As a consumer of news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Indian elections are ideology-free. Pundits are always saying that votes are bought, coalitions are constructed out of caste fractions, politicians defect, political parties switch sides with frictionless ease and the policies contained in party manifestos are irrelevant to the democratic process because they’re never seriously discussed. Add up these defects and what India seems to have by way of elections is the mechanism of representative government without the large ideological contestation that is, or ought to be, a democracy’s reason for being.
Turnaround: Did Patnaik’s distaste for ethnic cleansing make him break from the NDA? Prakash Singh/AFP
This is wrong in so many separate ways that you would need a scroll the length of a toilet roll just to list them, but let me try. Let’s start at the top, with the great political coalitions that have ruled India in recent times. The received wisdom about coalitions is that ideology matters less than pragmatic accommodation and it’s true to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has cohabited with parties that aren’t hectoringly “Hindu” to cobble together governing majorities both at the Centre and in the states.
But if you, as a voter, were to examine the composition of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), its ideological coherence would become apparent. Its main constituents are the BJP, the Shiv Sena, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U). The first four of these five parties are natural ideological allies because their politics is founded on a common premise: the belief that religious majorities should be hegemonic in their home territories.
The Akalis think it’s proper for Sikhs to dominate Punjab; the AGP, which champions the cause of Assam’s Hindu majority, was born out of the massacre of Muslims in Nellie in 1983; the Shiv Sena specializes in stoking the anxieties of Marathi-speaking Hindus in Maharashtra and the BJP performs the same service for Hindus in general at an all-India level. Ideologically, these parties are made for each other; the proof of this is that it is impossible to see any of them switching sides to join the Congress.
The reason the fifth party, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), has been in the news recently is precisely because it’s obvious that it’s ideologically distinct from its allies in the NDA. The alliance between the BJP and the JD(U) has been a durable marriage of convenience, but given Kumar’s secular, socialist pedigree, it isn’t surprising that both the Congress and the JD(U) have indicated in coded ways their openness to post-election negotiations.
It’s worth noting in this context that Orissa’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which had a long-standing alliance with the BJP, opted out of the NDA before the elections citing the Sangh Parivar’s involvement in the violence against Christians in Kandhamal last year. Given that Orissa is an overwhelmingly Hindu state, the alienation of minorities wouldn’t have done significant electoral damage to the BJD’s prospects. Breaking with the BJP, though, carries a real electoral cost because dividing the erstwhile alliance’s votes benefits the BJD’s main enemy in Orissa, the Congress. The BJD might have reckoned that its success in local elections was a sign that it could go it alone but it’s clear that Naveen Patnaik’s ideological distaste for ethnic cleansing in his home state played a role in his break with the NDA.
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Similarly, the idea that caste-based politics diminishes India’s democracy, that it represents a narrow self-interest that is antithetical to the great universal ideas that ought to animate a democratic republic, is silly. Whether you think caste quotas or reserved constituencies for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are right or wrong will depend upon your reading of Indian society. If, like the Left parties, you think that the faultlines in Indian society correspond to class, you’re likely to take one view; if, like Jotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, you think that India’s social contradictions are based on caste, you’ll take another. Both are ideological positions that deserve to be taken seriously.
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP’s) ambition of assembling a coalition of plebeian castes and communities, opportunistically allied to select upper caste groups, to capture political power is as respectable a part of democratic politics as the strategy of social democratic parties in Europe to merge organized labour and sections of the middle class to produce a governing majority.
A staple indictment of electoral politics in India is that it is vitiated by an unseemly populism. Populism in this usage denotes a politics that panders to public need without rationally counting the costs of the promises made. Thus, promises to sell rice at Rs1 or Rs2 per kg are routinely derided as populist. M.G. Ramachandran was accused of populism when he instituted free midday meals in government schools in Tamil Nadu. The midday meal scheme has since come to be seen not just as a nutritional supplement but as an enabling measure that helps draw children, specially the girl child, into the educational system. Some would argue that using populism as a pejorative description of subsidy is itself an elitist feint intended to close off ideological debate about the proper role of the state in shoring up the livelihood of the poor.
The simplest way of illustrating the viscerally ideological nature of Indian democracy is to look at the two issues that have remade electoral politics over the past 20 years: the BJP’s campaign to build the Ram Mandir and the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s quotas for other backward classes (OBCs). We might disapprove of both Mandal and Mandir as political projects but no one who has lived through the last two decades in India as a politically aware adult could seriously argue that factional self-interest has replaced ideological contestation as the engine of democratic politics. Individual and factional ambition, and the greed and calculated fickleness that it engenders, has played its part in colouring electoral politics in India, but the context for this ambition, the arena itself, has been shaped and landscaped by large political ideas.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions. Write to Mukul at email@example.com