In India, fractured as it is by multiple social divisions, on top of the usual economic distinctions of class, the notion that any one party can appeal to the majority seems far-fetched, especially in the context of an increasingly aware and literate electorate. Intelligent voters seek to maximize their self-interest, which is increasingly defined in a narrow manner.
Despite its divisiveness, India’s electorate can be grouped into three broad segments.
First, the Muslims, the Dalits and the Tribals remain marginalized local groups, comprising around 33% of the vote. This vote remains pretty much transferable in bulk to whichever party they trust. The rise of regional parties is based on this vote. For the marginalized, the primary concern is the security of life, property and social dignity. These immediate concerns are best met practically, by the party which rules the State government, where they live. They also believe that caste/religion cohorts will be less rapacious than others.
The Congress used to be the party of choice for them, but the loss of power at the State level, particularly in North and East India, has severely undercut its usefulness to these marginalized segments.
For none of these, though the BJP has broken through to the Tribal vote, is the BJP a welcome prospect. Its strident Hinduism disadvantages lower castes, whilst its vision of business led growth, paints it as vile, exploitative and people unfriendly. This effectively knocks around one third of the electorate into the arms of regional parties, the Left and the Congress (where it rules a State government).
Second, the urban non-poor, comprising around 20% of voters, remain catchment areas for the BJP and its clones. The urban poor, comprising around 10% of the vote, were solidly with the Congress till 2013 but now may gravitate to AAP clones, if these are scaled up, although this seems unlikely given the past history of such “honesty based” social movements.
The third group is the rural, rich and business community, who are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from the urban rich, since untaxed agricultural income remains an attractive instrument for accounting for unaccounted income. Also agricultural land is a prime speculative asset in a fast urbanizing economy. This group, which hangs its hat on the movements of the Sensex, is firmly with the BJP. But their numbers are woefully insignificant (less than 1% of the vote).
The rural poor (other than scheduled caste and tribes), comprising the residual 36%, are the votes which remain up for grabs by the National and Regional parties. Caste, Clan and Community all play major and enduring roles.
If the Left had a more credible jobs and public services program, this segment would be fertile ground for it. The Congress and the Left have now become virtually indistinguishable. They have similar approaches to gay rights versus traditional values; social protection versus growth; subsidies versus jobs or domestic agendas versus open economy linkages. The only difference is that the Congress is not averse to playing the caste and religion card, as convenient, whilst the Left is still squeamish about departing from its class struggle agenda.
These two parties are likely to cannibalize each other. They could usefully coalesce into a single “Progressive Union” of the rural poor, Muslims, Dalits and Tribals. In doing so they could aggressively combat the Regional parties which are essentially caste and social identify based. They could give a modern, welfare State option to this segment. The AAP is also closely aligned to the philosophy of the Left and the Congress. Strident secularism; worker welfare; self-sufficiency; decentralized rule by mohallah committees/Bhagidari/communes are examples of common thinking.
The BJP is consequently forced to distinguish itself as the Party offering pan-India economic growth, industrialization, rapid urbanization and jobs, whilst minimizing its Welfare State character. It has quite some way to go towards this objective. Its 2013 victories in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were based on a social welfare program, closely resembling that of the Congress and were aided by poor leadership and in-fighting in the Congress. This cannot be a consistent ground for victory. A combative Congress could swiftly reduce the BJPs advantage at the “efficient government” game.
The BJP has to look to the rural rich and upwardly mobile middle class and the urban voter for long term support. This segment will grow from being 30% today to over 60% of the vote by 2030. This is its natural constituency. In doing so it must distance itself from Hindu fundamentalism; obscurantism and adopt a modern growth and development based agenda. The Nagpur connection has to be severely diluted. Otherwise it will lose ground, which it can ill afford.
There is little scope for Fascism in India, principally due to deep social and regional heterogeneity. The Parties of the next decade will be smaller in size and scope. They will live or die depending on how nimble they can be in reaching out to their voters. Close and consistent interaction with voters, rather than mammoth public rallies, will determine success. Merit based on performance, rather than birth, shall increasingly be the measure of politicians. Governments will be formed by coalitions rather than through block buster electoral support.
Kejriwal has belled the cat. The Congress, which is in search of a leader, could usefully anoint him as its 2014 candidate for Prime Minister. Rahul and Kejriwal share a lot of common ground; age, social conscience, a thirst for asceticism and a focus on doing the right thing. They should join hands. What could be better than contracting-in the model, Rahul hopes to emulate? Another, more revolutionary option, would be for Rahul and the progressive section of the Congress to merge with the AAP. Either model can work, in stemming BJPs juggernaut.