Two years of comical bungling by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have caused an outbreak of nostalgia across large parts of Delhi. Wherever two or three are gathered together to talk policy reform, one will let out a long sigh, and the name of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of 1998-2004 will be reverentially invoked. Not too surprising, you say; when one side has set its own ambitions alight so magnificently, the flickering flames of its hopes and dreams will dramatically highlight the good looks of the other side, right? Screw up so tremendously, and the other side should appear really good in contrast. Except that’s not quite what’s interesting here.
I’m not going to begin a discussion, however interesting, into whether the NDA government was really that good, or whether it could have avoided the resource-corruption pitfalls that ensnared the UPA. Quite frankly, it’s irrelevant. My point is different: it’s that today’s NDA is not what people are talking about. Longing for the alternative is not what permeates those conversations; it’s longing for the past. For the reformist, moderate national alternative that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA managed to let us briefly pretend we had.
Because, as became ever more obvious at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) national executive at Surajkund this week, today’s BJP looks massively underprepared as an alternative national party of government. Consider its shortage of credible leadership. Would a serious national political alternative have changed its constitution to reward Nitin Gadkari, that idol of the masses, with a second term as president? Would L K Advani, older even than Manmohan Singh, still behave like a prime ministerial aspirant? Why would the party still maintain the fiction that it is led by Mr Vajpayee, not seen in public for six years?
Then there’s what the BJP actually says about policy. Read the speeches and the resolutions passed at Surajkund. “What goes against the grain of the country is a counter-reform,” thundered Arun Jaitley. Reforms are “being dictated” by the West, whereas it is the West that should reform subsidies and restructure trade to the benefit of developing countries. This is India’s party of the economic right? It sounds like the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). Mr Vajpayee fought and won a battle against the swadeshi elements within his party. Now that he’s gone, even the BJP’s “reformers” – Mr Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha, for example – speak the strident language of economic nationalism. When the only voice of reason in a party is the highly unreasonable Arun Shourie, how can we trust it?
Finally, there’s the minor matter of what the party’s actually done. It has reversed its stand on foreign direct investment (FDI). It has blocked the goods and services tax. It refuses to help pass the insurance and pension Bills that it itself once promoted. Its economic resolution bravely reminded people that the Congress had led India to the crisis of 1991, a relevant and useful point in 2012. It attacked the shift to a rational fertiliser subsidy regime; the raising of diesel prices; and actually said procurement prices for farmers are too low while simultaneously blaming the government for food inflation. Finally, the party warned that, if it were to come to power, it would reverse FDI in retail. This is more than just irresponsible and incoherent. It is an entirely negative agenda, one that is, again, reminiscent of the CPM. Really, if BJP voters want economic nationalism, backward-looking policies, rollback promises, anti-Western rhetoric, and solid bourgeois family values, perhaps they should just vote for the CPM. After all, the Left’s far less corrupt.
The nostalgia for the NDA, when seen with the frustration and contempt that today’s BJP arouses, reveals one central truth about Indian politics — a truth that Delhi punditry, in love with civilised two-party systems, loves to ignore. The BJP is not now, nor has it ever been, a truly national right-of-centre alternative to the Congress. Mr Vajpayee was. His party was not. It happened to be in the right place at the right time, tested a bomb, and was raised by a fragmented polity to power. After all, it is widely accepted that the Congress’ lost votes are going to regional parties, not the BJP. Mobilisation against the UPA’s corrupt misgovernance was not led by the principal Opposition party, but by Messrs Hazare and Kejriwal. The rest of India does not think of the BJP as the natural alternative to a discredited Congress government. Only NDA nostalgia leads Lutyens’ Delhi to keep on pretending it is.
Clear your mind of preconceptions, and look again at the map of India, and the sweep of Indian politics over the last 30 years. The true alternative to the Congress’ outward-looking, centralising pragmatism is, and has always been, a Lohiaite, xenophobic, sub-nationalism. The Congress is a party of urban elites and minorities and the backward; its natural challengers are parties of the empowered rural smallholder, of linguistic nationalists and regionalists. The BJP’s own strength in Rajasthan, in Karnataka, and in Gujarat comes from pretending to be such a party, not from its supposed identity as a “national party” of the petit-bourgeosie hawking a synthetic pan-Indian religious nationalism. So why, again, should we expect it to speak the language of reform?
Across the breadth of India, in Orissa and in Bihar, in Andhra Pradesh and Bengal and Maharashtra and, above all, in Uttar Pradesh, it is these parties that are challenging and, in some cases, decimating the Congress. The BJP can, at best, hope to again ride their shoulders to power.
But that would require another Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nostalgia won’t do it for them.