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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Why liberal parties fail at the hustings

The ideological positions of political parties are derived in order to meet the needs of the identity base of the party

It started off with looking for reasons for why the gallant Swatantra Party failed. It ended up becoming a broader study of what it takes for a political party to succeed in an electoral democracy. How do its hard-core supporters view the party? How is it viewed by the broader electorate? And the counter-intuitive, if jejune, conclusion was that political parties in electoral democracies (not necessarily in one-party Bolshevik or Fascist societies) seem to first start off from an “identity" base which is religious, racial, ethnic or sectarian. This ensures the existence of a hard core of the party’s faithful who turn up at party conferences and who turn up to “volunteer" during elections. The ideological positions of parties—including their economic doctrines—are then derived almost as an icing on the cake in order to meet the needs of the identity base of the party.

Nineteenth century British liberals (Whigs) were the party of non-conformist, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker and Low Church Britons, with a strong geographic base in the Midlands and in Wales. Their opponents, the conservatives (Tories) represented High Church Anglicans with southern England and the home counties as their base. The economic ideals of free trade espoused by the Whigs suited their mercantile and working supporters. Tariffs on imported grains suited the Tory base, which had rural support, both real and partly romanticized. But the interesting thing is that irrespective of economic policies, there is no way a Manchester Methodist could vote Tory or a Surrey High Churchman could vote Whig. The economic ideologies were strictly secondary.

The Republican party in the US—a legatee of the Whig party—after 1864, converted itself into the party of the northern Protestant-dominant group and remained so for decades. It was impossible for a southern white to support the Republican party irrespective of the voter’s views on tariffs or taxes. From this situation evolved a third type of party which is referred to as a “rainbow coalition" party. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in 1932s included groups which perceived themselves as victimized minorities—southern whites (by no means victims or a minority in their states!), northern immigrant groups (Italians, the Irish, Jews, etc.) and even the small group of enfranchised blacks in the north.

After 1968, the Republican party has been dominated by southern whites and has seen its support among northern coastal whites decline. Again, economics is secondary. As the recent elections proved, the Republican hard core has strong views on immigration, guns and abortion. And earlier unshakeable commitments to free trade or small government can, like the icing on most cakes, be easily removed. The Democrats have strong views on immigration, guns, gay rights and abortion—and their views on global trade can change by the week.

In India, in the 1946 limited franchise election, the Congress was viewed as a Hindu party, irrespective of what its own leaders claimed. After 1952, the Congress emerged as a rainbow coalition of a variety of self-styled minorities. And like other rainbow coalitions, maintained a distinct left-of-centre stance. Being the ultimate society of atomistic fragments, India’s political parties emerged from regional, religious and caste identities. We don’t know what the views of different parties are on taxation, investment, gay rights or climate change. But we do know their identities: TMC, Shiv Sena, TRS and BJD (aggressive Bengali, Marathi, Telangana and Odiya identities), YSR Congress (Andhra-Reddy), TDP (Andhra-Kamma), NCP (Maharashtra-Maratha), RJD (Bihar-Yadav), SP (Uttar Pradesh-Yadav), BSP (UP-Dalit/Jatav), Lok Dal (UP-Jat), DMK and AIADMK (Tamil, upper caste non-Brahmin), PMK and DMDK (Tamil-specific castes), Janata (Karnataka Vokkaliga), AGP (Assamese-Ahom), AUDF (Assamese-Muslim), IUML (Kerala-Muslim), MIM (Hyderabad-Muslim), Kerala Congress (Syrian Christian), NC and PDP (Kashmir Valley Muslim) Alkali (Sikh/Jat Sikh) and so on. The Communists are a Bengali party in Tripura and a Ezhava/Thiyya party in Kerala. In Bengal, their aggressive regionalism has been stolen. With the Congress losing out to regional outfits, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tried to imitate the American Republican party after 1864. It wants to be the party of a dominant post-caste Hindu aspirational social group, much like white northern protestants were in the US in the boom years of the late 19th century. Its positioning is just right of centre. It is by no means a party for free markets—at best a market-friendly party. Identity will always trump economics.

Where was the hope for Swatantra Party, which stood for free markets, opposed the permit licence Raj and actually gave freedom to its members to vote per their conscience on other issues? And yet—even the Swatantra was given an identity baptism. The ever astute Jawaharlal Nehru called it “the Maharaja party", implying that in Rajasthan it would be seen as a Rajput party and in Saurashtra as a Kshatriya party. Those who are nostalgic about the Swatantra Party should understand that their only hope is to “influence" identity-based parties (which have firm followers and which can win elections) from the outside.

Jaithirth Rao is founder and former CEO of Mphasis and currently executive chairman of VBHC Value Homes Pvt. Ltd.

Published as part of a series on the book Liberalism In India: Past, Present And Future published recently by Centre for Civil Society. The book is a collection of essays written in honour of the late S.V. Raju.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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