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The right turn for BJP

Its electoral chances will depend on how it re-imagines its ideology

Written by Ashutosh Varshney |
June 25, 2012 1:04:00 am

Its electoral chances will depend on how it re-imagines its ideology

The BJP is yet again faced with an enduring question,which it has never fully answered. Would it like to be a modern centre-right party,or continue to be tethered to an anti-Muslim,Hindu majoritarian ideological platform? The former can potentially trigger the BJP’s electoral revival; the latter is virtually certain to lead to stagnation,even decline. Yet the BJP is not headed in the former direction.

What does a modern right-of-centre political party look like? How does the BJP compare?

Consider the two best known centre-right parties of contemporary times: the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in the UK. There are undoubtedly some differences between the two,but four common features define their ideological stance: muscular national defence,social conservatism,fiscal conservatism and a reliance on markets for economic growth.

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The old saying — laaton ke bhoot baaton se nahin maante (some people only respond to a show of force,not to dialogue) — captures the essence of why modern conservatism subscribes to muscular defence. Conservatives believe in the obduracy of evil,something that cannot be forestalled by persuasion. Military strength is viewed as a guarantor of national survival and political order. Such strength must precede a dialogue with the adversary,if a dialogue must take place at all. More than the Congress,the BJP has followed this principle in politics. Its decision to go nuclear in 1998 was a case in point.

Social conservatism has typically meant an advocacy of traditional social order,a defence of family values and a belief in gradual,as opposed to radical,change. British conservatives defend the monarchy more vigorously than the leftists do,and US Republicans focus a lot on the sanctity of traditional marriage,opposing vigorously the idea of same-sex marriage.

In India,no great debate on the meaning of social conservatism has occurred. Does it portend preservation of the caste system? Does it signify a pati-parmeshwar marriage (a husband-centric marriage)? Is a more gender-equal marriage desirable? Should young men and women date,choosing their marriage partners? Or,should marriage be always arranged by elders of the family?

Early Hindu nationalists used to defend the caste system,but post-1980,the BJP,unlike the old Jan Sangh,has abandoned the advocacy of caste hierarchies altogether. Indeed,the concept of social engineering,debated in Hindu nationalist circles in the 1980s,was especially aimed at the inclusion of lower castes. Narendra Modi is an OBC,so are Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh — Singh is no longer with the BJP.

Lacking serious debate,opposing the Valentine’s Day celebrations has for all practical purposes become,for Hindu nationalists,the most demonstrable aspect of their social conservatism. Cultural discussion remains confined to RSS circles,not promoted in the political mainstream. The reasons can be guessed,but remain fundamentally untransparent.

Fiscal conservatism generally tends to mean lower taxes,especially for business,and restrained welfare expenditures,making large fiscal deficits improbable. If they have to,conservatives defend budgetary deficits for defence outlays,not for anti-poverty programmes. Conservatives also tend to go along with a greater reliance on markets,than on state intervention,for economic development.

The BJP has undoubtedly demonstrated greater adherence to this economic philosophy than the Congress,but the record is imperfect. Ideologically pure Hindu nationalists have always subscribed to swadeshi,in effect endorsing internal economic freedom,but also calling for external controls,especially against foreign investment. Opening up retail trade to foreign investors violates the deepest core of Hindu nationalism,for traders have been the party’s most loyal social base. They want to be free domestically,not internationally.

In short,the BJP has not fully followed the standard conservative model of modern politics,nor debated an Indian version of it. Some of the younger members of the party,especially those trained abroad,would like to take the BJP towards conservative economics,but their power,especially against the elders and the RSS,is limited.

Amartya Sen has often said that he would like to see a Swatantra-style political party in India,the only party after 1947 that committed itself to an uncompromising economic conservatism. Sen does not support such a party,but believes it will invigorate democracy further. He rightly thinks that a solid opposition party is good for Indian democracy,and ideological alternatives to the left of centre must be debated.

But that is not where the BJP is headed. Instead,it is Hindu majoritarianism,not modern conservatism,which is yet again getting inextricably interwoven into its fabric. This theme emerges again and again,never quite disappearing.

When Nitish Kumar recently opposed Narendra Modi as the possible BJP/NDA candidate for prime minister in 2014,the RSS defended Modi not for his economic leadership of Gujarat,but for his commitment to Hindutva. Since 2000,at over 9 per cent per annum,Gujarat’s economy has grown at Chinese rates. A Bihar may have more than matched Gujarat’s overall growth performance in the last few years,but no state has done so for the whole decade — and not at Gujarat’s income level. At high income levels,growth rates tend to be lower. Yet the RSS chief has reportedly argued that India needs a Hindutvavadi PM. Modi’s economic register did not figure in his support.

That is the wrong way to go,for Narendra Modi is no ordinary Hindutvavadi. His political record is tainted with Gujarat riots. If he becomes the leader of the BJP,the current NDA will almost certainly break up. Nitish Kumar will leave,and the BJD will not come back. Under Modi’s leadership,the NDA is likely to be a coalition primarily of the BJP,Shiv Sena,Akali Dal and perhaps the AIADMK. The NDA will be weaker,not stronger. Many NDA leaders believe that mass killings of Gujarat Muslims were the single most important reason for the NDA’s defeat in 2004. An anti-Muslim stance does not have the same space in the Indian political arena today as in the 1990s. Political narratives have changed.

There is one way Narendra Modi can avoid making the BJP and NDA weaker. Regardless of what the ideology says,he may have to demonstrate for purely electoral reasons a spirit of accommodation towards Gujarat’s Muslims. The Congress has apologised to the Sikhs for the 1984 riots. Can Modi also say: Mere Musalmam bhayion aur beheno,muhje 2002 ke liye khed hai (My Muslim brothers and sisters,I am sorry for what happened in 2002).

For national consolidation,Hindu-Muslim relations require continued healing. An unrepentant Modi,as candidate for prime minister,will reopen communal scars and wounds. That will neither help the BJP nor the nation. It will also not allow the BJP to re-imagine its ideology and political future. Can the electoral realism of the political party tame the ideological purity of the Sangh?

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative
express@expressindia.com

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