How does a cadre-based party handle failure in drawing votes from the masses? The BJP and the CPI-M could start by defining exactly what they stand for.
First, by way of comparison, look at the Congress. The word 'congress' is derived from Latin, via French, and means 'meeting'. The Americans still use it in the original sense; the Senate and the House of Representatives together constitute the Congress of the United States, the place where elected politicians meet.
The US Congress is home to people from both the liberal and the conservative ends of the political spectrum but the body has no ideology of its own. That is just as true of the Indian political party of the same name.Congress leaders don't need to justify policy shifts with ideological acrobatics, they only have to ensure that everyone in the party gets a small slice of the pie.
In the 1930s Sardar Patel was waging a battle against the socialists. In 1955, at the Avadi session, Pandit Nehru succeeded in enshrining socialism as the reigning philosophy. In 1991, under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, P V Narasimha Rao embraced free markets.
(Talking of the 'aam aadmi' does not constitute an ideology. Is there any political party, even in a one-party state like China or North Korea, that does not claim to be acting for the mythical 'common man'?)
This approach does not work for cadre-based parties, which operate under the conceit of a central guiding ideology. To give the CPI-M its due there is a vast body of work that seeks to define 'Marxism-Leninism'. The CPI-M's challenge is to popularise those principles to a sceptical, occasionally hostile, electorate.
Is that true of the BJP too? The English media, both Indian and foreign, delights in describing the BJP as a 'right-wing, Hindu nationalist party.' But when you come right down to it, what exactly is either specifically 'right-wing' or 'Hindu nationalist' about the BJP?
You could lay the economic policies of the Congress and the BJP side by side, and 999 out of 1,000 would struggle to say which is which. A truly right-wing, meaning fiscally conservative, party might have considered opposing schemes like loan waivers or employment guarantee programmes. Did you ever hear the BJP oppose a populist scheme?
No 'right-wing' party would ever countenance a Stalinist horror called a Planning Commission (foisted on India because Jawaharlal Nehru swallowed Soviet propaganda). Did the BJP ever discuss burying it for good?
Again, how much did the BJP do to dismantle the 'licence-permit-quota Raj' when it was in power? I am not talking about the things that irk big business, just the strangling web of forms in triplicate that plagues the ordinary citizen. The answer is that the BJP did only as much, or as little, as the Congress itself -- or so goes the popular perception.
If it isn't 'right-wing' what exactly is 'Hindu nationalist' about the BJP these days? The party was identified with the Ayodhya issue, but how much did it actually do to erect a temple? Take that out of the equation, and what, specifically, is so 'Hindu' about the BJP's programmes?
You could actually put up a perfectly consistent series of plans based purely on ancient Indian traditions if you want, one that has nothing to do with temple building.
For instance, Kalidasa mentioned the 'royal sixth' and Kautilya said the land revenue could be raised to a full quarter. The modern equivalent would be tax rates between 16.67 per cent and 25 per cent. Nehruvian economists used to speak of a 'Hindu rate of growth' (while laying down Stalinist policies); why shouldn't the BJP advocate Hindu
rates of taxation?
There is a line in the Rig Veda that is translated as 'You delight yourselves, you Gods, in plants and waters.' (Hymn 70 of the seventh Mandala if anyone is wondering.) One could easily build a development policy that is also environmentally sound around that verse and others like it. But the BJP is just as much for big ticket items -- large dams and so forth -- as ever the Congress was.
Did anyone in the BJP even try to put together an environmental case against the Rama Sethu Project alongside one based purely on religious sentiment? (Or even one demonstrating that the project is a waste of money?)
Those are just two examples of ancient traditions being adapted for today, there could be others. But if the BJP is neither particularly 'right wing' nor draws on 'Hindu' tradition in formulating policies, why should anyone vote for it rather than the Congress? Come to that, what is there to keep even the BJP cadre motivated between one general election and the next?
Both the BJP and the CPI-M are now speaking of reviewing what went wrong. But 'introspection' should mean more than simply playing musical chairs in the party headquarters. Seriously, outside the parties themselves, is anyone interested in who gets to be party general-secretary or president?
I can remember when both the BJP and the CPI-M were noted for their discipline and their incorruptibility. (Yes, I know how funny that sounds in the age of Lavalin!) The BJP (or its Jan Sangh ancestor) was the party that placed national interests above those of the party; the Marxists would prize ideology over individuals. Would anyone say half as much of them today?
All you have these days are, to be frank, rather mushy imitations of the Congress. And in that case, the voters apparently feel, one may as well just opt for the original.