Failed reforms cost rightists the poll

Ranjit Devraj

An electoral rout of the regional party that leads India’s showpiece for economic reforms — southern Andhra Pradesh state — threatens to drag down with it Prime Minister Vajpayee’s right-wing coalition in the just-concluded national elections. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, resigned Tuesday after his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the Congress party in provincial polls held in the state alongside the four-phase parliamentary elections which ended Monday. The TDP currently holds 36 seats in the lawmaking Lok Sabha. It is not expected to fare any better when the national-level ballots are counted on Thursday.

According to election analysts, the utter defeat of the TDP would make it that much more difficult for Vajpayee’s right-wing and pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cobble together a viable multi-party alliance that could take on any alliance that its arch rival for national power, the Congress party, can muster. Exit polls and analyses were already giving the BJP and the Congress party even chances of forming the next central government when the shock defeat of the TDP in Andhra Pradesh became known. The TDP and its allies could mus-ter just 48 seats in the 294-seat Andhra Pradesh state assembly, against the 229 seats captured by the Congress party and its partners. Other states where elections were held simultaneously included Karnataka and Orissa, which are adjacent to Andhra Pra-desh, and also north-eastern Sikkim.

At a televised press conference in Hyderabad, the man who is slated to succeed Naidu as chief minister, Y S R Reddy, said his rivals came to grief because of overemphasis on economic reforms and information technology that failed to benefit farmers and the rural masses. Mass suicides by farmers in the state, many of them cotton growers who had experimented disastrously with genetically modified seeds supplied by large multinationals, were frequently cited by Congress party workers to blunt the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ motto during the election. World Bank documents describe Andhra Pradesh as one of the largest and poorest states in India.

The Congress party is now poised to harvest a crop of parliamentary seats from Andhra Pradesh in its determined bid to lead or support a “secular, socialist’’ dispensation. This, it hopes, would includes the Left Front parties which rule West Bengal state, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in eastern Bihar state and other “like-minded’’ regional formations. The party suggested that it would not insist that the coalition be led by Congress party chief, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. But going by the exit polls and the Andhra Pradesh results, voters were interested in more serious concerns such as exclusion from the benefits of reforms in places like Hyderabad.

India embarked on a policy of reforms under a Congress party government in 1992, but anger against it led to the defeat of the party in 1996. Its successor, the BJP, prided itself on its ultra-nationalism and its ‘swadeshi’ or self-reliance rhetoric. After gaining power, however, the BJP abandoned its stance to pursue reforms with greater vigour than ever before in a bid to make India a global economic power along the lines of its Asian neighbour, China. But despite the unpopularity of economic liberalisation among India’s rural masses, there is little likelihood of a policy reversal even if the Congress returns to power. In fact, the Congress party is already pushing the candidature of Manmohan Singh, a respected economist credited with introducing India’s reforms, as the country’s next prime minister. — IPS