All across India, the "ins" are out. But last week's elections were not contested over national policies. There were no rousing debates about the direction of foreign, economic or social initiatives. The votes were for individuals and against ruling political groupings.
India's 500 million voters (of whom 50% to 60% actually voted) are not sure what they want from government except that it be effective, fair and honest and improve their lives, and they concluded that most of those who had been representing them did not meet this standard. Unfortunately, there is little prospect that the incoming representatives as a group will be a vast improvement, although several of their leaders, particularly the head of the new National Front, V. P. Singh, are several cuts above average.
The Gandhi administration hoped that economic growth and the spread of material goods, the "bread" of the last two years' best-ever harvests and even the "circuses" of TV extravaganzas (yearlong renditions of the two great Hindu epics) would lead the voters to say, "Yes, we are better off now than five years ago." But it was higher prices, insufficient housing, a growing awareness of inequity in the distribution of the benefits of growth, along with a sense that their representatives didn't care, that seem to have stuck in the voters' minds.
The sweep of the upsets, from Parliament to state legislatures, suggests a pervasive resentment of mounting petty corruption burdening daily life--in buying railroad tickets, getting telephones or electric lines connected, dealing with the police, obtaining licenses. The previously respected district-level civil service apparently has become an increasing source of frustration for the ordinary citizen.
Multiple shuffling of cabinets and senior civil servants, the constant drumfire of criticism in the press against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the secretiveness of decision-making on major matters by a small coterie around him left urban intellectuals and many in the middle class with a sense that government was a place of confusion and incompetence. Far more critical seems to have been a widespread feeling in the rice paddies and millet fields that officials and politicians at every level were interested in their own profit, not in the needs and wishes of their constituents.
Gandhi had become a captive of the power holders, another "pol" rather than the breath of fresh air he seemed to promise in 1985. When his party was choosing its candidates, rather than opting for youth, imagination, performance and even personal support of his policies, he ultimately felt compelled to let 80% of the incumbents run again, even though he must have known that many would lose. More than half of them in Parliament did.
It is difficult to imagine that Gandhi will remain as prime minister, or even as leader of the Congress-I Party, in the aftermath of its crushing losses. This would indeed be a momentous event, signaling the end of the 40-year Nehru family dynasty in Indian politics. And that, combined with new divisions that will make coalition-forming particularly difficult, could bring about a major political realignment.
The elections underscored the changes occurring in India's demography and economic life. Development has increased social tensions between castes, between Hindus and Muslims and between the new rich and the still poor. Those living in poverty are increasing in absolute numbers even though more than 150 million Indians have crossed the threshold to some form of middle-class life. Modern times in India, as in Charlie Chaplin's day, degrade old values and intensify a yearning for sharper definitions of morality and for group identity. It is not the popular desire for growth and development that poses the problem for Indian politicians but, as in any democracy, how the benefits are distributed.
The potential for violence and disruption is high. The nationwide broadcasts of the "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata" epics heightened the political sense of being Hindu and contributed to the rightist Bharat Janata Party's successes. Disparities in wealth have grown, but with a decline in the traditional justification for such differences. For many in northern India, a return to a Hindu Raj, which would provide such rationale, seems attractive. This could be truly worrisome for minorities in India--Muslim, Christian, Sikh--as well as for India's neighbors.
The 350 million Indians at independence will have become 1 billion only 50 years later when the new century begins. Making all major domestic policy decisions in Delhi has become impossible. Increasing decentralization of authority will be a priority for any new government.
If the message of the Indian voter is heard correctly, what is most needed is dedication and sacrifice on the part of politicians and officials at every level. One set of "rascals" has been thrown out, but it remains to be seen whether those who have been elected will be able to repair 20 years of damage inflicted on Indian institutions--the legislatures, the courts, the civil service--by politicians of every stripe.