Caste divisions may spell end for Congress

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Friday 26 April 1996 23:02

Many of India's 620 million voters who go the polls today are expected to hand the ruling Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, its worst-ever electoral drubbing.

What has the Congress Party - which has steered India into independence and given rise to its greatest statesmen, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru - done to deserve this? Many Indians no longer believe in the party's leaders. Specifically, they do not believe in Mr Rao, 74, who is seen as a ditherer. Nor do many Indians adhere to the main principle which has kept Congress in power for all but two brief interludes over the past 49 years: secularism.

Madhavrao Scindia, a Congress leader who recently left the party, is one who believes that "the consciousness of a greater Indian entity" is in danger of being lost. "There are too many rigid lines emerging on the basis of caste or religion. There should be somebody who will stand up and say, I'm sorry, I will not talk about caste," he told an Indian weekly, Outlook.

Opinion polls show that in these parliamentary elections, held tomorrow, on 2 May and on 7 May, Indians will abandon Congress. Instead, they are expected to vote for either the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the smaller, regional parties or those representing the India's 120 million Muslims and the downtrodden lower Hindu castes.

Indian society resembles a pyramid built out of thousands of different castes or communities. The priestly Brahmins are at pinnacle, and a multitude of Sudra, or worker castes, fill out the bottom.

A poll carried out by the Times of India revealed that Congress may win only 31 per cent of the 543 Lok Sabha parliamentary seats, its poorest showing yet. The forecast places the right-wing Hindu BJP highest with up to 195 seats, but still far short of a majority. The alliance of regional and progressive parties known as the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF), trails third with 145 seats. India will almost certainly face a hung parliament.

Congress's only chance of remaining in power is to strike a deal with the leftists and form a coalition government. But this will not necessarily ensure guarantee Mr Rao's survival or that of his revolutionary economic reforms.

The BJP's leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is already described by his over- enthusiastic supporters as "prime minister-in-waiting". But he may find it equally frustrating trying to recruit partners for a coalition government. Many of the leftist parties within the NF-LF, those who champion the oppressed millions at the bottom of Hinduism's social hierarchy, are opposed to joining up with the BJP's upper-caste Brahmins. Mr Vajpayee, though he and Mr Rao are close friends, has ruled out any post-election compromise with Congress.

Mr Rao is partly to blame for the fact that Congress has lost its appeal to the Indian voter. First, he is not a member of the Gandhi/Nehru family which ruled Congress - and the country - until Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 brought a temporary end to the dynasty (Rajiv's son, Rahul, and daughter, Priyanka, may yet be pushed into politics).

Secondly, Mr Rao lost Congress its backbone of Muslim support when he stood by and let Hindu extremists destroy a 16th-century Moghul mosque in Ayodhya. A Brahmin himself, Mr Rao was reluctant to push through legislation reserving university seats and government jobs for the lower castes. They deserted Congress for the more militant parties.

Today's polling takes place in the capital, New Delhi, and in 12 other states. With elections staggered over three polling days, results will not be counted up until 10 May.

Many Indians complain that this election campaign has been too sober. The election commissioner, TN Seshan, has tried to reduce the customary corruption and mayhem. Mr Seshan restricted campaign spending to less that pounds 8,500 for each candidate. He also banned graffiti, noisy loudspeakers and post-midnight rallies. Still, some candidates have managed to amuse the electorate with dancing girls, singing parrots, capering dwarves, and cricket stars. The muscle-men who so often have played a role in bribing and bullying the voters don't know who to intimidate - or how.

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