INDIANS ARE KNOWN to be a practical people shorn of strong ideological moorings. Barring cricket, there are few things that can move them, if at all. Religion is cited as an exception , and knowing the deep currents that it stirs in individuals, successive governments have moulded the educational system along with a battery of other devices to keep religion and political ideologies that can be derived from it at bay. But somehow, the story has not quite panned out that way.
Viewed from the longue durée of Indian history, ideologies and their transmission to the political arena shows remarkable consistency. From the perspective of modern theories of political behaviour, this is almost a heretical assertion. Since the mid-1950s at least, political science has borrowed heavily from economics, especially rational choice theories, to show that voter behaviour is based on calculating one’s interests properly. Every now and then there are challenges to this, saying that the amount of information necessary for such calculations is well beyond the abilities of normal persons. The cost of acquiring such information is exorbitant in terms of time and effort required to gather it. From this perspective, ideology is a mere cost reducing device. If candidates, and particularly political parties, send clear ideological signals, voters can then use these signals as a proxy for figuring which way their interests lie.
This is, of course, a rather emaciated understanding of ideology. For example, consider the issue of Hindu majoritarianism or, for that matter, minority communalisms of various stripes. From an economic perspective, it is hard to understand how these ‘ideologies’ can be built into utility functions except perhaps in terms of symbolic utility, something that has no real material consequences in a growing economy. There are, of course, other theories where such behaviours are explicable, for example, the politics of cultural anxiety or—if that is a permissible idea—the politics of territorial anxiety. But in terms of economic theories of political behaviour, these ideas have virtually no traction.
Yet, it is a fact that these ideas—and ideologies based on them—have persisted for a remarkable period of time in India. In Ideology & Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (Oxford University Press; 320 pages; Rs 895), Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma, two scholars of Indian politics at the University of California, Berkeley, retell the story of Indian politics from the perspective of competing ideologies. Their analysis of ideologies is based on the twin axes of politics of statism—what a state should do in a society and its economy—and the politics of recognition, basically policies surrounding affirmative action and religious identity. The former has a long history in Indian political thought, going back to ancient classics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata; the latter dates to the 19th century when some ameliorative measures for the downtrodden of India were taken. On paper, this two-fold ideological division resembles the kind of analysis pioneered by Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), but as mentioned earlier, politics of statism and recognition in India are much more than mere calculations of individual interests. If that were so, there would have been considerable variation in their appeal over time. That is only partially correct.
From an economic perspective, it is hard to see how some ‘ideologies’ can be built into utility functions except perhaps in terms of symbolic utility that has no material consequences in a growing economy
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The two scholars divide independent India’s political history into ‘four party systems’ the first from 1952-1967, second dating 1967-1989, third from 1989-2014 and finally the fourth party system from 2014 onward. The first one was a period of Congress domination across India. The second and third of Congress’ loosening grip at the level of states, and the fourth of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) dominance of Indian politics. In each period, the balance between statism and recognition has been the key issue of electoral politics. The Congress managed to keep itself adroitly in the middle of both ideologies successfully for a long time. In contrast, conservative ideas about statism and recognition faced curious accidents of history: both were championed by parties that remained opposed to each other through their existence, making the presence of a cohesive conservative bloc more or less impossible from 1952 until 1989. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), the forerunner of the BJP, inherited the mantle of politics of recognition, something it championed with gusto. But opposing the other pole, statism, fell to the Swatantra Party. Both parties had different ideas and never cooperated in any way. It was only at the end of the 1980s that recognition and opposition to state economic intervention began to be brought on the same political plane under the aegis of BJP. Even then, it took close to a quarter century before the two could be conjoined in a politically successful way under Narendra Modi in 2014.
That is where Chhibber and Verma end their story but not before raising a number of questions about conservative political consolidation. The first among them is the possible contradiction between policies of affirmative action and religious identity on one side and the continuing hold of statist economic thinking on the other. The interplay between the two is complex and managing it is probably the biggest challenge for the BJP. Aggressive pushing of recognition politics will alienate the middle class, a key constituent in its coalition. Similarly not carrying out economic reforms, too, will have the same effect. The danger of the two poles coming apart is very real.
It is interesting to contrast this ‘normal’ ideological system with its extremities, places and times when it has come under stress or broken down. Two come to mind. One, the period from 1975 to 1977, when normal politics broke down. Two, in India’s peripheries where a Maoist insurgency seeks to overthrow the Indian state. The first story is retold by Gyan Prakash, a Princeton historian, in Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Hamish Hamilton; 439 pages; Rs 699) and the second by Bernard D’Mello, a journalist with the Economic &Political Weekly, in India After Naxalbari: An Unfinished History (Aakar Books; 384 pages; Rs 595).
For the most part what Prakash says is well-known. The personal and the political merging in Indira Gandhi, events leading to her disqualification and subsequent imposition of Emergency are well-known events of Indian history. What sets his book apart is his effort to take back the cause-and-effect chain right up to the debates in the Constituent Assembly where ‘draconian’ measures were enshrined in the Constitution. In doing this, he has engaged in a historical ‘erasure theorem’ of sorts: when something is not explicable in terms of contemporary events, go back and alter history to explain the present. He is, of course, not the only one. Another Marxist historian while exploring the genesis of communalism in Independent India has gone back in time and discovered that the Congress was not a pristine secular organisation after all.
In all these stories—by Chhibber, Verma and Prakash—one fascinating person stands out: BR Ambedkar. Prakash obliquely hints at him (along with Vallabhbhai Patel) as the moving force in the creation of a strong state that was later abused by Indira Gandhi. In contrast, for himself Ambedkar wanted the state to break the stranglehold of society over individuals, making him a target for conservatives. He probably was the first modern Indian who understood the necessity of having a strong state along with the complexities involved in giving individual freedoms wide amplitude.
D’Mello’s book raises an interesting question: Can an ideology remain restricted to a particular geographic space? The usual answer based on political economy considerations is that differential provision of public goods or the nature of public goods in different jurisdictions can lead to different ideologies. But what if an ideology and its claims on providing public goods—such as equal opportunity and equal access to all goods—is premised on the destruction of a system that provides a level-playing field for all ideologies and their bearers (political parties)? The rules of the political game are dependent on all parties accepting them. The stability of the system depends on that. But if a set of believers in an ideology does not agree to these rules, in that case, the limitations of that ideology are bound to be geographic. The ideology is also likely to promote violence. Such is the case with Maoism in India.