A file photo of Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP

India, a polarized country?

Ideology is only a device by which voters reduce the costs of gathering information about parties and candidates in the fray for political office

Political events in the past fortnight—the appointment of Narendra Modi as his party’s chief campaigner; L.K. Advani’s “ouster" and the split between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally Janata Dal (United)—were interesting to say the least. The political temperature of India has gone up a few degrees and suddenly the distance to 2014 seems to have shortened greatly.

From one perspective, Modi’s elevation marks a return to Hindutva by the BJP and the party will now seek to re-claim the Hindu vote that it frittered away in the last decade.

Whether this explanation (or fear, depending on a point of view) is reasonable or not depends on the axes from which one views Indian politics. If matters are seen from the point of a religious polarization, perhaps (but just hold that thought) this may be so. But there is another axis—economic—which should be included when understanding politics and the strategy of political parties. Polarization should be seen as an interplay of strategy along these axes.

In any two-party system, politics converges sooner or later to a mid-point. This is largely because parties tend to take voters for granted. For example, voters who favour leftist policies are unlikely to vote for a party whose positions are conservative (or right). Voters of the right party are unlikely to vote for a left alternative. Both parties know this well and to garner more votes both tend to move towards the Centre.

Over the past nine years or so, the United Progressive Alliance, or more accurately, the Congress party, has moved consistently to the left on economic matters. The substance of this political outlook is simple: a pronounced bias in favour of subsidizing consumption over investment; efforts at creating jobs (by desiring a low-interest rate environment) and unwillingness to aid the central bank in taming inflation. The latter was unhinged due to unintended effects arising from inflation fuelled by cheap consumption. When viewed against an imaginary number line from 0 to 100—with 0 being “extreme left" and 100 being “extreme right—the Congress’ economic policies over the past nine years place it somewhere around 15. On the economic axis, India is already a polarized country.

For effective competition, the BJP has to match the Congress’s economic policies. It cannot do so. For one, its base of supporters—the urban middle-class, industrialists and traders—will abandon it if it comes anywhere close to the Congress’s economics. For another, what complicates this fight is the uneven distribution of voters on the economic axis. The bulk of such voters who favour the Congress’s policies are located on the left of the spectrum. After it came to power, the Congress astutely figured that in a low per capita income setting it could successfully capture a vote bank by moving to the left. Where it erred was in assuming that income growth and distribution will remain skewed towards the low end. In a growing economy, this is not a good assumption to make. If anything, its policies—and the resulting slowing of growth—have hurt the emerging middle class, especially in urban areas. This, however, is not really an opening for the BJP: Having sunk so much of capital (real and political), the Congress thinks spending more money on this group of voters can help it come to power for the third time. The BJP does have an opening here, but in real terms it will be too much of a fight for it.

So how does the BJP give the Congress a fight? Clearly, it cannot rely on economic policy alone. The BJP’s answer, as is being claimed, is to go for polarization on the religious axis.

But here again, the Congress holds the fort: what is secular or not, depends largely on what the Congress says is secular. If anything, the party and its intellectual supporters have a veto on things secular. Modi’s elevation has gained notoriety for the polarizing effect it will have on Indian politics. The BJP is merely reacting—and late at that—to an already polarized field. What is surprising is the reaction to its strategy in which it is merely reacting to a field dominated by the Congress.

It is against this background that the JD(U)’s split and Advani’s sidelining must be examined. For the JD(U)—and other regional parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal—the possibility of giving the Congress a fight on the economic axis is a viable option: after all what the Congress is doing at the national level, can be done far more effectively by these parties at the local level. If anything, the correlation between such policies at the local level and voting in favour of these parties is likely to be tighter. The repeated voting into power of the JD(U) and the BJD is testimony to this. But for the BJP this is not an option and this is the root reason—apart from personality and ambitions of individuals as factors—for the split.

Advani’s irrelevance stems from the same factors. In the last nine years, he has tried hard to move to the middle ground; his praise for Jinnah and the rounding of the political edges (when did you last hear him utter the word Hindutva?) were all geared to this. But this strategy was outdated even as it was being made for the Congress was moving to the left on both economic and religio-political matters. The BJP had no chance to give it a fight on its ground. Advani’s effort was wasted and so were his ambitions.

Secularism is a mere ideology. And ideologies like advertising strategies are efforts at product differentiation in a world where all stuff tastes the same. If anything, ideology is only a device by which voters reduce the costs of gathering information about parties and candidates in the fray for political office. A useful device but that’s about it; emotions are best left behind.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist