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The new ideology of politics

Does ideology have any place in Indian politics?

One knee-jerk response, I guess, would be to say: No, Indian politicians are too cynical to believe in anything except their own advancement. Their ideology begins and ends with winning elections.


But in fact, throughout the life of our young nation, ideology has counted for much more than we realise. The disputes and discussions during the freedom struggle were often ideologically driven. Gandhiji believed in one India, where Hindus and Muslims could live in peace. That idea was rejected by M A Jinnah and the proponents of the two-nation theory. Gandhiji also believed in ahimsa. His contribution to the world — lauded by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela —was the idea of non-violent resistance. It was opposed by people like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who believed that only a violent struggle would gain India its independence.


   Even after Independence, our leaders made ideological choices. We rejected the Marxist tyranny and communist model of economy followed by the USSR. We also rejected the totalitarian model followed by China. And, of course, we rejected the idea of a religious homeland which was what Pakistan represented.


   It is easy to be cynical about ideology now. But the choices India made in the early years of Independence were not just ideologically driven, they were also brave and courageous. Universal suffrage, the rejection of an ethnic or religious definition of India, the refusal to regard any one community as having any special claim on the country; these were deep and profound choices.


   Even non-alignment, which remains the central pillar of our foreign policy today (as our stand on Ukraine demonstrates) was a courageous position to take at that time. (In contrast, Pakistan chose to ally with the US with results that Pakistanis themselves now complain about.)


   There were ideological divisions later within the Congress — often on economic policy. But by and large, the ideological consensus that had led to the creation of modern India endured till 1969.


   That was when Indira Gandhi lurched leftwards and split the Congress. It is not clear whether Mrs Gandhi’s love of socialism was motivated by ideological conviction or by self-interest but there is no doubt that for five years (from 1969 to 1974) she pushed India on to a socialist path, nationalising banks, taking over the coal sector, centralising grain distribution and imposing rigid controls on foreign investment.


   Mrs Gandhi eventually moved back nearer the centre and then there were no major ideological shifts in Indian politics till 1991, when liberalisation occurred. People have made the point that Narasimha Rao was not a reformer or a liberaliser and that he opened up the economy at gunpoint because the International Monetary Fund would not bail India out otherwise. But this ignores the fact that many of the others involved in that exercise had experienced ideological conversions. For instance, Manmohan Singh who had once supported the state-directed model of the economy had genuinely changed his mind by 1991 and come to respect the market.


  "If you believe this characterisation then, yes, ideology is back at the centre of Indian politics with two ideas of India colliding with each other."

   The economic consensus of the post-1991 years has held. No party has tried to bring back the license-quota-permit raj. If there has been a tweak to the consensus it came in the United Progressive Alliance years when it was recognised that the market would not necessarily benefit the poorest sections of society and that welfare measures and direct transfers were needed. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has eagerly adopted this recognition to the extent that it is often thought of as a Modi initiative.


   So given that ideology has played such a large role in the evolution of modern Indian politics, why are we so cynical about the ideological credentials of today’s politicians?


   Mostly, I guess, because, given the lack of divergence on ideology, most parties are now based on identity and not on ideas. Whether it is the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool, the DMK, the Telugu Desam Party, the Shiv Sena or the Biju Janata Dal, these are parties that represent specific communities or states.


   The one party that people have trouble categorising is the BJP. You could make a convincing case for the view that the BJP is an identity-based party. It is the party of Hindus, it represents Hindu interests and talks about a Hindu Rashtra. On nearly every other issue (that is, one that does not have a Hindu-Muslim component) it does not diverge significantly from what has gone before: It has the same economic policy, the same foreign policy, etc.


   Only on issues where there is a Hindu-Muslim angle (such as Kashmir), has it broken with the consensus. (You could argue that the National Register of Citizens/Citizenship Amendment Act, issues mark another break with the past but that has yet to be implemented fully and it is basically a Hindu-Muslim issue in any case.)


   Supporters of the BJP take the line that when, say, the Dalits form a party (the BSP, for example), then they are playing identity politics. But when the BJP dedicates itself to Hindu interests, they claim that it goes beyond identity-politics because the dedication to Hindu issues is based on an ideology. For want of a better term, this ideology is often called Hindutva.


   Opponents of the BJP say that this distinction is specious. The BJP’s ideology is no different from what other parties have said before. The only new element is a desire to keep Muslims down. That, by itself, does not constitute a distinct ideology. Playing the Hindu-Muslim game is just identity politics on a massive scale.


   Regardless of which view you take (whether the BJP has an ideology or not), what is clear is that the BJP is now setting the national agenda. You had to only listen to the speeches at the Congress’s Chintan Shivir to realise that this once-great national party now defines itself mainly in terms of its opposition to the BJP’s overtly Hinduised politics.


   You could argue that this means that India is now fighting an old ideological battle again. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha were around when Independent India was created but nobody paid much attention to their views. Now it is their idea of India that is knocking down the vision that has prevailed since 1947.


   If you believe this characterisation then, yes, ideology is back at the centre of Indian politics with two ideas of India colliding with each other.


   Or you could say, that in all other respects, the BJP is still in ideological consonance with what has come before. Only in raising Hindu-Muslim tensions, is it any different.


   And a communal agenda may or may not be a good thing. But it is certainly not an ideology.



Posted On: 27 May 2022 05:45 PM
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