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India's opposition chasing a mirage
Publication Date : 21-08-2013
India’s principal opposition party is in a tight spot. It is well-placed to snatch the momentum from the scam-tainted United Progressive Alliance (UPA), but has frittered some of it away due to intra-party differences.
The friction seems to be between those who favour the consensus building approach of Atal Behari Vajpayee and those in favour of exploiting the polarising effects of Narendra Modi. While the latter has emerged victorious for the time being, it is a risky proposition in country where numerous cross-cutting cleavages have always challenged consensus- building. In this backdrop, the Indian People's Party's (BJP) investment in a homogenising, hard-line idea of idea is unlikely to yield high political dividends.
The BJP seems to be settling into a mould similar to that of the Republican Party in the United States. Constituted primarily by upper caste Hindu males, and led by a clique of older and conservative male politicians appointed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh fiat, the party seems to have cobbled together what may be called a hollow majority.
It is a demographic that populates television images, prime time debates, internet forums and possibly some newspaper columns, but does not really represent the very diverse voting public across the country. Surely this is reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign that was supposedly on course to upset the Obama applecart, only to realise that the American demographic did not consist of the requisite numbers of ethnically white conservative males?
The Modi-led campaign entails regression to an idea of India that is increasingly alien to realities on the ground. The slogan of modernisation without westernisation sells the dream of a prosperous India, but resists all forms of social change. In the context of Indian politics, the rhetoric of 'westernisation’ refers to the gradual erosion of traditional units such a family and religion, and is usually employed to critique assertions of individuality, particularly by women and homosexuals. It plays into the larger myth of a glorious Indian past that must be regained by vicious opposition to counter-cultures and movements from below.
Apart from obvious appeal to a section of the upper-caste male voters, such posturing is not going to lead to crucial gains from other segments of the voting population. The situation is analogous to Mitt Romey’s campaign that was able to secure a miniscule seven per cent of the African American vote, and lost heavily among the youth and women despite capturing 70 per cent of the white-male votes.
Last but not the least, the placard of development contributes to the homogenising agenda. Corporate-led development does not acknowledge the need to enable participation from below by specific interventions in education, health and related spheres.
By its very nature, such development precludes benefits for local populations, which do not possess the skills to partake in such processes. When we consider the size and diversity of such populations across the country, it becomes difficult to believe in a strategy riding on an undifferentiated and homogenising model of development.
The significance of forging a nationwide consensus is known only too well to the BJP. As a party that rode into prominence on the back of upper-caste anguish over the Mandal legislations of 1990, which morphed into a militant brand of Hindu nationalism after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP has indeed come a long way.
Under Atal Behari Vajpayee in the late 1990s, the party made a conscious move away from the Babri issue, to focus on a more inclusive agenda for the country. The National Democratic Alliance, constituted by thirteen parties from all over the country, including Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and three north-eastern states, appeared to have achieved a truly national consensus under the leadership of Vajpayee. In fact, it is this consensus that is being invoked by political opponents of the BJP who stand to gain from its move away from the centre of the political spectrum.
Historically, the Congress’ electoral success has been attributed to an organisational model that not only occupied the whole of the political centre but also accommodated much of the right and the left. The party of consensus, as it was called in academic parlance, contained within it various shades of opposition including competing elite groups, caste and regional interest groups as well as individual dissidents in the party.
Today, the situation has changed to the extent that India now has a sizeable opposition party apart from various regional forces, each capable of constituting the margin of victory or defeat. However, the principle of forging a broad consensus among diverse and sometimes competing forces in unlikely to diminish in significance in this era of coalition politics.
With popular sentiment directed against the UPA government, the BJP appeared poised to make a comeback in New Delhi. However, the move away from the political centre does not bode well for its poll fortunes.
In addition, it is bound to steer focus away from issues of policy and governance to the personality of Narendra Modi, shrinking the space for alternative voices in the polity. It remains to be seen how the BJP approaches the elections over the next few months, but it certainly needs to revaluate its rightward lurch in view of realities on the ground.
The writer is a London-based political scientist.