There is no Left or Right in our politics today. Only the lust for power

Indian politics is a strange beast. I just completed an online politics quiz that promised to tell me which party I should vote for based on issues. I answered questions on economics, foreign policy, healthcare and brands of dog food to be told that I supported 81 per cent, 78 per cent and 68 per cent respectively of the main three parties’ positions. In truth, I am repulsed by Indian politics — but that finding is not as absurd as it seems.

How does one think about Indian politics? In Arnold Kling’s excellent book The Three Languages of Politics, he argues that American politics revolves around “three dominant heuristics (oppressor-oppressed, civilisation-barbarism, freedom-coercion).” Progressives look at the world through the prism of oppression, conservatives through that of Western civilisational values being under threat, and for libertarians, individual freedom is paramount. These three ‘tribes’ have their own political language which usually just serves the purpose of talking past others, who they typically regard as ‘unreasonable’. They frequently engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ — parsing the facts for only those that support the conclusions they’ve already reached — instead of ‘constructive reasoning’, analysing the facts on their own merit to try and arrive at the truth. Kling argues that the political space in America is getting more and more polarised because these three tribes just can’t talk to each other anymore.

Now, in a superficial sense, it might seem that these heuristics are relevant to Indian politics. The BJP, with its religious nationalism, might seem like our version of American conservatism. The Congress, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ to Rahul Gandhi’s vacuous social welfare talk, might seem to fall into the progressive camp. Local political commentators have long been used to analysing Indian politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is misplaced.

In America, while the beliefs of each side might seem idiotic to the other, they are at least internally coherent. The political parties in India, in contrast, are all over the map. If you cut-paste paragraphs from the party manifestos and submit me to a blind test on who said what, I’d surely fail. (The fault wouldn’t be mine.) And if we ignore rhetoric and examine the behaviour of the parties when in power, whether at the centre or state level, the difference between them is negligible. If the BJP is against free markets (witness their stand on FDI in retail), the Congress has always been an enemy of free speech (they banned The Satanic Verses). Who is left and who is right?

There are two factors that shape politics in India. One is the nature and structure of government. Ours is far more powerful than it should be, with an excess of discretionary power over the common man. We are worse off under our government, regardless of which party is in charge, than we were under the British. Our government is effectively set up not to serve us, but to rule us — and to extract hafta. Think of political parties as rival mafia gangs fighting for the right to loot us for five years.

The second factor shaping our politics is the nature of our electorate. Most of our politics is local; and all of it is tribal. Our tribes aren’t formed around ideas or ideologies, but around identity. (Caste and religion, mainly, in that order.) And the art of Indian politics is creating and sustaining vote banks out of these many disparate tribes. The alleged pseudo-secularism of the Congress, for example, is a result of their wooing minority vote banks. The rise of BJP in Gujarat in the late ’80s and ’90s was partly because the Patels and Brahmins came into the BJP fold as a backlash to the Congress masterplan of consolidating their KHAM vote bank (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) with the help of reservations. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a political masterstroke, finished off what was left of the KHAM alliance. There are no higher ideals being pursued here: Indian politics is about patronage, about mustering up enough votes to get to power; and rewarding those who got you in.

Our two main parties are an abomination. The Congress is an empty shell devoid of belief, and tied up in a feudalism that has harmed our nation and made Modi possible. (India would have been a better place if Kamala Nehru had had a headache all of February 1917.) The BJP has its roots in a religious outfit in which grown men show how macho they are by doing PT drills in khaki knickers, though I believe their leader is more in thrall of Mukesh Ambani than Veer Savarkar. Hindutva is just a political tool. Offer Modi a chance to rule in hell or serve in heaven, and he’ll choose hell. Power is the only religion.

AAP might appear to be an exception to this — but is it really? It defines itself mainly in opposition to others — ‘politicians are bad, we’re the common man, vote for us’ — but what exactly do they stand for? How do you reconcile a party that brings together strange bedfellows such as Kumar Vishwas and Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal and Prashant Bhushan? Arvind Kejriwal correctly focussed on a huge problem in India — corruption — but came up with a solution that would make it worse. (Instead of reducing the discretionary power of government, the root cause of corruption, he wants to add an extra layer of discretion through Jan Lokpal.) They’re an outstanding political start-up, but politics is to governance what courtship is to marriage, and we all saw how they behaved in Delhi.

One remarkable thing about these elections is that it seems to have shaken the young, the urban, the middle-class out of apathy. I can’t say the same for myself. It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and I’d like some lemonade.

Follow Amit on Twitter @amitvarma)

(This article was published on April 11, 2014)
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