In all democracies, conservative parties have a difficult job of balancing the conflicting demands of economic elites and the general population. This is what political scientists call the ‘Conservative Dilemma’. And history shows that the way conservative political parties respond to this dilemma determines whether a country remains a democracy or not. With rising wealth inequality in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing a similar dilemma, and its response will have large-scale consequences for Indian democracy.
The recent has declared India as one of the most unequal countries in the world. The report suggests that while the top 1% of Indians' share of national income has gone up to 22%, the share of the bottom 50% has dropped to a mere 13%. It also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated this disparity further. This level of wealth inequality will have massive economic and social consequences. But it can have political implications as well, as it will fundamentally reorient our electoral systems, political parties and democracy.
Why Do Conservative Parties Have a Bigger Responsibility?
Historically, left-leaning parties and civil society have always been at the forefront of fighting wealth inequality in any democracy. But history also indicates that one of the most important allies any democracy needs to fight wealth inequality is the conservative political party in that country. So, this naturally forces us to question: why do conservative parties have a bigger responsibility in any society's fight against wealth inequality?
It’s a well-known fact among history enthusiasts that the origin of terms 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' political ideology entered the political lexicon during the French revolution. When the members of the National Assembly in France were asked about their position regarding the monarchy and old regime, the members who sat on the left side of the King were the revolutionaries, who favoured abolishment of the monarchy, and the members who sat on the right were defenders of the status quo. And since that time, the terms 'right-wing' or 'conservatism' were primarily associated with political parties and groups that espoused ideologies that aligned with traditional political and economic elites of the time.
This ideology worked well when the franchise was limited only to a few people. But as voting rights were extended to more people, conservative parties were forced to appeal to diverse groups whose economic interests didn’t particularly align well with the elites, to form power.
The Contrasting Responses of Britain and Germany
In his book, , Political Scientist Daniel Ziblatt tracks how different conservative parties across Europe responded to this dilemma. He analyses, in particular, the contrasting responses of conservative parties in Britain and Germany, which ultimately culminated in Britain forming a stable centre-right coalition and Germany forming the Nazi regime.
According to Ziblatt, when conservative political parties face this dilemma, they could employ two major responses. A first and more desirable option would be to ask the economic elites to give some concessions while at the same time reassuring them that their fundamental interests would be protected.
The second and the more insidious option would mean the conservative parties would continue to protect and entrench the economic elite interests and try to deflect society’s attention from economic issues and focus more attention on exploiting the existing social cleavages present in society.
The political history of Europe suggests that when Britain took the former step, the conservative parties of Germany were busy employing the latter step.
Taking the first step can be risky for conservative parties because they can be outcompeted by left parties on economic issues. So, there is a need to balance this economic ideology by mixing it with traditional conservative beliefs like appealing to nationalism, tradition and culture. It’s a delicate balance, and that’s why, it isn’t preferred by most conservative parties. In contrast to the first step, the second step seems like an easy way out. But opting for that could have disastrous consequences for the country’s political system because deflecting attention from economic grievances of the population would require conservative parties to rely on surrogate groups, which are adept at stoking, exploiting and deepening social divisions that exist in the country.
By depending on these outrage-generating organisations for voter mobilisation efforts, conservative parties would risk getting overpowered by these same organisations. This is exactly what happened in Germany during the Weimar era, when radical fringe elements overpowered and ultimately towered over the traditional conservative party establishment.
US Republican Party Is Also Facing Something Similar
In their book, , Political Scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker identify that this dilemma is also faced by the Republican Party in the US, and they worry that Republicans might have chosen to go the German way. In order to appease the economic elites, corporate tax cuts and rolling back welfare state provisions, despite them being two deeply unpopular policies among the general population, are core agendas of the Republican Party. To deflect attention from these unpopular policies, the Republican Party increasingly mobilises surrogate groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), conservative radio hosts and news media organisations like Fox News to do the bidding for them and constantly tries to engage the country in these so-called culture wars. As the influence of economic elites increases in the political system, they will actively fund such organisations to get the country increasingly embroiled in these cultural debates.
Journalist Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money tracks how a set of conservative billionaires in the US funds such organisations for this exact purpose. And as the influence of these influential billionaires grows in the economy due to favourable policies, they will actively try to wield more power over the political system. This can inherently be damaging to the democratic structure of the country.
Many journalists and researchers have shown that the genesis of many anti-democratic laws passed in the US has been policies formulated by billionaire-funded think-tanks and research institutes.
India's Situation Is Different, But BJP Response Matters
India’s situation is not comparable to western democratic countries for two major reasons. First, because of our socialist past, the state has always been an important actor in our democracy. So, a conservative party espousing the agenda of rolling back state and its welfare provisions would be inherently very unpopular in elections. Second, BJP, the primary conservative party of India, has a very influential economic populist and anti-corporate wings like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), all affiliated or linked to RSS, in their organisational structure.
As mentioned by Gautam Mehta in the article , these organisations have been very instrumental in toning down the very corporate aspects of major economic policies of the Modi government, from Land Acquisition policy 2015 to laws regulating GM seeds. These organisations have also had reservations regarding the recently scrapped farm laws. But as wealth inequality increases, the corporate sector could start wielding more power and could relegate surrogate groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to engage primarily only in culture wars.
The general indication to see where things are headed could be gauged by the hesitancy of corporate-owned mainstream media to discuss economic issues plaguing the country.
It remains to be seen on which side the pendulum would shift. But the recent ‘Wealth Inequality Report, 2022’ and general trends suggests that the corporate sector might just have a big advantage going forward.
(Jaysankar Thayyil is an independent scholar. He has done his post- graduation degree from IIT Guwahati and Bachelors from TISS Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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