Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

India’s Conservative Vacuum

In my Wall Street Journal column today, I argue that India’s leading opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to move beyond identity politics and transform itself into a modern conservative party:

The BJP’s tough line against terrorism, its commitment to a strong defense and its espousal of pride in India’s Hindu culture are all within the bounds of a responsible Indian conservatism. But to enter the global mainstream the party needs to grow up and become a responsible voice for limited government, market-based solutions to India’s myriad problems and pragmatic foreign policy. As long as it continues to be limited by a narrow focus on identity politics, and as long as it pursues policies based on opportunism rather than on principle, the BJP will fail both India and itself.

The continued dominance of socialist ideas in India’s political life, and the BJP’s failure to emerge as a rational alternative to the left-leaning Congress Party—an Indian version of the Republicans, the Tories, Australia’s Liberals, or Israel’s Likud—is a theme I’ve visited before.

In the past, I’ve argued that the party ought to take advantage of a court ruling on a dispute over a holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims in the temple town of Ayodhya, the issue that brought the BJP to national prominence in the 1990s, to craft a forward-looking agenda that appeals to the country’s burgeoning middle class. (Congress focuses its populist message on the rural poor.) I’ve also made the case that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the leader most popular with the party rank and file, should eschew his prime ministerial ambitions on account of Hindu-Muslim riots that took place on his watch in 2002. Elsewhere though, I’ve praised Modi’s economic management.

Of course, whether the BJP edges toward mainstream conservatism is only one of a broader set of questions with profound implications for India, and by extension Asia and the world. Can India fully jettison the legacy of Nehruvian socialism and fulfill the aspirations of its 1.1 billion people? Or will a reflexive fear of business among intellectual elites, and a sentimental attachment to the culture of non-alignment among foreign policy elites, hobble both economic development and the quest for greater global responsibility?

9 thoughts on “India’s Conservative Vacuum

  1. Sadanand – you want an India which is right-leaning in economic policies – in short – an India which lets the capitalist forces reign unchecked. While, at the same time, India must be left-leaning her cultural outlook. In short – deracinated brown folks that efficiently embrace the global economic architecture.

    Your argument on Modi is laughable – under Nehru’s watch India lost a war to China, needlessly legitimized Pakistan’s stake in the state of J&K (a price that India has paid in blood of tens of thousands), under Rajiv’s watch anti-Sikh riots took place, under VP Singh’s watch J&K lit up in flames. Besides, under the watch of most leaders in India, corruption has flourished. In the US corruption means economic difficulties while in India it means tens of thousands of premature deaths every year. So, where are you trying to get at with the Modi-demon argument?

    There is more – under George Bush’s watch an unnecessary war was initiated on the wrong side of the monutains in Afghanistan, a war backed by lies was initiated in Iraq that killed or maimed tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of non-elite Americans. Under Cameron and Sarkozy’s watch UN resolution against Libya has been interpreted as a license to bomb. With the backing of Obama administration the Baharaini regime continues to brutally supress anti-government protestors. Same is happening in Saudi Arabia – again – lives are being lost through conscious choices. Where are you trying to get at with the Modi-2002 argument?

    • Amit, You would not understand Sadanand. He is also one of those people who can not stand Modi’s progress! But, what else can you do Sadanand beside writing against him!

    • While I had my fair share of reservations about Modi following his conduct during the riots and it’s aftermath, I don’t think that can be used to disqualify him in any real way. P.V Narasihma Rao was home minister during the anti-Sikh riots and many of the secular stalwarts of the current government were around during the aftermath of the Babri demolition in 1992.

      Fact of the matter, there is little grounds to promote or withdraw any candidate for roles in the federal government. Unless the BJP (or the Congress for that matter) is able to get a majority on its own, coalition politics will dictate actions in Delhi. Even if a Modi is prime minister.

  2. Pretty much the same argument though correcting for typos and first-cut expression of thoughts. Feel free to delete the last post I made.

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    Sadanand – you want an India which is right-leaning in economic policies. In a country where hundereds of millions are poor, where corruption is significantly high, where innovation is low, where self-image is uncertain and where the idea of India is confused, that is a recepie for letting capitalist forces reign unchecked. At the same time, you want India to be left-leaning in her cultural outlook. This combination of selective leaning is a recipe for converting the emergent middle class into deracinated brown folks whose only purpose in the larger scheme of things would be to embrace the extant global economic architecture. That architecture was an upshot of choices made by the victorious WWII powers to preserve their respective spheres of influence. India’s karma is not to ensure longetivity of an unfair economic architecture. The issue of fairness does not hold much pursuasive power in international relations. Outdatedness does.

    Your argument on Modi is laughable – under Nehru’s watch India lost a war to China, Pakistan’s stake in the state of J&K was legitimized as a result of which India has paid a price in blood of tens of thousands of its men and women. Under Indira’s watch democracy was strangulated. Under Rajiv’s watch anti-Sikh massacre took place, the arming of LTTE and then, the half-hearted disarming of LTTE occurred – the subcontinentals paid price of amateurist policy decisions, again, in blood. Under VP Singh’s watch J&K lit up in flames, anti-merit reservation policies polarized the country along caste lines and lead to nationwide riots. Besides, under the watch of most leaders in India, corruption has flourished. In the US corruption extracts price in terms of economic difficulties. In India it causes the premature deaths of tens of thousands; every year. Where are you trying to get at with the Modi-the-demon argument?

    Enough of denigrating people who have wielded power in India. Let us take the global view – under George Bush’s watch an unnecessary war was initiated on the wrong side of the mountains despite evidence that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the nerve center of terror – tens of thousands of Afghanis died. Women and children in that country first paid the price of the Saudi-financed, Pakistani-operationalized and the American-masterminded plan to put Taliban into power. Then the men women and children of Afghanistan again paid the price – this time for America to be able to unwind the Taliban project. In 2003 a war backed by lies was lead by America in Iraq that killed or maimed tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of non-elite Americans. The resultant civil war in the country continues to kill and main. Yet, the American leadership has chosen to pack up and leave the country in the hands of warring, inexperienced and sectarian factions. Under Cameron and Sarkozy’s watch UN resolution against Libya has been interpreted as a license to bomb and carry out assasinations. With the backing of Obama administration the Baharaini regime continues to brutally supress anti-government protestors. Same is happening in Saudi Arabia – again – lives are being lost through conscious choices. It appears that your personal need for your opinions to appear as if they carry the force of a moral voice that rises beyond national interest gets the better of your analytical skills.

  3. Sadanand,

    There’s no realistic ‘Left-Right’ paradigm in Indian politics. Both the Congress and BJP can at best be identified as centrist parties if you look at the sum of their policy positions. The BJP has positions which are extremely protectionist on economic issues and advocate non-alignment in foreign policy. Even parties like the Communists have a semi-conservative line when they call for ‘total independence’ in strategic policy reg. nuclear and space research.

    The point is it’s very difficult to find a realistic westernised version of a conservative party in India. The closest was the Swatantrata party of the 50-60s which has since fizzled out.

    • Commonsense: I’m afraid that’s not so. Congress espouses many positions that are recognizably left-leaning. Its flagship welfare program (NREGA) throws billions of tax payer rupees into an essentially useless make-work program. The right to education act discourages private investment in education and places burdens on private schools. In terms of foreign policy, Congress continues to hew, by and large, to a pro-Palestinian position, and appears ambivalent about a closer defense partnership with the US. In terms of interfaith relations, Congress, like much of the European left, panders to obscurantist Muslim sentiment. I could go on and on, but you get the point. On the BJP, however, we’re broadly in agreement. The challenge is to nudge the party toward the political space lost with the collapse of Swatantra in the early 1970s.

      • Sadanand,

        Would any party (ruling or opposition) discontinue the schemes you talk about-both pursue a politically opportunistic mix of pragmatic reform and populism. Rather than looking at the policy of one BJP-led government at the federal level, look at the policies in various state governments where they have been in power for several years. Is populism absent there?? No,I’m not talking about issues like cow slaughter alone. Agricultural subsidies, new caste reservations (the Meena-Gujjar violence in Rajasthan) have all been implemented and promoted by the BJP as well.

        The same goes for foreign policy; did the BJP-led NDA totally jettison engagement with the Arab world and the Iranians?? I still remember the howls of protests from the BJP over India’s vote against Iran at the IAEA. The same goes for engagement with the US-most BJP supporters accuse the current government of staking too much on ties with the US!!

        While I agree on the Congress pandering to Islamists, the question is does that distinction make the BJP and it’s core constituency, RSS anywhere appear close to a modern Conservative group? Their apathy towards Christian groups and sporadic bursts of anti-Muslim violence places them more in the category of Jorg Haider and Jean Marie Le Pen of being reactionary xenophobes than objective conservatives. No amount of nudging and political polish can change a core constituency’s outlook.

        • Commonsense: I don’t disagree entirely with your criticism of the BJP, except to the extent that your comparisons with Le Pen and Haider are over the top. The trouble with the BJP is that it’s unable to draw a line between its moderate and extreme elements, not that the mainstream itself is extreme. In French terms, the BJP would be an amalgamation of the UMP and the National Front. In British terms, it’s akin to a combination of the Tories and the BNP. This is problematic, but not to the degree that you suggest.

          Anyhow, where we appear to differ in the main is on whether the party can be nudged toward a set of positions–on foreign policy, economics and minority rights–that are broadly consonant with modern conservatism in other democracies. You appear to believe that this is impossible. I think there’s enough fluidity and flux in Indian society and politics for this not to be the case.

          To be sure, progress will be messy and halting, and perhaps a certain amount of populism of the NREGA variety is baked into the cake of Indian politics, but it’s probably fair to say that the jury is still out on the main question I raise in my op-ed: Can the BJP evolve into a mainstream conservative party, or is it forever doomed to the fringes of respectability?

          • Whether my comparisons are over the top or not, depend on how you see their core constituency. The BJP wouldn’t be the BJP without support from the Saffron groups. Have the RSS, VHP and their ilk dropped their extreme agenda?? Can the BJP be viable without support from the Saffron groups.

            I’ve seen personally what these groups espouse and I don’t see much interest in anything resembling realistic conservative values. The only factor which has tempered the BJP to an extent is coalition compulsions as witnessed in places like Bihar.

            Coming to your main question……whether the BJP evolves is not exactly a compulsion which will result from an evaluation of its political position. The current government has done enough to ensure that the BJP comes to power without any need to reform itself. You cannot understand the BJP without understanding its Saffron base.

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