The remains of the economic Right were laid to rest yesterday as the Bharatiya Janata Party, supposedly India’s right-wing party, supported the Food Security Bill and continued its decade-long custom of deference to the Indian National Congress. For a party that advertises itself as a party with a difference, little of this difference has been seen in the last ten years. Other than the lively and intelligent attack on the Indo-US nuclear deal by Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha between 2005 and 2008, India’s principle Opposition party has been absconding from its role for almost a decade and it seems, outsourced its duty to citizenry.
The BJP’s position on the FSB has been most disappointing to many of its fellow travellers. Despite the severe opposition the bill has generated from many learned quarters, BJP President Rajnath Singh declared that his party does not oppose the bill. Nonetheless, other party members were reluctant to give up their 15 seconds of limelight: Yashwant Sinha opposed the bill on grounds of affordability and Murli Manohar Joshi on grounds that the coverage was not enough! Finally, Sushma Swaraj also extended her and the Party’s support to FSB despite the BJP’s amendments being defeated.
Putting the BJP in a worse light, the FSB had been moving towards a parliamentary vote for the past four years. It is another mark of resignation that the BJP did nothing to make its case to the people and thereby create an air of hostility to the bill. When D-Day came, the Party’s strategy was to hope that parliamentary disruptions would punt discussion until the next session!
It is not that the message of development and governance cannot be sold to the masses. However, it requires a confidence of purpose and intellectual clarity that few BJP leaders have shown. In his speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce earlier this year, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated how the idea of growth and prosperity could be packaged with simple anecdotes for the general electorate. It would be a self-defeating exercise if the BJP were to pull out PowerPoint slides and an arsenal of economic jargon, but as Albert Einstein is credited with saying, if you cannot explain an idea simply, you have not understood it yourself. Even farmers and village blacksmiths understand rent, food prices, and clean water if you care to explain it to them.
The BJP’s pro-business reputation varies depending on whether it is in power or in Opposition. A few months ago, the BJP objected to the opening of the country to foreign investment in retail. This discontent to the initiative smacked of political opportunism given that the Party had supported it while in power. Beyond political points, these volte-face decisions betray a deeper philosophical confusion. The agglomeration of swadeshi cultural nationalists with free marketeers and opponents of socialism has left the organisation in turmoil. To be fair to the BJP, its short stint in power was marked by economic liberalisation; what the INC tries to steal credit for in 1991 was done out of necessity while what the BJP did in 1998 was out of choice. Unfortunately, none of that vision has been seen in the last ten years.
The BJP’s silence – in fact, appropriation of bad UPA legislation – is felt acutely in another economic boondoggle: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Rather than oppose another disastrous welfare scheme, the BJP actually promised to expand it to cities. This repeated fear of challenging the INC and populism hurts the BJP and the general Right cause in many ways. For one, it prevents the mainstreaming of the notion that it might be a good idea to be independent of government entitlement programmes and work for a living. There is a standard refrain in India that everyone is a socialist at heart. How could they be anything else, especially if government after government tells them that India’s “unique” problems can only be addressed by massive state intervention?
The political profession is much like advertising – a little substance and a little bending of the truth to make people want your product. Too much of the former may make your issue harder to sell and too much of the latter will only be fodder for a functioning Opposition. If the BJP is indeed a centre-right party opposed to socialism, it needs to explain to the electorate why economic black holes like the FSB, NREGA, or Universal Health Care (UPA-III?) are bad for the economy and hence ultimately bad for the people. The failure to challenge an out-of-control rights discourse reflects a lack of intellectual vitality to connect with the new India.
Whatever its history since 1947, today’s BJP has a large following among the upwardly mobile who are worried about the economic stagnation welfarism has brought the country. If the BJP keeps following the INC down a path of welfarist suicide, then it gives no reason for voters to come out and vote for them. What’s the difference if the only argument is whether grain should be subsidised at ₹1 or ₹3?
By playing the INC’s populist game for short-term optics, the BJP hurts itself in the long run; the INC can now always point out that the BJP ultimately supported the FSB in parliament and is as responsible for India’s coming economic woes as it is. Each time a “half-baked” scheme is supported, an opportunity to plant seeds of doubt about the socialist enterprise is lost. As it stands right now, in Swapan Dasgupta’s succinct phraseology, the BJP’s economic platform is simply Marx + Cow.
If the BJP wins in 2014, it will not be because Indians have accepted the BJP as a superior choice over the Congress; it will be an anti-incumbency vote, against the UPA more than for the BJP. For those who see Modi as a glimmer of hope in India’s darkest decade, it will be a vote for him. If Ashoka Road is wondering why, despite so many UPA scams and mismanagement, there is no BJP wave, it needs look no further than its own record in Opposition.