India elections analysis: Interview with Arun Kumar

The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has won a third term but his BJP has lost its majority in parliament. The 73-year old missed his goal to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority in order to change the constitution while the opposition INDIA alliance, led by Congress, obtained just six seats shy of the BJP. Modi, so bullish that the elections would cement his power, now has to rely on a delicate coalition and faces a newly empowered opposition. So what was behind this electoral debacle? Will Modi continue with the nasty politics of Hindu nationalism? What of his pro-business policies that have created a billionaire elite leaving just crumbs for 600 million poor Indians? What next for the opposition parties and progressive politics in the country? Furthermore, how will this affect India’s role on the world stage: the domination of BJP in politics of India over the past decade has shifted the politics of the country that was one of the key founders of the Non-Aligned Movement of countries in 1960s away from its pro-peace foreign policy. Is that now about to change?

Liberation asked Arun Kumar, General Secretary of the All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation (AIPSO), to shed some light on the context to these elections and to provide his take on what the result may mean for the future both domestically and internationally. Founded in 1951, AIPSO is a key member of the World Peace Council.  Over the years, AIPSO has actively supported various causes, including anti-Apartheid efforts, opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and campaigns for communal harmony during times of tension.

Do you think Modi and BJP fail to achieve the electoral win it expected?

Among the people of India, there is a lot of discontent against the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The authoritarian measures of the government were seen as a threat to the democratic fabric of our country. High-handedness, misuse of various government agencies to further ruling party interests, arrest of opposition leaders, including chief ministers of two provinces, breaking opposition parties by threats and enticements….all have built a mood against the government. This verdict is hence against authoritarianism and for safeguarding democracy.

Unemployment, price rise (inflation), loss of livelihood, falling quality of life, affected a majority of the people. On the other hand, people were also aware of rising inequalities in the country and the government’s explicit support to big corporate groups like that of Adani and Ambani.

Pro-corporate farm laws that the government wanted to introduce to change the face of Indian agriculture were opposed. Farmers have led a year-long protest against these laws, notably at the borders of the capital city, Delhi. The working class was also carrying huge protests against the changes to the labour laws and failure to enforce minimum wage.

During the election campaign, a section of the BJP leadership and some contesting candidates have stated that their slogan for an absolute majority – 400 out of 543 seats – is intended to change the country’s Constitution. This was perceived as an attempt to do away with reservations (affirmative action) guaranteed in the Constitution for the upliftment of Dalits and other marginalised sections in the society.

People looked at these elections as an opportunity to teach the BJP a lesson. As a result, the BJP failed to win even a simple majority of 272 – forget about its target of winning 370 seats for itself and 400 for its alliance. Now the BJP is forced to depend on its coalition partners to govern.

What changes to Modi’s agenda domestically do you expect as he adjusts to coalition government?

Modi has never led a coalition government. So, it would be interesting to see how he would ‘adjust’ to the new situation. That said, given the character of the parties that are supporting him and the classes that are backing them, we do not expect any departure from the brazen neo-liberal policies they have pursued till now. On the foreign policy plane too, most of these parties have more or less similar positions. So here too there might not be any changes.

The BJP intends to convert India, a secular country into a Hindu supremacist country. We hope that the coalition will not allow such a transformation, which would be detrimental to the unity and integrity of our country. A big challenge for BJP and Modi would be to go ahead with the intended changes to the Constitution. They need a two-thirds majority in the Parliament for this and to pursue some of his policies like, ‘One Nation – One Election’ (elections to the parliament and all the provincial legislative assemblies, local bodies at a time). This might not be possible now.

Was the election a verdict on his extreme Hindu nationalism?

Indian people are for tolerance, while the BJP wants India to be a Hindu supremacist country, where the minorities and marginalised are discriminated. This is also one of the issues that the people are worried about and a factor that made them vote against the BJP. Many people who were interviewed by the media during the election campaign stated that they are concerned with their bread-and-butter issues and not about religion. They said, ‘enough of Hindu-Muslim now, we want you to address our concerns on price rise and unemployment’.

Was it a rejection of the BJP’s policies favouring big business and the rich, which Modi had hoped to accelerate with an enlarged parliamentary majority?

It certainly is a reflection of peoples’ anger against the government’s policies favouring big corporate groups. BJP government policies have resulted in the share of India’s biggest five firms (Reliance, Adani Group, TATA, Aditya Birla and Bharti Telecom) in total assets to rise to 18 per cent in 2021. This was 10 per cent in 1991. Tax concessions and incentives given to the rich and corporates widened the gulf between India’s rich and the poor. Real income of the top 1 per cent rose by 30 per cent, while that of the lowest 25 per cent fell by 11 per cent (2022). More than 40 per cent of India’s wealth is owned by a mere 1 per cent, while the bottom 50 per cent own a meagre 3 per cent. These growing inequalities made the people vote against the BJP and prevented it from winning a majority.

Under Modi, India had been a key player in the international BRICS alliance and has been widely seen as more present on the international stage. What differences will India’s election result have on India’s policies globally, in your view?

During the last ten years of this government, Indian foreign policy had taken a significant shift aligning itself with the US. Modi is the first prime minister of our country, who had never attended a single Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit. The government was very reluctant to side with the interests of the Global South.

For the first time in our history, this government had diluted its positions on Palestine and abstained from a vote condemning Israel in the UN. It established a strategic partnership with Israel.

Of course, India is also part of the BRICS. But its intervention and involvement in various multilateral platforms that cater to the interests of the developing countries is diminishing. We intend to bring pressure on the newly formed government to ensure a correction in course to follow an independent foreign policy.

What is the trajectory of INDIA, the Congress led opposition alliance? Will it last to work together in parliament and fight elections in five key states over the next 14 months?

INDIA is a group of opposition parties that have come together to defeat the authoritarian and majoritarian BJP government. Due to the strategy, they had adopted, they could beat back the BJP in many provinces and ensure a strong oppositional presence in the newly elected parliament.

We want all the democratic, secular and patriotic forces to stick together to fight the religious sectarian and divisive policies of the BJP and its parent organization, the RSS. This is not only an electoral task, but something that needs to be done day-in and day-out.

It is too early to predict what will happen in the future.

Congress once dominated Indian politics – this election has seen the party and its leader much strengthened. How would you describe the ideology and policies of Congress and Rahul Gandhi and what are the main differences between Congress and BJP?

The main difference between the Congress and the BJP pertains to the question of secularism. The Congress is not a religious sectarian party like the BJP. On the economic front, there is no basic difference between these two parties. Being in opposition, the Congress wants the implementation of various social welfare measures but doesn’t intend to break out of the neoliberal framework. Rahul Gandhi, as a leader of the Congress, represents this ideology.

How did progressive forces fair in the elections? Has the election changed the weight of these forces within the INDIA alliance? And what is their prospects of them capitalising on a weaker Modi and BJP to create a more progressive agenda?

The strength of the Left and progressive forces has marginally increased in the recent elections. We expected a much better result. To influence the policy direction of the government, the need to strengthen Left and progressive forces is essential.

The weakening of BJP in the parliament opens a space for democratic expression. These results have given confidence and hope to many people. We expect these results to have an impact on various democratic institutions, including the judiciary. We think such a change would ease the present suffocating atmosphere and ensure people come out and participate in debates, discussions and dissent. This would be a big gain for the progressive movement.

What are the main changes a government in India would need to make to show it is on the side of the mass of the population – the urban poor and small farmers? What are the key social justice and human rights issues facing India?

BJP and RSS subscribe to Hindu supremacist, majoritarian and patriarchal ideology. Their scheme does not have any space for women, dalits and religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. The key issues concerning human rights is the existing discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and gender.

Dalits and tribals (indigenous people), who are considered to be of low social status in hierarchical caste system face discrimination every day. According to the RSS-BJP worldview, women are considered to be second-grade citizens, having no role in public life.

During the past ten years, we have seen increasing attacks on women, girls, dalits, Muslims and Christians. These are some of the issues that need to be addressed immediately as they are tearing up the social fabric of our country. We need to exert pressure on the government to ensure that no such attacks happen, and the perpetrators are punished.

We need an urban employment guarantee act; a law for minimum support price (which guarantees at least a recovery of their production costs) for the farmers; an increase in allocations for education, health, rural employment scheme (that guarantees 100-days minimum employment), women and childcare schemes. These are some minimum steps that a government should undertake for the benefit of the poor and downtrodden.

In an ideal world what would a progressive, pro-peace Indian foreign policy look like? Do you think this election represents a possible start in this direction?

India is one of the founders of NAM. Now it is not playing the role expected of it in such multilateral platforms. A progressive, pro-peace foreign policy means, friendly relations with our neighbours, raising our voice against imperialist aggression and most importantly aligning with the interests of all the developing countries to tackle pressing issues like climate change, debt, disarmament, etc. This can be ensured only by a vigilant populace, who constantly keep a watch on the government and check against all deviations.

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