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).
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 continued…