The lines are drawn for the May 2014 electoral battle.
The congress lays claim to an evolved version of its historic outreach to the poor in 1971 when its tallest leader; Indira Gandhi, coined the “garibi hatao (remove poverty)” slogan. The Congress would have us believe that their appeal is to 67% of Indians who are “poor”. It is arguable though whether their calling card of minimalist public services, cheap administered food and 100 days of work would appeal to any, other than the completely deprived. These are probably most likely around 20% of the population. Many of these would be poached by caste based regional parties particularly the scheduled castes in North and Central India.
The BJP proposes to rely on a dual strategy of (1) its recent track record of private sector friendly “development” and focus on economic growth in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh to appeal to the upwardly mobile, urbanised, educated electorate and (2) their trump card of rallying the “Hindu” (essentially non-muslim) vote using the medieval lever of polarising along religious fault lines, to reel in the rural and urban, lumpen, electorate. Not surprisingly, the muslims (the only significant minority with15% of the population but lumped in pockets) remain deeply distrustful of the BJP and would probably focus on an anti-BJP vote siding with whosoever could defeat the BJP. Urban liberals (numerically insignificant) would similarly shy away from the BJP.
The Left, a marginalised lot currently, will probably stick to honesty of purpose and intention in ensuring equity, as their major calling card, as they have been doing for decades. This is essentially a losing battle since the congress seems to have trumped them at their own game by becoming pro-poor, pro-people. pro-environment, anti-business, anti-industry and obsessively inward looking.
The regional parties remain fairly tightly configured around caste in the regions in which they operate. Ofcourse this is a losing endgame because there is very little upside and only the downside of sub-castes shift out to a “winning” national party like the Congress or the BJP.
Could there possibly be a more depressing election? None of the parties seem to have a distinctive “big” idea for India. The approach seems to be let us get there first, then we will think about it. Listed below are “big” ideas which are not inconsistent with the general stance of the “big three parties” today (The much touted JD(U), despite the success of its Bihar model of development, remains a fledgling BJP clone, albeit anti-Modi)
Congress: India is too big to be ruled from Delhi. We want to hand power down to local levels because the poor become “visible” only at the local level. We will finance local development and implement Panchayati Raj in letter and in spirit, so that u can control your own destiny.
BJP: Technology has made it possible to monitor the condition of every village and every urban ward in India. We will ensure that every village and every urban ward shares in national growth, by aggressively using private entrepreneurs to deliver public goods and generate employment.
Left parties: We stand for reducing inequalities in India, not by pulling down the rich, but by pushing up the poor. We believe that the State must work with the private sector to achieve this. We are not against wealth creation but we feel the wealthy must share their wealth through higher taxes to enable the State to help the poor.
These three “big” ideas cut across caste and religion, appeal to distinct interest groups and can provide a more credible basis for developing party affiliations based on ideology rather than get bogged down in caste and religion based “pork barrel politics”.
(1) The Congress could evolve into a federation of localised parties, led by the charismatic Gandhis, opposed to big government, committed to specific local goals, social and economic equity, preserving the local environment etc. but far less focused on centralized issues like inflation, external trade or defence. (2) The BJP could sharpen its appeal to business, industry and entrepreneurship led national growth and reliance on trickle down to local levels. (3) The Left to project the virtues of State led development with a strong emphasis on social and economic equity.
The virtues of multi party politics are realized only if there is some distinctive ideological difference between them. In fact the decline of national parties and the simultaneous rise of regional parties can be traced to the abdication, by the national parties, of ideological purity in their quest for perpetually being “in power”. Unless the big three focus their agendas along ideological lines, there is little to distinguish one government from the other and they all seem like multiple versions of the same old wine, in different bottles. This makes the voter reach for the most accessible bottle, albeit with some marginal thought given to the credibility of the barman. We surely deserve better.