I am filled with admiration for Prakash Karat. On Thursday, he addressed the CPM’s Jan Sangharsh rally in Lucknow, and outlined his party’s agenda for the future. The BJP was a communal party. The Congress was a bourgeois party. The CPM wanted, therefore, to be part of a Third Front. So far so good.
Except that, according to The Hindu, Mr Karat went on to suggest that, “the CPM would have no truck with those parties which appeal to people on the basis of caste”. Not so good.
If you do not align with the Congress, the BJP or any casteist party, then who can you possibly align with? In Lucknow, where Mr Karat made his impassioned address, the party in power, the BSP, is founded entirely on a casteist agenda. Its predecessor, the Samajwadi Party, which ruled UP till a year or so ago, was proud of its casteist appeal. (And Mr Karat, who presumably had not decided that caste was such a bad thing in those days, was quite happy to support the Samajwadi Party.)
In neighbouring Bihar, elections are also decided largely on the basis of caste. Lalu Prasad’s supporters vote for him because he is a Yadav. And Nitish Kumar’s core support base is his own Kurmi community.
So, no allies at all, in north India at least, for Mr Karat and his friends given his disapproval of casteism.
Things are slightly different in the south. While casteism plays an important role, regionalism is supreme. The principal Opposition party in Andhra Pradesh is a regional grouping. In Karnataka, HD Deve Gowda’s version of the Janata Dal is state-specific. In Tamil Nadu, both the leading parties are regional players.
Given how high-minded the CPM is, I doubt if it regards narrow regionalism as being morally superior to casteism. So, Mr Karat will have trouble finding members for his Third Front in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Andhra. And in Kerala, he’s stuck with the bourgeois Congress.
How can you not admire a man who dares dream the impossible dream? A man who believes that he will create a Third Front — and then imposes conditions that make it impossible for him to admit any members at all?
How can you not marvel at the starry-eyed idealism of the CPM? At that same rally, Subhashini Ali, a member of the party’s central committee, also declared (according to The Hindu) that, “Time is up for caste politics in UP.” To stand up in a city where the only question is whether Mulayam Singh Yadav can defeat Mayawati and still talk about the end of caste politics, is sweet and admirable.
Of course, we all know what will happen. Mr Karat and his idealistic pals will keep up the rhetoric till the election results are in. Then, they will do a quick calculation and see if a non-Congress, non-BJP government is possible. At that stage, all the rhetoric about fighting casteism will be hastily chucked out of the window. Mr Karat will welcome Amar Singh to the CPM office. His colleagues will reach out to any casteist whose party has more than three seats. And, if the Third Front has the numbers, then the CPM will support it from outside. New rhetoric about the victory of socialism and the defeat of communalism and bourgeois capitalism will quickly be invented.
But let’s be fair. Whatever my views on the CPM’s hypocrisy or the absurdity of its rhetoric, there’s no denying that it remains one of the few ideologically-based parties in Indian politics. The ideology may now be well past its sell-by-date, but it is an ideology nevertheless.
Outside of the Left and the two big parties, there is an almost total absence of ideology. The smaller players are based on what political scientists like to call ‘identity’: caste, region, religion etc. And the Congress has always been, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s phrase, a banyan tree offering shelter to travellers who hold many different views. Rather than ideology it believes in pragmatism. Its current pro-poor stance is a political position rather than a deeply-felt ideology.
Until recently, most of us would have argued that the BJP was also an identity-based party; it was the party of the Hindus. But over the last decade, the BJP has worked hard to move away from that positioning and, to a large extent, it has succeeded.
In fact, it has now got to the stage where I sometimes wonder if the BJP has overdone the we-are-a-mainstream-party routine. Consider the issues that dominate politics today. And tell me if you think the BJP’s real position is very different from the Congress’s.
Let’s take the Budget. As far as I can tell, the BJP’s principal opposition to the farm loan waiver is that it does not go far enough. “What will happen to those who have borrowed from moneylenders rather than banks?”, “How will they finish the procedure by the end of June?” And so on.
There is no dispute on issues of principle, let alone economics.
Then, there’s the nuclear deal. The BJP has tied itself up in so many knots on this issue that it is beginning to look more like a jalebi and less like a political party. But nobody in the know disputes that the deal is in accordance with the foreign policy that the NDA followed when it was in office. In fact, Strobe Talbott, who spent many hours negotiating with Jaswant Singh, says that the Vajpayee government would have been thrilled if it had got even half of what the Bush administration has now promised India.
On the broader thrust of economic policy, there’s virtually no difference between the Congress and the BJP at all. Both parties believe in liberalisation. Both are committed to as much privatisation as they can get away with. Both regard globalisation as inevitable.
Till AB Vajpayee became Prime Minister, you could have argued that the BJP took a hard line on Pakistan while the Congress was soft. But the NDA government changed that policy. It isn’t just Vajpayee who is regarded as a hero in Pakistan for his peace-making efforts. Many Pakistanis admire L.K. Advani for his praise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
All that the Congress and the BJP differ on are matters of implementation and personality. The BJP may be out to get Naveen Chawla, who it sees as the Congress’s man. It might argue that the UPA has not done enough to fight terrorism while the ruling party might respond that some of the worst terrorist attacks (such as the raid on Parliament) occurred when the NDA was in office. And so on.
But none of this amounts to much more than the normal bear-baiting between the government and the Opposition. On matters of principle and ideology, the differences are so small as to be minimal.
All this demonstrates how far the BJP has sailed from its original moorings. There is a substantial lobby within the Sangh Parivar that argues that the BJP has lost its way and no longer stands for very much.
The Sangh Parivar view of the world is symbolised by swadeshi economics, by a desire to rewrite the secularist version of Indian history and to reform the educational system, and by a deep-rooted suspicion of the forces of Westernisation and globalisation which strike at the heart of the Indian cultural tradition.
I do not believe that this is a valid or reasonable view of the world. But, for better or worse, this is the vision that the BJP was founded on. If it moves away from these ideological foundations and adopts policies that are suspiciously similar to the Congress’s, then it risks seeming like a pale carbon copy of the real thing, distinguished only by a covert, communalist agenda that its leaders are anyway committed to denying in public.
Nevertheless, the BJP leadership does not seem to be worried. So eager is the party to claim the ideological centre that Hindutva has become an empty and rarely used slogan, and the absence of a distinctive ideology is seen as a measure of electability.
Is this the future of Indian politics? Are we heading towards a situation where there will be two ideologically-identical national parties, one anachronistic, communist behemoth and a host of identity-driven smaller parties?
My guess is that we are. For all practical purposes, ideology is dead. Pragmatism and vote-getting are all that matters. This may or may not be a happy development – personally, I think it is a tragedy – but one thing is certain: whenever Mr Karat gives another of those rousing speeches about excluding communalists, capitalists, casteists, and nearly everyone else from his beloved Third Front, we will all admire his rhetoric.
And we will know that it is an impossible dream.