By Pradeep Chibber and Rahul Verma
There is a consensus that Indian politics is not ideological. Elections are rarely considered a genuine contest of ideas, policies and visions. No matter what coalition or party comes to power at the Centre — the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress or the third front — it pursues broadly similar strategies. This absence of distinct policy positions on the economic front has led many to conclude that party politics in India is non-ideological. Politicians are therefore seen to be only playing “khel kursi ka (game of thrones)”.
In our view, electoral contests in India have a clear ideological basis. An analysis of National Election Studies data collected by Lokniti, CSDS, for the 1996 to 2009 parliamentary elections, shows that political parties and their voters clearly sort themselves on whether the state should make special provisions for different social groups.
We present data from the 2004 National Election Studies in Figures 1 and 2. The figures depict the attitudes of party members, voters, and various social groups (caste, religious, and economic) on whether the state should make policy to favour disadvantaged social groups such as Dalits and Muslims (the horizontal axis) and whether the state should reduce its role in the economy (the vertical axis).
Figure 1 shows that there is considerable ideological difference among party members on whether the state should make special provisions for disadvantaged groups. BJP members oppose special provisions for religious minorities and different caste groups. Members of the Left parties are more likely to support social accommodation compared to members of the Congress and regional parties. Similarly, those who vote for the BJP are less likely to support policies favouring social accommodation compared to voters for the Congress, the Left and various regional parties, which are more likely to favour efforts to promote social justice through reservations (Figure 1).
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The major social groups in India also display a similarly deep ideological divide on the role of the state in making policies for disadvantaged groups (Figure 2). Upper castes are more likely to say that the state should not make special provisions for different social groups. Dalits and Muslims prefer that the government ensure social and political equality through special provisions. Figure 2 also shows that there is little difference, however, between the rich and the poor on whether the state should favour disadvantaged groups.
In other words, it is the caste and religion of citizens and not their economic class that underpins citizen attitudes on whether the state should make special provisions for the underprivileged. The division on social issues is far more pronounced than any distinction among voters of the different parties on the role of the state in the economy (Figure 1). Not surprisingly, members of Left parties are least likely to favour liberalisation. Members of the other parties — the BJP, Congress or regional parties — share similar perspectives on the role of the state in the economy. More important, there is virtually no difference in the attitudes of different social groups — upper castes, Dalits, Muslims or even the rich, the middle classes, or the poor — on whether the state should liberalise (Figure 2).
Why do parties and voters in India sort themselves on social issues but not on economic issues, and what are its consequences? In the years following Independence, a widespread consensus emerged among most of the left and the right that the state should play an active role in economic development. While this consensus has been challenged post-1991, there is still broad agreement that the state should act on behalf of the poor and create a policy framework that encourages economic development.
There are also good strategic reasons for why no political party advocates a position that seeks a reduced role for the state. First, since a majority of the population is poor, there is little advantage to be gained by any party openly favouring a pro-middle class or pro-rich platform. Second, given the overwhelming role the government plays in various areas of the economy and the large number of powerful interests (like trade unions and bureaucrats) that gain from this, no party can openly advocate liberalisation.
Given this ideological consensus, no matter how the choices are presented in the media in the current campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, we should not expect any dramatic changes in economic policy after the election. Members of the major parties (the BJP, Congress and regional parties) do not disagree on the essential role of the state in the economy. Given this “reality”, no party leader or prime minister can push for radical change in economic policy without substantial pressure from within the party.
No such consensus, however, exists on the role the state should play in the social and political empowerment of marginalised groups. Since the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909, reservations have been seen as essential to addressing the concerns of marginalised groups by policymakers and religious and caste groups. Given the overwhelming role ascribed to the state in India, this seems entirely reasonable. The assumption was that once a marginalised group had political power, it would address the deep social inequalities that pervade Indian society. B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, stated this most succinctly when he remarked that, “It is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be lawmakers; otherwise those who can be lawmakers will be the masters of those who can only be electors.”
This idea, whose origins lay in addressing the legitimate needs of Muslims prior to Independence and Dalits and some backward classes, has now spread far and wide as many more groups seek special provisions from the government. This has led to an ideological division between two groups: one group for whom the purpose of electoral politics and the state is to make special provisions for as many social interests as possible, and other groups that oppose these special provisions.
The general elections scheduled for April-May 2014 have this ideological overtone on social accommodation. The Congress and regional parties are pursuing policies of placating as many groups as they can identify and define (witness the granting of minority status to Jains), a policy wholly supported by party members of the Congress and regional parties.
The Aam Aadmi Party is challenging the Congress’s poor administration without offering an ideological position on this issue distinct from the latter’s. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, sometimes offers a clear rightwing alternative by hinting at limiting the politics of social accommodation — a policy for which he has support from within his party.
The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US