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 Principles of Politics
Prospect of liberal politics in India today
Liberty Institute, India Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Barun Mitra
The verdict, in the recent assembly election in the state of Bihar, has attracted a lot of interest across India. The ruling coalition of JD(U) and BJP won a record 206 seats in a house of 243. Did this huge margin of victory, signify a major shift in Indian politics? What does this election really tell us about the future political direction in India? In this the second half, the aim is to identify the various strands that dominated Indian politics over the past six decades - language, region, religion, caste, poverty. Is there a diminising political dividend from identity politics, could political ideology find a legitimate space in India, asks Barun Mitra

Part 1: Lessons from the Bihar assembly election of 2010

Part 2: Evolution of Politics in India

Part 1: Lessons from the Bihar assembly election of 2010

This was the first major state to hold an election, since the general election to the national parliament (Lok Sabha) held in the summer of 2009. Naturally, there was a lot of interest to understand whether the verdict will be relevant only locally, or would it have national significance. Next year, 2011, as many as 5 or 6 states are expected to go to the polls to elect their legislators. So there was a high level of interest in the Bihar election, and speculation on the possible political fall out in the coming round of elections, and also on the probable impact on the political dynamics at the national level.

Secondly, the general expectation, and the opinion polls, had all indicated that the ruling coalition of JD(U), and BJP, will be re-elected. What was uncertain was the margin of victory.

Thirdly, Bihar is a state where caste based identity politics had struck deep roots. Almost all the major political parties in the state have come to rely upon the core caste based support it has. But in this election, there was a general consensus that issues of development - law and order, roads, electricity, employment, - were at the forefront during the campaign. So, there was a great deal of interest to see if the election really tilted the balance in favour of the development agenda.

Then there were other lesser themes running through this two month long election schedule. Given that most people expected the ruling coalition to win, there was an interest to see which of the two parties in the coalition would fare better. To keep the coalition together, BJP had to soft pedal its Hindu religious agenda.

There was also an interest to know how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the party led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who along with his wife, had ruled Bihar continuously between 1990 and 2005, through three legislative terms. The question was would the social coalition of Dalits (among the most oppressed castes), the Yadavs (among the backward castes) and the Muslims, that had seen the RJD through for 15 years, will continue to hold or dissipate.

The Indian National Congress (INC), the principal party in the national coalition government in Delhi, was seeking to make a comeback in the two major Hindi speaking states of the north – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Over the past 30 years, INC had slowly but steadily lost its support base in these two major states. But INC had done surprisingly well in the UP in the 2009 general election to national Parliament, and so there was speculation that perhaps the party had turned a corner, and might improve its position in Bihar.

Finally, among the other major parties, there was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has emerged at the national level over the past two decades. The BSP now rules the largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, having won the election to the state assembly in 2007. The BSP primarily represented the Dalits, which constitute about 20% of India’s population. But it changed its political strategy in prior to 2007, to include the poor, the religious minorities, and the disadvantaged among different social segments, and had built an unique rainbow coalition, which had propelled it to power on its own, in UP. So there was an interest to see if the BSP with its recent successes will have any impact in Bihar.

The past and the present in Bihar

Bihar is a major state in India, lying on the gangetic plains. It is politically a very significant state too. Yet, economically and socially, Bihar ranks among the lowest in India, in per capita income, or life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and many other developmental indicators. Over the past twenty-five years, there was a general sense, that Bihar moves only in one direction, which is, downwards, falling further behind the rest of the country.

Bihar had produced many leaders of national prominence during the decades of India’s struggle for Independence. The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, hailed from Bihar. In the first three decades after Independence in 1947, Bihar had a major role in shaping the social and political agenda of the country. During 1975-77, Indian democracy was under a cloud under the ‘Emergency’ rule of Mrs Indira Gandhi, when many constitutional rights and freedoms were suspended, Bihar was at the forefront of the movement to restore democracy in the country. Many of the current generation of political leaders are a product of that national movement.

Yet, over the next three decades, Bihar had lost its political prominence. Bihar had become synonymous with the worst of India’s social and political life. Identity politics of caste and religion fragmented the social fabric. Corruption and crime sky rocketed. Some of the worst forms of caste oppression and violence were witnessed in Bihar. Parts of the state were under the grip of extreme left wing forces. In other parts, mafia dons ruled their own fiefdom with impunity. Economic development had come to halt. Kidnapping had emerged as the most lucrative business. People, rich and poor, migrated out of the state in search of employment and safety. People of Bihar seemed to have lost their self-confidence and their pride. That was 2005.

The fifteen year rule of the RJD led coalition, in Bihar came to an end in 2005. Mr Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), formed a coalition government with the BJP. The soft spoken Mr Kumar was a study in contrast to the flamboyant Mr Prasad. With this election victory, people of Bihar seems to have confirmed their faith in Mr Kumar and his coalition. In return, Mr Kumar seems to have helped people regain their pride to be a resident of Bihar. 

Socially and economically, Bihar still has a long way to go. But there are a few things that the ruling coalition seems to have done in the past few years that have clearly impressed the people.

The most visible change was in restoration of law and order. Kidnappings declined dramatically. For the first time in years, people felt a degree of security. Even many parts of Patna, the capital city on the Ganges, particularly the river front had been abandoned to the criminals and bootleggers. Today, families with children feel safe to spend their afternoon and evening on the banks.

Apparently, the government had clearly instructed the police not to be swayed by any extraneous influence, but enforce the law. It is believed that about 50,000 suspected criminals were locked up.

The Economist, the international weekly magazine, reported on the changes in Bihar. Where there were no roads, now there were pot holes, recognizing the major effort of the state government to rebuild the roads and bridges.

Another popular step seems to have been the effort to promote education among girls. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles were distributed among girls who continued their education to the high school level. This step alone was credited with reducing the drop out rate among girls by about 25%.

In an effort to promote greater political participation among women, the state government also reserved half the seats in village councils, the third tier of electoral democracy in India, to women.

And women did participate in a major way during the recent election. According to Election Commission of India, 10% more women voted than men, when the overall voter turn out is estimated at about 54%. The turn out was 6% more than the number of people who voted in 2009 during the Parliamentary election.

In general, economic growth rate in Bihar has been averaging over 10%, higher than the national rate, for the past few years. This has been primarily driven by government expenditure on infrastructure.

While there has been a visible change in the ground situation in Bihar, it would be incorrect to assume that the bold efforts of the ruling coalition to improve governance had been the only factor that is responsible for its electoral success in 2010.

Development was clearly on the political agenda in Bihar as never before. But Mr Kumar also had undertaken a new form of social engineering. He promoted special welfare measures for two segments of the caste cauldron, in an attempt to create new sense of identities. Traditionally, social welfare programmes for the oppressed and underprivileged castes were captured by the more advanced segments within these sections. So Mr Kumar initiated special welfare programmes for the most backward among the Dalits (the Maha Dalits). He did the same for the most backward of castes (MBC) from among the other backward castes (the OBC).

In addition, Mr Kumar ensured that his coalition partner, the BJP, did not pursue the hardline Hindu agenda that alienates other religious groups, particularly the Muslims. Some of the more strident Hindu voices of the BJP, including the Chief Minister of Gujart, Narendra Modi, were not invited to campaign for the party.

These factors helped the ruling coalition to not only to consolidate their traditional social base, but also move break the core support base of the opposition as well. It prevented polarization of opinion among religious ground. And it prevented the consolidation of traditional caste support base in favour of the opposition.

Does this mean that identity politics continues to have a place even while developmental issues are emerging on the political horizon? To understand this question, one has to look back at the evolution of the Indian political scene over the past 60 years.

Part 2: Evolution of Politics in India

Evolution of politics in India

In the first 15 years after Independence, politics was dominated by the identity of languages, and the states were reorganized along broadly linguistic lines.

In the next 15 years, poverty became the dominant element of political discourse, cutting across various social fracture lines, and encompassing different identities. During this phase, with nationalization of major industries such as banks, energy and oil, textile, etc, India entered a decidedly socialist era. But increased economic control, along with the first oil price shock, led inevitably to political discontent.

Consequently, in the historic election in the aftermath of the ‘Emergency’, in 1977, the INC lost power at the national level for the first time. As the world watched, India became the first major democracy in a developing country to undergo constitutional transfer of power from one party to another. This was an event of enormous political significance, empowering people, and entrenching democracy.

But the parties that formed the new government, pursued the socialistic economic vision with even greater rigour, and with the second oil price shock of 1979, inflation touched 20% per annum, and the fate of the first non-Congress government in Delhi was sealed.

In the 1980s, while the INC regained power, and took some tentative steps to reform the economy, the country was almost torn apart by various sectarian movements. Bolstered by socialistic attempt to re-distribute wealth, various political parties experimented with identity politics of caste, religion, and region, in the hope of capturing the organs of the state. The separatist movements in Punjab and Assam gathered steam. A lot of blood was spilled throughout the 1980s, including the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

At the same time, various caste groups attempted to organize and mobilize politically, particularly in north India. In an attempt to politically consolidate some of the backward castes, a sweeping policy of reservation or affirmative action was proposed.

On the other hand, another kind of identity politics raised its head. Hindu fundamentalists were already apprehensive of appeasement of religious minorities such as Muslims, for electoral gain by the INC. Now the same forces became concerned about social fragmentation on caste lines, and sought to unite the Hindu majority of India in to a cogent political force.

By the 1990s, while the separatists and secessionist movements had by and large been controlled, the caste and religious polarization completely fragmented Indian polity. This necessarily ushered in a new era of coalition politics, and for the first time, Indian politics became really competitive, for the first time. With people experiencing diverse political options, routinely threw out the ruling side. This has been described as the anti-incumbency syndrome. A point came, when a sitting legislator had barely 30% chance of getting re-elected.

Indian politics was again transformed. For the first time political parties sensed an opportunity to gain power by winning election, and by the same token feared the very real danger of losing power as well.

It is in this tumultuous political environment of the 1990s, when political uncertainty prevailed, that India began to reform her economy in a big way. This defied conventional wisdom that political uncertainty will lead to an uncertain economic outlook.

It is precisely this political uncertainty which made the political leaders and parties look for policies to improve governance and the economic performance, in the hope of winning the favour of the voters.

Policies became a subject of discourse out of sheer political necessity in an extremely competitive political environment. Just as competition improves the economic efficiency, political competition sustained the search for policies that might improve the prospect of getting re-elected.

As India’s economic growth increased gradually from 6% in the 1990s, to 8% and then 9% in the mid-2000s, politics of performance became a significant factor in elections.

The second significant consequence of increased political competition was the diminishing returns of earlier identity politics. While politicians tasted power riding their favourite identity, be it caste or religion, the voters began to relish the prospect of political competition, and explore ways to force the political parties to perform.

The BSP, the party of the most oppressed castes, had made its mark on Indian politics by rabidly polarizing caste opinon, and mobilizing and consolidating its targeted caste groups. It came close to political power in UP, propelled by narrow identity of its caste base. Yet, it had to rely on the support of other parties representing other caste groups, in order to cobble up the coalition with necessary numbers in the legislature. These experiments continued throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, and each time such coalition of expediency was quite short lived.

It is then, that the BSP, the party of extremely narrowly defined caste groups, realized the need to broad base its political appeal if it had to have any realistic chance of securing political power in UP. With no caste group enjoying more than 20% share of the population, there was little possibility of any party being able to secure political power on its own. For over two years, BSP went about transforming itself from the party of the Dalits, to the party of all, particularly the poor, appealing to virtually every section of Indian society, caste and religions. While the other major parties in UP sought to consolidate their voter base, BSP was the only one that attempted to expand its base to other groups.

In the UP assembly election of 2007, BSP reaped the benefit broad basing its appeal. Defying all predictions, it won the assembly election on its own, and gained political power in India’s largest state.

After 1977, when INC lost the national election for the first time, and the1990s, when Indian politics became truly competitive, the UP assembly election, of 2007, is perhaps the most politically significant event in India. For it showed the limits of identity politics, and established the political reason for broad basing politics.

Real significance of Bihar election of 2010

The assembly election in Bihar, in 2005, also exposed the limits of identity politics. For 15 years, RJD leader Lalu Prasad enjoyed unquestioned political authority in the state. Yet, he failed to grasp the political reality. While he tried to consolidate his traditional support base, but his almost complete failure to maintain basic law and order, and governance, meant that his voters were growing increasingly dissatisfied.

One of the biggest advantage of the first past the post election system is that even a small shift in support base can bring in big electoral dividend in terms of seats. This greatly increases the prospect of new political entrants to make their mark.

In 2005, in Bihar, as RJD’s political fortune was fraying, its main coalition partners, the INC, and another local party, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), moved away. As his vote base got divided, the coalition of JD(U) and BJP gained the upper hand, and captured political power.

The election in Bihar, in 2010, only reconfirms the basic thrust of this analysis. Increased political competition, inevitably diminishes the political returns of identity politics as voters begin to relish the greater range of political choices. Consequently, parties are forced to look at ways of improving their performance in governance.

Indians typically have multiple identities in terms of caste, language, religion and region, and the voters are increasingly aware of the advantage of switching their identity to take political advantage of the situation.

This is a fundamental lesson which Mr Kumar, the leader of JD(U) and BJP coalition in Bihar took to heart. Realising the fickleness of identity politics, he opted to improve governance as a way to appeal to broad section of voters beyond any particular identity. He moderated the caste based appeal of many in his own party, and convinced his coalition partner, the BJP, to moderate their Hindu religious agenda.

At the same time, since identity loyalties are not permanent, as his predecessor from RJD had learned at a high political cost, Mr Kumar embarked on basic governance issues. This allowed his coalition to increase their vote share by only 5%, getting about 39% of the vote in 2010 election, but ending up winning 85% of the seats. The major opposition combine of RJD and LJP, secured 25% of the votes, but only 10% of the seats. The INC, which increased its votes by 2% to 8%, won just 4 seats in 2010, compared to 9 seats in 2009.

Prospect for Liberal Politics in India

With identity politics running out of steam, and distributive politics failing to keep up with the rapidly rising aspiration of Indians today, the need for governance and development have clearly emerged on the political agenda.

This is the first time in the 60 years of Indian democracy, that the prospect of policies that boost performance of government and the economic sectors are likely to get prime attention, out of sheer necessity of political survival in the extremely competitive world of Indian politics. This implies that policies would have to be formulated with much greater care, and these would have to be politically viable. And since the ordinary voter is not a policy expert, the only way to get the message out to the voter is by narrating the policy proposals to the public through the filter of political ideologies.

Again, for the first time in the history of democratic India, political parties have the need to adopt a coherent ideology in order to explain the intricacies of policies to its voters. So far, Indian politics have been largely devoid of ideology. All parties tended to adopt the dominant ideology of the day, since their distinctive feature was identity. Ideology was only seen as a providing a veneer to mask the base identities to which the political parties traditionally appealed to.

But with increasing significance of political performance for survival of political parties, policies are coming to the centre stage. To make policies politically accessible to mass audiences, political ideology will necessarily have to be developed. With diminishing returns from identity politics, political ideology will emerge from the shadows to the forefront.

For liberals in India, this is a once in a life time opportunity. For all these years, liberals were devoted to their political ideals, but found very few takers. The liberals were either swepat away by identity politics of one kind or the other, or their ideological roots were seen as politically irrelevant, in an environment where ideologies were not needed to differentiate different political parties.

Today, with the demise of identity politics, and rise of the need for political ideology to distinguish themselves from one another, the political environment seems opportune for a liberal renaissance in India. Are the Indian liberals ready to seize their moment under the Indian sky!

This is the real significance of the Bihar assembly election. It has reconfirmed the focus on governance that had emerged over the past decade, while also confirming the limits of identity politics.

Indian democracy has always been very vocal, voluble and full of colour. Yet, one of the most startling features of democracy in India has been the near complete consensus on the core political beliefs of the day, among most of the political parties.

Over the past century, as political freedom expanded around the world, so too did economic freedom. Almost all the rich countries of today are democracies. While the poor and developing countries are not typically characterized by their weak democratic political institutions. India has been a proud exception to that narrative.

India retained her constitutional democratic republican character right through the past six decades. But for the first time, with political competition facilitating an environment for economic growth and improved governance, out of sheer political necessity, the prospect of India actually joining the ranks of those countries that are economically free, politically democratic, and enjoying the highest standards of life seem to be a distinct possibility.

Indian liberals have their ideology, can they rise to shape the political destiny of India in the coming decades? The liberals have their task clear cut, history is confirming their path, future is beckoning them, but they need to be able to rise to the occasion.

This article was published in the Liberty Institute on Wednesday, December 8, 2010.
Author : Mr Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent public policy think tank in New Delhi.
Tags- Find more articles on - Bihar vidhan sabha | electoral politics | future of liberalism | identity politics | Indian democracy | Indian politics

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