitals and weight-loss clinics. This year’s big media story in Mumbai was the raid on Anjali Mukherjee’s weight-loss clinic: her outfit was accused of supplying weight-loss tablets that caused possibly harmful side effects. This is "India shining" in a nutshell: thousands of well-off Indians trying to lose weight, and hundreds of millions of poor Indians, consuming even fewer calories than before, trying desperately to avoid losing any more weight.
During the BJP’s rule, CEO salaries have been "shining" too. Take the list citing Dhirubhai Ambani’s last salary, which appeared in the Economic Times a little before his death: it showed him taking home almost $200,000. That is about 30,000 times what a landless agricultural worker might make in a year, which is hardly $80. What sort of society can endure such extremes of inequality? And for how long? Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton has written in the New York Times that he believes a gap of 1:1,000 between the lowest worker and the top CEO to be more than bad; he sees that kind of gap as harmful to democracy itself in his own country. How do Advani and the BJP defend a gap of 1:30,000?
The proliferation of places of diversion and entertainment for the better-off is a major feature of "India shining". Water parks are high on this list. There were severe water problems in Mumbai, India’s richest city, in May 2003. Thousands of women queued up for water in the slums each morning for hours on end. In and around the same Mumbai others had no such problems: there are 24 amusement and water parks, using 50 billion litres of water a day for the entertainment of the rich. In Rajasthan, plagued by scarcity of water for five years, more water parks and golf courses are planned. A single golf course uses 1.8 to 2.3 million litres of water a day throughout the season. On that much water 100,000 villagers in that State could meet all their water needs all summer. All this is happening in a country that plans to spend roughly a quarter of its GDP on linking tens of rivers. In May 2003 some colonies in Hyderabad were getting water once in two or three days, for a few hours at a time. At the same time the government of Andhra Pradesh was supplying clean, processed water to Coke at about 25 paisas (a quarter of a rupee) a litre.
Contracts worth millions of dollars have been signed with huge multinational companies such as GE and Enron to privatise the national power sector. Rural India is being starved to give even more comfort and convenience to a small and parasitical elite. It is much easier for Advani and co to manufacture a nuclear bomb than to provide education and drinking water to 500 million ordinary people.
On March 17 in Hubli, Advani tried to woo the Muslims by pointing out that he saw a perceptible change in the attitude of Muslims towards the BJP. "Very large sections of Muslims do feel that for many years, opponents of the BJP have created an image about the BJP, which is totally different from the reality they have seen." Perhaps he was trying to divert attention from the fact that it was under his supervision that the Babri Mosque was demolished in broad daylight. It was Advani, as the home minister, who ordered the arrests of thousands of Muslim activists under POTA (the prevention of terrorism act); most of them are still in Indian jails. It was under his government’s rule that many Muslim organizations were banned. Advani and the BJP established an open relationship with Israel, declaring links with the Zionist state and sharing information and military secrets to extend their occupation and brutalisation of Palestine and Kashmir. Within days of assuming power the BJP declared its stand over Pakistan by testing its nuclear bombs, yet claims that Vajpayee remained committed to peace with Pakistan.
The BJP’s rise in power was also accompanied by murders of Christian missionaries and the destruction of churches all over the country. Whipping up communal hatred is one of the BJP’s methods of manipulating and controlling people. They have been injecting a slow-release poison into civil society’s bloodstream. Hundreds of RSS cells across the country have been indoctrinating thousands of children and young people with a falsified history of Islam and Muslims. History textbooks have been rewritten to distort the past, and the infiltration of Sangh Parivar cadres into administrative and judiciary power structures is being promoted relentlessly. In May 2002, at the BJP national executive meeting in Goa, Narendra Modi ("the Butcher of Gujrat") was hailed as a hero, and prime minister A. B. Vajpayee publicly displayed terrible bigotry against Muslims: "wherever Muslims are living", he said, "they are not interested in living in peace."
A meticulously planned state-sponsored genocide was conducted against Muslims in Gujrat. The bloodletting cost more than 3,000 Muslim lives (this is an official estimate; other estimates are of up to 20,000 deaths or more). More than 200,000 Muslims in Gujrat now live like refugees, as their homes, mosques, businesses and properties have been destroyed. Hundreds of testimonies and masses of evidence against Modi, the government of Gujrat and the BJP are being ignored instead of being acted upon. Time and again the BJP produces new formulae to promote its aims. To win mass popularity it was the Ram temple vs Babri mosque issue. The genocide in Gujrat was used to win an election. And now the newest, most recent propaganda of mass deception is "India shining".
Yet the horrible and extreme disjunction between reality on the one hand, and BJP-inspired and -promoted mythology on the other, with obscene luxury in the midst of abject poverty, is the true situation in "India shining", whatever the BJP in particular, and the economic and financial elites in general, may say to the contrary.