Spot the Difference in What Parties Vying for India's Voters Now Represent

Each grouping is trying to borrow something from the other to add to its own successful formula.

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Indian politics is at a dead end.

The Congress party has brought a consensus around the neoliberal model of development to the point where there is no difference on economic policy between different political parties.

The other national party, Bharatiya Janata Party, managed in the last seven years to bring a consensus on social imagination to a point where all major parties are vying for space within the limits of a majoritarian cultural nationalism and becoming part of a process of ‘competitive Hindutva’.

In response to these two consensus-making exercises, regional parties have introduced transactional welfarism as their mainstay. They introduced various innovative welfare policies for farmers, students, youth, minorities, Dalit communities and women. They designed welfarism to meet the exigencies of electoralism. At present, each of these blocks is learning from and emulating the other. 

While the Congress has expanded its welfarism with temple-hopping and claims to authentic Hindu identity with a janeu-dhari  leader, BJP has been attempting to toy with rhetoric of welfarism with aggressive neoliberalism. Regional parties on the other hand are struck with the neoliberal agenda and looking at ways of balancing a pan-Indian Hindu identity with regional characteristics.

The electorate is trying to make sense of the competitive politics within this overarching seamless continuity. They seem to be struggling to establish a more substantial difference between parties and find the markers they need to use to correctly and convincingly vote for a particular party. On their part, the leaders and public representatives no longer find it difficult to defect from one party to the other as it seems to hardly matter and their political appeal remains the same. 

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Defection is not the issue but the larger stalemate in political imagination is the real crisis. The focus has therefore moved more to personalities – individual leaders, ‘dynasty politics’, oratory, and personal lifestyles and biographical details. It is through the performative details that the electorate makes sense of what could be the possible difference between parties and the leaders.

BJP, as is evident now, is not efficient in governance and with a thin talent pool cannot pursue neoliberalism as a sustainable policy-frame as the Congress did under Manmohan Singh. The party is, by default, now compelled to move to a singular focus on an even more aggressive, blatant and sometime ridiculous pursuit of Hindutva.

Come elections it gets desperate and sees Hindu-Muslim binary like a switch to run an electoral machine and is clueless when it doesn’t work, as its failure in the elections in Delhi and Bengal shows. Yet, the same formula is repeated in the next elections. Its inability to govern is compelling the party to stretch the Hindutva-rhetoric to bizarre limits, like accusing Pakistan for pollution in Uttar Pradesh

However, the crisis in the development agenda is not happenstance for BJP but flows out of its larger Hindutva imagination of disempowering citizens – including Hindus – and ‘governing’ them by making them vulnerable, insecure and anxious. There cannot be development with an insecure atmosphere and mediocre governance. It is a structural contradiction that BJP cannot overcome. The only way to manage it is by creating a more general sense of crisis or Emergency or rhetoric of impending threats and hope that people respond in the hysterical manner that they need to, to remain aligned with the politics of the BJP-RSS.

The grand old party, Congress, has been on a terminal decline for some time now. The dilemma of the Congress is somewhat in contrast to that of the BJP. It understands why it loses elections, because of in-fighting, allegations of corruption, leadership crisis and the inability to match the expectations but it remains clueless when it wins – like it did in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – and rarely know why the electorate voted for them.

It is now convinced that it wins as a default option. It is only promising the same neoliberal policies that the BJP too is pursuing. In fact, most of the policies – including the Goods and Services Tax and farm laws – were the initial brainchild of the Congress.

It is also hopping between a vague idea of secularism and attempting to appropriate Hindu identity. It is this deeper crisis in the policy and ideological direction that contributes to the leader(ship) looking weak, confused and non-committal. Congress has done next to nothing to come out of this morass and continuing to assume it might win as a default party and in comparison to the colossal failure in governance by the BJP.

It is in this context of ‘end of history’ of political imagination in Indian politics that regional parties are beginning to stake claims.

In this, Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress seem to fancy their chances of winning the trust of the electorate. AAP is attempting to expand on the failures of governance of the BJP and showcasing its success in delivering better education, health, water and electricity facilities in Delhi. Kejriwal struck a new Hindu chord in announcing free trips to religious destinations. AAP stands for a de-politicised model of service-delivery based governance, much like what Chandrababu Naidu attempted earlier in declaring himself a CEO and not a CM. It represents the promise of efficient governance that neoliberalism had arrived in India.

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TMC has a unique history of breaking away from the Congress and being anti-Left. It succeeding in breaking the stronghold that Left politics had in Bengal but also as a harbinger of a ‘new’ imagination against somewhat jaded ideas of the Left. TMC represents transactional welfarism and is attempting to occupy the place of leadership in an ideological fight against the authoritarianism of the BJP, even though it was in alliance with the BJP not long back. TMC cannot make high pitch claims of either development, given the economy of Bengal, or governance, given the image of a street-fighter that Mamata Banerjee has carefully crafted.

Banerjee’s ideological fight is therefore focused on Modi’s persona and hubris on the one hand and challenging the big brotherly attitude of the Congress on then other.

More than being alternatives, TMC and AAP are vestiges of the stalemate in Indian politics. They are picking on the elements that remained silent in popular imagination. Their appeal too is that they are more of a default option than an alternative that the electorate will actively vote for.

Indian democracy today is marked by expanding default options and shrinking alternatives.