It’s common wisdom now that Indian politics is undergoing a fundamental transformation. This has been fuelled by demographic changes such as a multi-fold increase in the size of the middle class, penetration of social media, withering away of old hierarchies and systemic changes in the nature of electoral competition among others. The social and geographical expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014 has altered the political landscape resulting in further marginalisation of the Congress, the decimation of the Left Front, and the decline in the strength of state-level parties. State-level specificities that dominated the electoral discourse in the previous two decades now have diminished status in electoral analyses. Similarly, as the BJP made gains across the board, various voting blocs curated in the past along the lines of caste and class also seem to have melted in saffron colour.
2019, however, brought mixed news for the governing regime led by the BJP in New Delhi. It began under the looming shadow of losses in three state elections in the Hindi heartland in December 2018. The Lok Sabha elections in April and May, conducted in the backdrop of simmering tensions, with Pakistan recorded the highest-ever voter turnout. The BJP created history by winning it with a larger mandate. It won even in the above-mentioned states with handsome margins. Ironically, a few months later in state assembly elections, the BJP struggled to form government in Haryana, failed to come back to power in Maharashtra, and badly lost in Jharkhand.
Has identity politics struck back? We have placed far too much analytical weight on various identities such as caste, class, region, and religion to understand political fluidity in India — as if these identities are frozen in time. It remains beyond doubt that despite these electoral reversals, contemporary India as many would argue looks more saffron in its ideological makeup than at any other point since Independence. The median seems to have shifted so far towards the right that even the opposition to BJP’s politics is either mute or coloured in overt-nationalistic sentiment. What is the ideological framework on which electoral contests in India are mounted? And more importantly, how do these identities interact with the ideological structure of the day to acquire new mobilisational potential?
In the book Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, co-authored with Pradeep Chhibber, we make five observations. First, we suggest that Indian party politics is deeply ideological, and divisions on the appropriate role of the state have influenced the changes in the Indian party system since Independence. The different ideas on whether the state should intervene in social norms and whether it should single out disadvantaged groups for special treatment have long historical lineages. Second, we show that the movement of political parties in the ideological space marked the transition from the Congress-dominant system to a multi-party competition to a party system centred around the BJP (See Figure 1) now. These transitions had far-reaching consequences: it led to the long-term structural decline of the Congress, the rise of state-level parties in many parts of the country, and gradual expansion of the BJP as an electoral force. It also created competitive spaces that brought a very different kind of representatives in India’s Parliament and state assemblies — more rural and backward castes.
Third, we argued that the BJP succeeded in this long historical battle because it was able to consolidate those on the ‘right’, that is, citizens who do not want the state intervening in social norms, redistributing property, recognising minorities, and who equate democracy with majoritarian values. Fourth, what appears to make matters worse for Congress since 2014 is that the party has narrowed its ideological position. Congress has become less relevant as the distance between the median position of the Congress elite has increased from the median voters. The BJP will likely have little opposition at the national level, though it will continue to face challenges at the state level. Fifth, we pointed out that as power in India shifts to a more conservative and vernacular elite, though the procedural aspects of democracy such as regular elections and the guarantee of minimum levels of rights and liberties will not be threatened, more expansive notions of democracy may take a hit. Also, the debates on social norms and liberal values will remain a contested space.
These claims became much more visible in the run-up to the campaign in 2019 and afterwards. The BJP within the six months of coming back to power pushed legislations to realise its long-standing projects such as removal of Article 370, the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This has happened despite the fact that the government seems to have no handle on worsening economic situation, is being humiliated for manipulating official data on growth and employment, facing severe criticisms from international media and left-of-centre politicians across the globe, and is facing sustained protests from students and civil society activists over NRC-CAA across India. Jammu and Kashmir continues to remain under lockdown, police personnel are carrying out flag-marches in many Indian cities to control protesters, and legal commentators have pointed out that even the Supreme Court in 2019 turned a blind eye to safeguard liberal and secular values.
The above-mentioned developments are enough to draw parallels with signs of creeping electoral authoritarianism in India as suggested by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die. The authors eloquently write that the “tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it”. They use economic crises or terrorist attacks “to justify anti-democratic measures”.
Is India heading to electoral authoritarianism? How must one understand the emerging contradictions in our polity: a robust competitive polity, re-orientation of federal balance, active citizenry protesting on the streets among others, along with an ideological hegemony of the BJP? Indian democracy is sui generis. It as much a by-product of institutional design as it is an accidental outcome of contradictory forces rooted in society. The civilisational diversity of Indian society means that no electoral majority is cast in stone forever and no ideological hegemony can enjoy permanence. The socio-economic churning in India’s diverse set-up will continue to produce opposing tendencies and ensure the democratic balance of our system.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.