October 1, 2010

A new strategic direction for India's BJP

Ever since the surprise defeat in the 2004 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have gone into a downward spiral. The heady momentum and energy of independent India’s largest mass mobilisation of the 1990s has given way to despondency, both within the party rank-and-file and among its long-time supporters.

Two successive general elections defeats can be debilitating for a party that styles itself as a national alternative to the Congress, but rumours of the death of the BJP have been exaggerated. The party is searching for a new ideology and philosophical anchor to supplement its core philosophy of Hindutva, which is losing favour with the new generation of Indians, especially women.

Crisis also presents opportunity, and the BJP should seize the moment to not just reinvent itself but orient Indian politics on a new trajectory—something it has consistently done since its founding in 1980. It can do so by taking three steps. These three steps are inter-related, and constitute a new composite strategic direction for the party.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government stands out as the only Union government in the history of India that willfully and purposefully pursued a program of privatisation involving strategic sale of government-owned companies. The NDA understood that business is not the business of government. It’s 1999 telecoms policy, hailed as a watershed moment by senior business managers from the industry, was in marked contrast to the recently concluded 3G spectrum auctions, which focused on maximising revenue for the government at the expense of the consumer.

Among other liberalisation achievements, Yashwant Sinha, the NDA’s finance minister, repealed the infamous and routinely abused Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, replacing it with the Foreign Exchange Management Act. The government also liberalised the television and broadcasting sector and accorded industry-status to film-making, laying the foundation for the corporatisation and the meteoric growth of the media and entertainment industry that has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs over the last decade. The NDA also championed the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, recognizing the economic harm that can be caused by unbridled government spending.

The problem is the BJP has never really talked about these achievements in the mass media, and never framed the debate on economic policy-making under the UPA in the context of its own liberalisation policies when it held power. It is almost as if it has not recognised the impact of those visionary actions, and isn’t proud of them. Since 2004, the UPA government has framed the liberalisation debate in terms of “reforms with a human face” and “inclusive growth”, enunciating well-intentioned but wasteful taxpayer-funded social spending programmes. Admittedly, it may be politically difficult and “unpopular” to argue against such programmes, and the BJP has never really questioned them—but the party with a difference has taken unpopular positions in the past, when it has argued for a uniform civil code. On this occasion, their seems to be a lack of conviction or the fear of being labelled “anti-poor”.

Key sectors of India’s economy, such as mining, rail transportation and banking, remain very tightly controlled by government and are constraining economic performance. Every marginal percentage point addition to the annual GDP growth rate in turn serves to lift the marginal poor citizen out of penury, and liberalising those sectors is key to achieving inclusive growth. Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, has spoken of privatising the railways in parliament, but the debate must also be taken to the masses.

The BJP’s schizophrenia towards its own economic policy achievements is a disappointing outcome, but it is also something the party can fix quickly. Such a stance would be in the party’s and the nation’s interest. The political articulation of championing the issue of privatization and free markets must come from the party that lived and breathed that economic philosophy when in power, for only then will it have credibility and resonance.

Ironically, the “progressive” and modern youth has been empowered in no small part by the economic policies implemented by the NDA government, yet today youth in India find little to identify with in the BJP. Young Indians are becoming a political constituency orphaned by their economic enabler, the BJP. With nowhere else to go, they are attracted by Congress party’s dynasts. Young people intuitively understand and believe in markets, and BJP can co-opt this constituency by openly championing free markets.

It becomes clear very quickly to even a casual observer of Indian politics how dominant political dynasties are across the country. Whether it is Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu or Jammu & Kashmir, there are major regional parties and in some cases entire governments that are in the grip of a few families, and this doesn’t make for a healthy democracy. The average Indian has little or no chance to lead a government, for in a nation where most political parties are controlled by dynasties, high political office is won not by democratic vote but dynastic right. This is contrary to ideals on which the Indian republic was founded, and the very identity of India as a parliamentary democracy. Moreover, the anti-defection law limits parliamentary debate on issues by requiring elected representatives to agree with the party line, making them answerable to the party leadership rather than their constituents.

The BJP can strengthen India’s democracy further by electing its party leaders and conducting primaries to pick election candidates. The only major political parties that are not led exclusively by dynasties are the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The anti-defection law is practically irrelevant for family-run parties, for the writ of the family head dictates the policy of the party. Communist parties are not known to encourage intellectual vitality and dissent, which leaves the BJP as the only party that can take up the issues of intra-party and grassroots democracy. Moreover, if the anti-defection law is repealed, it will allow parties which don’t agree with the BJP on every issue to be a part of a coalition without antagonising their respective constituencies.

The party position on divisive political issues which sometimes make it a pariah can be decided by vote, allowing a more dynamic registration of each region’s and legislators’ views rather than the binary with-us-or-without-us scheme that exists today, and is a suitable arrangement for family-run parties. Choosing election candidates and organisational leaders by primary elections and making legislators answerable to the electorate will pave the way for political positions to be ratified by democratic vote, endowing them with an undeniable legitimacy no matter how unpalatable they may be to critics and the intelligentsia. This type of grassroots democracy would be akin to liberalising a heavily-shackled command-and-control economy.

Structurally, the BJP is the only major political party which can take opinionated political positions advocating free markets and grassroots democracy. This can be built into a powerful strategic edge. Doing what only it can do makes for a strong, sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace of elections, but this advantage must be supplemented by a coordinated communications strategy and unshakable conviction from the top party leadership.

The third point is more mundane—the BJP needs to build up an organisation and presence in several large states where it is either completely absent or trapped in unsustainable and unsuitable alliances. No party can win an election in places where it isn’t even a credible contestant. The resurgence of the Congress has reset the standard for what it takes to be a national political party. As things stand today, the BJP depends on the under-performance of the Congress to have a shot at coming to power again. The Congress has built a national infrastructure, organisation and brand over a full century, which the BJP has to build up in a few decades.

The BJP has its flaws and shortcomings, as does every other political party. By championing free markets and a culture of grassroots democracy, the BJP can distinguish itself once again.

These would be bold steps, but such steps have not been alien to the party. Indeed, it is bold conviction that has punctuated its history. This is the time for the BJP to make a leap of faith in the national interest and renew its status as India’s party with a difference.

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