Here are some facts about the major political parties on India's political scene.
On August 15, 1947, the Indian subcontinent finally obtained its independence from British domination. The Congress party was the major organization which rallied the forces for freedom. Those who worked under it were not attracted to it by any definite ideology—freedom from foreign rule was the primary goal. If Congress adopted any definite ideological viewpoint it was sneaked in by a few determined politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru. (During the 1920's Nehru, enchanted by the socialistic policies of Soviet Russia, pushed egalitarian goals for free India into the Congress platform. The rhetoric sounded innocent enough to Congress members.)
The spiritual and moral leader of Congress was Mohandas Gandhi. His philosophy was an odd mixture of libertarian and socialistic views. On one hand he concurred with Thomas Jefferson in pronouncing that the best government was one that governed least. On the other hand he hoped for a classless society which would grant a doctor and a street-sweeper equal remuneration.
On the eve of India's liberation Gandhi recommended to Congress members that they dismantle the organization, for it had served its purpose of achieving the country's freedom from British rule. Gandhi hoped that new political parties would emerge and run for elections on the merit of their own views. New parties did emerge but Congress turned into a vehicle for all power-seeking politicians who thought the country was obligated to serve their ends in return for their involvement in or association with the Congress movement.
Gandhi perhaps foresaw the moral corruption involved in turning Congress into a political party and its riding on the popularity of being the party that won India's independence, at a time when a great majority of people were without some degree of formal education. The masses were apt to owe their loyalty to mere symbols: the word "Congress," the party symbol of two bullocks, and the party flag (which practically dittoed the national flag) were later used to emotionally blackmail the populace into giving the reins of the nation to people who did not have any scruples about how they obtained their votes and to those who decided to join the bandwagon.
Thus a new India emerged fully under the control of Congress leaders and their henchmen.
Nehru was committed to achieving socialism through, what he termed, "the democratic process." Masses began to see him as being next to Gandhi in importance in the role played in the liberation movement. His charisma, his rhetoric and, above all, his political maneuvers, pushed him to the top of Congress hierarchy, earning him the title of "Chacha" (Uncle) Nehru.
An organization that played a relatively smaller role toward achieving India's freedom was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organization). RSS was committed to achieving a state that derived its inspiration from Hindu tradition, and it aimed at inculcating pride in the Hindu heritage. It was, and still is, fiercely nationalistic. One of its major activities involves giving paramilitary training to its members.
When Gandhi's assassin was found to have been a one-time member of RSS, Nehru saw this as an opportunity to obliterate the much-despised RSS. Its members were arrested in droves and a ban was placed on the organization. However, when no evidence could be found of RSS involvement, the ban was lifted, but RSS was still prohibited from involvement with any political activity. This created a state of disillusionment and indignation out of which grew the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (Indian People's Organization) headed by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who was a member of the Constituent Assembly that drew up the Indian Constitution. Many RSS members cooperated in the formation of BJS.
BJS subscribes to an ideology of pragmatism and national self-interest. Its platform includes mild socialistic measures, but grants greater freedom to the private sector than does Congress. Consequently, its major power base is among the middle-class. Though it is frequently accused of being a Hindu right-wing party, its official stand with regards to Muslims and other minority groups reveals a more nondiscriminatory attitude than does Congress'. (Its members are often ired by the Congress' kid-glove treatment of Muslims, in particular.)
The Communist Party of India had its origin in the pre-independence days. The Communists hit the headlines in the late 1940's by their premature revolt in Telangana in central India, which was quickly suppressed. Perhaps this incident impressed upon the Communists the necessity of seeking their goals through the democratic process. Their tactics since have been a mixture of legal and extralegal activities.
The split between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China led to a similar split within CPI, whose Chinese-leaning faction formed its own party under the name of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Marxists have since gained considerable power in the states of Kerala and West Bengal, which have seen Communists in control of the state governments at one time or another. The total Communist strength in the Parliament places them in the Number two position.
Two other parties of nationwide stature are the Praja Samyavad Party (People's Socialist Party) and the Samyukt Samyavad Party (Independent Socialist Party). Both are extremely socialistic in their ideologies, which are almost indistinguishable from each other and from those of the Communists. However, PSP lays greater emphasis on nationalism and democratic process than does SSP. SSP exercises considerable power over a large chunk of the labor force. The recent nationwide railway workers strike that nearly paralyzed the country's important transport network was engineered by SSP leader George Fernandez.
The only other party of a national stature is the Swatantra Party (Freedom Party). It was the last to emerge on the national political scene, in the early 1960's, mainly as a reaction against the growing power of the government over the economic bloodstream. By no means consistently libertarian, it is the only party that believes in a free enterprise system. Consequently, it is frequently attacked by its critics as the party of the rich. It was founded by Rajagopalachari, a friend of Gandhi and a very respected leader. He was appointed to manage the country during the transition from a British government to a popularly elected government.
Swatantra Party and Bharatiya Jan Sangh often find common grounds for cooperation on a number of issues, particularly in fighting the advances of communism and the subversion of property rights by the whole gamut of the socialist spectrum. In a nation swayed by emotional rhetoric the Swatantra Party is perhaps the only voice of rationality.
The Congress, by its suicidal course of bringing about socialism in a poverty ridden nation, has brought the country to near economic ruin. It started off with a mixed economy but like the tentacles of an octopus the economic malaise has continued to spread with every dose of socialistic medicine. The economic history of independent India reads like an Atlas Shrugged, only more gruesome.
The enterprising spirit of the Indian business community is smothered day in and day out into a state of impotence by tons of regulations, licenses, quotas, permits, taxes and exhortations to national service. For every major economic disaster the Congress leaders search for a lurking capitalist. Or else the blame falls on over-population, or the caste system, or greed, or smugglers, or what-have-you.
Tax evasion is very often the only way to survive economically. Black money, or undeclared earnings, is slow to find its way into industrial expansion. However, it does come in handy as a bribe to some bureaucrat who might be reviewing a business proposition that requires a license. Some of these applications have to wait as long as 10 years before they are even considered. Every important industrial enterprise has to have a seal of approval from the head honchos who draw up the five-year plans modeled after the Soviet plans and introduced by Nehru during his heydays.
Many private industries find themselves under a threat of prosecution for surpassing their quota of production. Meanwhile, in a nation suffering from an acute shortage of steel, the gigantic nationalized steel industry is being run at a loss of millions of dollars every year. (The prime goal of nationalized industries is, as spelled out by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru, to provide employment for the masses.)
People are forbidden to own gold except in the form of ornaments. Every transaction in foreign currencies has to have the approval of the government. The Anti-Corruption Bureau conducts constant raids into homes in search of undeclared wealth.
These are just a few facts on a long list of wrongdoing on the part of a government under the Congress Party for 22 years.
Mrs. Gandhi is beginning to have second thoughts regarding the socialistic way of running a country. However, it is very doubtful if she has the intention or the ability to reverse the trend. As usual, the decisions will be made on the range of the moment.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Foreign Correspondent: Indian Politics".