New Delhi

The Indian people have delivered a stunning electoral blow to the right-wing National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, and paved the way for a multiparty rainbow coalition under the Congress Party. The early election, called by a supremely confident NDA, has produced a tectonic political shift, signifying a change in the balance of forces in favor of the plebeian majority–and against India’s tiny, rapacious elite comprising a tenth of the population. It heralds a healthy change in domestic policies and a progressive global role for India.

The vote’s pattern is complex, regionally differentiated and reflective of India’s diversity. But the broad trend is unmistakable: The people have voted against pro-corporate, pro-rich neoliberal policies that impoverish the majority; they’ve rejected the Hindu-fundamentalist politics of exclusivism and Islamophobia; and they’ve reaffirmed their commitment to pluralism and secularism.

To understand the verdict’s significance, it’s best to look at three dissimilar states–Andhra Pradesh, noted for the computer-savvy Chandrababu Naidu and investments by Microsoft; Gujarat, where 2,000 Muslims were butchered in 2002 in a state-sponsored pogrom under chief minister Narendra Modi; and Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu fanatics razed a sixteenth-century mosque in 1992.

Naidu was ignominiously defeated by the Congress and Communist parties and a regional group in Parliament and state elections–a punishment for his unabashedly pro-investor policies and callousness toward his people. For Naidu, it was always more important to rub shoulders with corporate moguls at Davos’s World Economic Forum than to bother about the suicides of more than 3,000 highly indebted farmers, crushed by high power and water charges (thanks to privatization) and cheap imports. His IT balloon–information technology accounts for just 3 percent of state GDP–burst when it was revealed that Andhra’s software rank had slumped. Naidu failed another test when he refused to demand that his ally, the BJP, bring the Gujarat pogrom’s perpetrators to book.

Gujarat is the one state where the BJP has ruled on its own, and for long years, with firm support. It was forecast it would sweep Gujarat–just as it did in the 2002 state elections despite the anti-Muslim carnage. Instead, it lost in half the constituencies. It performed worst in those very areas where the anti-Muslim violence was most virulent–penalized by an electorate ultimately disenchanted with Hindu chauvinism.

In largely rural Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s tally fell by three-fifths. Acute agrarian distress–mounting losses from farming and food insecurity, attributable to elitist policies–produced strong anti-BJP opinion. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the party’s star campaigner, around whom it built a personality cult, failed to attract voters. He turned to the group the BJP despises the most–Muslims–and when that appeal failed, tried to divert Muslim votes away from the Congress. The result signifies a major shrinking of the BJP/NDA’s social base in the populous north.

The NDA did badly in most cities too–thanks to the urban poor’s revolt against policies that have doubled unemployment. Under the NDA, India had lower GDP growth than in the preceding six years, while poverty ratios worsened and health indices declined. Despite new jobs from countries that have outsourced them, employment in the organized sector has shrunk. (Most unorganized employment involves sweatshop jobs.) Today, an average family annually consumes eighty-eight pounds less food than it did a decade ago. India’s rank in the United Nations Human Development Index fell from 115 to 127 between 1999 and 2001.

Economic distress–and anger at collapsing services and privatization of public assets–is impelling a search for radical alternatives. Unfortunately, the Communist left (modern social democrats in practice) has refused to join the new government, largely out of timidity and fear that it won’t be able to change the direction of the Congress-led economic policy. But the left will influence it from outside–especially on economic policy and in “detoxifying” institutions and textbooks of Hindu-fundamentalist distortions calculated to deny the plural nature of India’s society and glorify its “Hindu past”–itself a myth.

India under the new government is likely to be less servile to the United States and to stress nonalignment and a multipolar world order. It is likely to carry forward the resistance displayed at Cancún, in conjunction with Brazil, China and South Africa, to Western pressures on opening up trade. It is inclined to go forward with the peace process with Pakistan and China.

But it’s not clear if the BJP will let it. It took its election defeat badly and threatened to launch a vengeful campaign against making a person of “foreign origin” prime minister–despite the people’s verdict and India’s Constitution, which bars discrimination on grounds of “place of birth.” The BJP’s xenophobic campaign is one reason Sonia Gandhi, apparently concerned the agitation would produce uncontrollable strife, decided not to become prime minister. This has heightened her moral stature and further discredited the BJP. But unless Manmohan Singh’s new government courageously adopts left-leaning, pro-poor policies, it could fritter away its mandate.