Is this a period of ideological inversion in India?

“Any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time” – O’Sullivan’s law (for the Indian context, right- and left-wing in the O’Sullivan’s law need to be replaced with pro-Hindu and ‘secular’, respectively).

Before getting into the point I want to make about present day Indian politics, we need to take a small detour to look at the politics and history of another major democracy, USA. If you are someone who does not know or did not care about the American politics, you should start now. A lot of economic ideas and political strategies we see in India today are inspired greatly from that country.

In America, electoral politics is primarily a 2 horse race. There is the right-of-centre Republican Party which is pro-business, anti-immigration, advocates minimum government spending, etc. Support for Republicans comes mostly from White, Caucasian, Christian voters in the Middle and Southern states of the US, an area popular as the Bible belt. The Democratic party on the other hand is highly popular among the African-Americans, immigrants, other minority groups in the Northern and East- and West-Coastal states. And the Democrats promote left-of-centre, socialist and Liberal policies.

This is the picture now, but was not always so if we look back at the history of US. Till as recently as 1960’s the Democrats were the party of southern Christians and Republicans were stronger in the North. Democrats were the party that enacted Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation and the Republicans were the party of anti-slavery politicians like Abraham Lincoln. For some time following the 60’s was a period of ideological inversion in American politics when Leftist party became Right and Rightist party became Left. This History article has some background on how that happened. More information in a video here.

I believe India is currently going through a similar period of ideological inversion. The self-avowed pro-Hindu (Hindutva), pro-business party of Indian politics, BJP, is slowly morphing into a ‘secular’-socialist party. This is apparent in the actions and policies party has pursued in the states and at the Center during the last few years.

BJP, since its inception, was know as the Bania party (i.e party of businessmen). Between 1999 and 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee headed the first full-term government of the party. This was also the first ever full term non-Congress Government in independent India. Atalji’s was, most will agree, to date the most right-of-center dispensation India has had, not only in the rhetoric or optics but in the governance policies it pursued – taxation, culture, education, infrastructure, telecom, social sector spending, investment in PSUs. Unfortunately those 5 glorious years of economic progress and wealth creation were followed by the most wretched decade, characterized by corruption, ineptitude, socialistic policies and blatant sectarianism. It was truly a decade of decay and the Indian growth story came to a halt.

When BJP stormed back to power in 2014, it was the first time a party received full majority in the Parliament after 30 years. That’s how frustrated India was with booming corruption, a stagnant economy and sectarian policies. The party’s ascension to power this time was aided to a big extent by the pre-election message of hope offered by it’s PM candidate, Narendra Modi.

An oft repeated “principle” of Modi in the run-up to 2014 elections was “minimum government, maximum governance“. He emphatically pronounced, repeatedly, that “government has no business to do business” as the core of this principle. Yet, more than 5 years since he assumed office as the most powerful PM India has seen in a generation, probably for the 1st time since Indira Gandhi, the government continues to dump thousands of crores every year in an attempt to revive loss making PSUs.

While continuing to do business, Modi’s government has also been aggressively spending tax-payer money to distribute freebies. Free house, free toilet, free gas connection, free electricity connection, free medicines, free healthcare, free this and free that. All this is in addition to continuing the rights based socialism of the previous regime – right to education, right to food, right to employment (MNREGA).

Between 2014 and 2019, many BJP supporters justified Modi’s sharp left-turn as a shrewd political strategy to avoid the fate of Atalji’s government in 2004. The implication was that socialism was a temporary diversion due to electoral compulsions. The government and party would resume the work started by Atalji once ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ was realized. If anything, early signs indicate that post-2019 BJP has embarked on a mission to decisively capture the socialist mantle from Congress and allies. The 1st budget of the new government signals that. Finance minister’s pronouncements after the budget about income redistribution and Gandhian trusteeship confirm that.

Since the constitutional amendment by Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government to appease Islamic fundamentalists following the Shah Bano verdict, BJP’s constant, and probably most successful, slogan has been ‘justice for all, appeasement of none’. With Modi’s ascension as the undisputed supremo of the party, it was amended to ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’. Though the new slogan translates to ‘support for all, development for all’, it was assumed to mean the same as the party’s old slogan. This assumption was strengthened by the numerous pronouncements of Modi following his anointment as the party’s PM candidate (for eg).

However, more than 5 years since his election as PM, not only have the laws, policies and schemes that defined the appeasement politics of Congress and friends become further entrenched with increased fund allocations, more such have been rolled out or are in works – the minority-only scholarships, minority-only common service centres, minority-only coaching for UPSC/government job exams, minority-only crafts bazaars, etc.

Today’s BJP, for all intents and purposes, has given up the “appeasement of none” credo and is aggressively appropriating the ‘secular’ tag from its original claimants. If BJP is the new socialist-secular party, who is the new pro-Hindu, pro-business party of India? That is a question for which there is no clear answer, yet. The Congress party is down in the dumps, probably for good. Unless they do something dramatic and unearth an inspirational leader, the party is beyond recovery. Commies are past the dead stage and are anyway too ideological to be able to pivot. The original Hindutva party, Savarkar’s Hindu Mahasabha, is worse off than even the commies. A completely new right-of-centre party that can challenge the organizational might of BJP/RSS is not practical, at least not in the short-term of next 10 years or so.

That leaves the regional parties. Most of these were formed by leaders with a strong local support base in opposition to the dominant party of the time, Congress. One of their strong selling points is to fight for the state’s rights by resisting the party at the Centre. With Congress now out of picture, their next natural opponent is BJP. These parties are also incredibly opportunistic and devoid of any ideology other than acquiring power. They will adopt any policy as long as that can help them win elections.

So, till a pan-national alternative to BJP emerges, it is probably the regional parties that are going to form the alternative pole to the current ‘secular’-socialist governance.

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