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?