Terms of Trade | Indian liberals are having a Hillary Clinton moment - Hindustan Times

Terms of Trade | Indian liberals are having a Hillary Clinton moment

Apr 13, 2024 10:35 AM IST

Rather than call BJP supporters bigoted, and imagine a progressive voter base for the opposition, we need to understand the complex nature of Indian politics

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them," Hillary Clinton infamously said during her campaign for the 2016 presidential election in the US. The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did Donald Trump defeat Clinton in the 2016 elections, he is giving sleepless nights to the so-called non-deplorable America even in the 2024 elections.

BJP supporters cheer during an election campaign rally addressed by PM Narendra Modi ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, in Cooch Behar district.(PTI)
BJP supporters cheer during an election campaign rally addressed by PM Narendra Modi ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, in Cooch Behar district.(PTI)

A lot of the liberal commentariat on Indian politics seems to be going the Hillary Clinton way while writing about the 2024 contest. Lest some of my peers take offence, what follows is not an ad hominem attack on the authors who have been advocating these views. However, for the sake of an informed debate in the public sphere, it is absolutely necessary that such views are countered.

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Let us begin by reiterating the gist of the argument which has been made so far by a host of not just journalists but even politicians. It begins with highlighting the fact that the BJP does poorly in the southern states. It then goes on to argue that the BJP’s weaker footprint in the south is a result of the region being more developed both on economic and social indicators compared to the northern parts of the country which are poor and socially retrograde. The BJP’s landslide victories outside southern India, we are told (even if not explicitly) are a result of toxic and backward people consolidating behind toxic and reactionary politics.

This is pretty much what Clinton said about Donald Trump’s rising popularity in the US.

Are these arguments incorrect?


First, let us look at the basic numbers.

In the 2019 general elections, 339 million voters voted for parties which were not a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Only 33% of them were from the southern states and Union territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Puducherry, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. To give a more specific example, the number of voters who did not vote for the NDA in Uttar Pradesh was 1.4 times more than those who did not vote for it in Tamil Nadu.

If not voting for the BJP for its allies is to be considered the differentia specifica of not being a bigot — which is what a lot of such arguments suggest — then the voters outside the south heavily outnumber their peers from southern states.

One can take this argument forward. By now, it is an established fact that the BJP enjoys a vote share premium in national elections compared to state elections in most Indian states. If bigotry alone is driving the BJP’s vote share, how does one explain this vote share differential? Is bigotry a switch which turns on and off depending on whether it’s a national or a state election?

Let us now come to the perceived social progressivism in the South compared to the North.

While there is some merit in the claim that southern India does not have a similar intensity of Hindu-Muslim political antagonism compared to some northern states, this is hardly a carte blanche for the argument that such states are completely bereft of retrograde social values.

Kerala, for example, saw a huge backlash after the Supreme Court judgement allowing women of all age groups to the Hindu shrine of Sabarimala. The Congress was at the forefront of this reactionary assertion. Similarly, while the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu has done well to unseat the numerically insignificant Brahmins from social-political power, Dalits in the state continue to face social oppression and sometimes even brutal violence from the (technically) non-Savarna caste groups.

Ironically, it is Uttar Pradesh, not Tamil Nadu or Kerala, which has given India its only full-term Dalit chief minister so far.

There is another interesting question to be asked. Is there a strict correlation between socially progressive views and support for the BJP? Khap Panchayats or caste associations of Jats, a dominant peasant caste in north-west India, gained widespread notoriety a decade ago when they were seen as persecutors of young couples who were defying social norms by marrying outside their caste or within their sub-clan. Their positions were also pretty divisive during and after the 2013 communal riots in western Uttar Pradesh. The same groups have emerged as among the biggest opponents of the BJP in the aftermath of the farmers’ movement against the now-withdrawn farm laws.

How does one explain this contradiction?

In fact, one can go ahead and ask another interesting question. Bihar is more backward than Uttar Pradesh in most social and economic indicators. Yet, the BJP is weaker in Bihar than it is in Uttar Pradesh. Nothing else explains the BJP accommodating Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in the NDA once again despite his repeated flip-flops. What explains this divergence in political divergence in fortunes for the BJP across two economically backward contiguous states?

Similarly, why has the BJP managed to establish itself as a major political player in Karnataka, but not in other southern states? How did the BJP usurp almost the entire base of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) in the state of West Bengal between the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections? Did millions of, one would expect, left-leaning CPI (M) supporters in the state undergo some instant social transformation from owing allegiance to fascism from communism? Why has the BJP not achieved similar success against the CPI (M) in Kerala?

Indian politics is a complex field


The point of asking so many questions which challenge the simplified wisdom being offered by the progressive south versus retrograde north theorists is that Indian politics and its historical evolution are far more complicated to be ascribed to just one factor.

British historian Eric Hobsbawm underlined this problem in his book Age of Extremes in just a sentence. “No one who has been asked by an intelligent American student whether the phrase “Second World War” meant that there had been a “First World War” is unaware that knowledge of even the basic facts of the century cannot be taken for granted,” he wrote. A lot of political pundits who are theorising about Indian politics are unaware of the historical processes which have brought us to the present juncture.

The BJP’s present-day dominance, if it has to be understood correctly, needs to be analysed in the wake of these historical factors and their dialectics with present-day political dynamics.

Where the current leadership of the BJP deserves credit for its political shrewdness in exploiting these historical and current dynamics to expand its political footprint. The BJP’s ability to craft an upper caste and lower OBC consolidation in Uttar Pradesh to checkmate the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) Muslim-Yadav alliance is one such example. To put this in context, the SP gave its best-ever performance in terms of vote share in the 2022 assembly elections in the state, yet lost badly to the BJP.

In Karnataka the BJP is now betting on a consolidation of Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the two numerically dominant caste groups in the state to counter the Congress’s efforts to resurrect AHINDA, a coalition of the minorities, Dalits and other lower castes. These region-specific tactical manoeuvres are complemented by Narendra Modi’s rhetoric of him being the nation-builder par excellence.

This is exactly where the Congress, which is still the largest opposition party in the country, has failed miserably in the post-2014 period. To give an example, in an election where the Congress is trying to make a caste census and doing away with the 50% cap on reservations in government jobs its biggest issue, its state unit presidents in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the citadels of Mandal politics in India, are upper caste people. In an election, where the Congress claims to be fighting the BJP to save nothing less than democracy in India, Rahul Gandhi, its biggest de facto leader is actually fighting an election against the Communist Party of India in Kerala, where the BJP is still not a force to reckon with.

A lot of regional parties and politicians against the BJP in the south, willy-nilly, are actively antagonising the northern voters both on class and cultural lines rather than trying to build bridges with them. This is either political arrogance or just parochialism and it is difficult to decide which of them is worse. An earlier version of this column had discussed some of these issues in detail.

To be sure, not all of the BJP’s advantage in current-day politics is on account of the opposition’s own mistakes. Some of them are rooted in the BJP’s ability to overcome class tensions through extra-economic factors as well, which were discussed in an earlier edition of this column.

The BJP can be and should be criticised for a lot of things. But it cannot be criticised for the opposition’s political hara-kiri, which is exactly what the opposition, both in the north and the south, is doing from a national political perspective.

To attribute a possible BJP victory in 2024 to some imaginary progressive south being outnumbered by a reactionary north rather than take a holistic view of the opposition’s self-goals and difficult-to-surmount political challenges is a sin which can be only be described by paraphrasing Brecht’s famous poem Die Lösung (The Solution) where the opposition and not the government would find it simpler to elect a new people.

It is up to the opposition and its fellow travellers whether they overcome their warped reading of the current political situation or end up like Hillary Clinton of 2016 when the history of the current period is written.

Roshan Kishore, HT's Data and Political Economy Editor, writes a weekly column on the state of the country's economy and its political fallout, and vice-versa

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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