Friday, November 16, 2012

BJP can’t afford to do a Romney

By Swapan Dasgupta

Unlike the Left that sees itself as an international tendency, the Centre-Right is inclined to be more national in its outlook. The conclusive re-election of US President Barack Obama was consequently an event celebrated by the Left and liberal forces world-wide, not least, in India. The defeat of his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, on the other hand, didn’t generate a similar solidarity of the despondent. In Britain, the governing Conservative Party, for example, had carefully detached itself from Romney and had shown a marked inclination to be supportive of Obama.

The national orientation of Centre-Right forces has, however, not been a deterrent to various commentators drawing parallels with their own countries. Some of this was, predictably, puerile and as laughable as those who imagined that the Indian general election of 2009 could be fought and won using Obama’s famous “Yes we can” slogan. In a more serious vein, there were scholars and commentators that gleamed similarities between the Republican failure to grapple with the emergent identity politics of minority groups in the US and the BJP’s over-dependence on the caste Hindus of Middle India. The implication was obvious: there can be no serious Centre-Right challenge to the Congress and its allies until the BJP go beyond what is referred in the US as ‘heartland’ politics.

Just because all the features of the US experience don’t apply to India is no reason for the entire argument to be rubbished. There are at least two features of the American landscape that are loosely mirrored in India.

First, demographic data suggests a definite “browning” of America. The proportion of white voters is gradually coming down and new immigration has led to the rise in the proportion of Hispanic and Asian voters, particularly in the urban clusters. It was Obama’s energetic mobilisation of these minorities, particularly the African Americans, which enabled him to see off a determined Romney challenge that was primarily based on ‘white’ exasperation with Obama.

Secondly, there is some evidence to suggest that US voters were divided in their attitudes to the social agenda of both candidates. Republicans were perceived to be excessively Christian, fanatically opposed to abortion and even contraception, and generally illiberal. These attitudes are believed to have repelled women, including white women, and prevented the election from becoming a referendum on Obama’s performance.

Both these themes from last week’s US presidential election resonate in India and have a relevance to the management of politics by the BJP.

To begin with, there is now enough demographic data to indicate there is a rising importance of the minority vote across India. There are approximately 150 to 160 Lok Sabha constituencies where the Muslim community account for 20 per cent or more of the voters. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that Muslim turnout in elections is significantly higher than other communities. This implies that the Muslim community exercises an influence far greater than their actual numbers would suggest—a situation that was true for the African Americans who voted in large numbers and resoundingly for Obama on November 6.

The BJP receives less than five per cent of the Muslim vote and this figure is unlikely to improve in the immediate future. More important, in many constituencies the Muslims vote strategically by which is meant that the community focuses its primary attention on ensuring the defeat of the BJP candidate. As the main ‘secular’ party, Congress is the principal beneficiary of this tactical voting, although there are regional variations. 

There is a suggestion that the BJP should secularise itself more and remove misgivings from the minds of Muslim voters. As the Congress found out between 1937 and 1946, this is easier said than done. The alternative suggestion that the BJP should embrace strident Hindutva and forge the unity of all Hindus belongs to the realms of fantasy. In today’s climate nothing would be worse for the BJP than contrived religio-political nationalism. The party runs the risk of focussing on issues that are not uppermost in the minds of Hindus.

Romney may have failed to fully capitalise on his better credentials for running the economy. That does not mean the approach was flawed. In today’s India, economic management, anti-corruption and development are the issues that concern the electorate. These are the issues the Congress is most vulnerable. The BJP has no choice but to focus on these.

Yet there is a risk of derailment. Just as Romney lost out among the young and women by being to be on the side of social regression, the BJP is invariably distracted by irrelevant issues that touch on social and religious attitudes. The objection to some suggestive song in a Bollywood film was the latest of these. What this loss of focus does is to weaken the party’s already tenuous hold on women and young voters, in sharp contrast to the late-1990s when the BJP was fired by youth support.

To prevail against the powerful forces of sectional mobilisation the BJP has to be single-minded in its focus on the economy and governance and complement it with organisational rigour. In effect this means achieving the maximum unity of every group that doesn’t have a theological allergy to the party. The finer points of contested social and religious agendas need to be consigned to the cold storage.

What was powerfully demonstrated in the US was a simple truth: without securing the ‘swing’ vote, the ‘core’ vote becomes valueless. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 11, 2012

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