“Ideology does not matter in Indian politics” has become an utterly resigned, despondent, and rote refrain of media pundits, academic experts, and civil society activists.
“Indian politicians are so opportunistic that power and lucre can kill any ideological commitment. All that matters are the loaves and fish of office, ideology be damned” – these lines are parroted with such intense conviction, that they have become unimpeachable wisdom.
In fact, the current fiasco in Maharashtra politics is trotted out as the perfect vindication of this ‘axiom’. When Uddhav Thackeray hitched up with implacable political foes like Sharad Pawar and Sonia Gandhi, that was held up as a classic example of ‘unscrupulous alliances’. And now, when Thackeray has been felled by his ‘avaricious’ henchman, that, too, is a confirmation of the same political theorem. But doesn’t that sound a bit odd? Heads I win, tails you lose?
“Ideology does not matter in Indian politics” has become an utterly resigned, rote refrain of media pundits, academic experts, and civil society activists.
Like all politicians anywhere on the globe, Indian leaders are ‘flexible’, perhaps a tad more than others. But whenever parties with utterly incompatible ideologies – those who’ve been sworn, implacable foes over decades – have tried to cobble an unnatural alliance, it has not lasted, ever.
From the Janata government to United Front, to Nitish Kumar's grand volte-face in 2017, Indian political history is replete with examples of failed coalitions.
However dodgy the competing ideological frameworks may be, they are not entirely irrelevant in Indian politics. Ideological moorings cannot be abandoned cavalierly.
A History of Failed Alliance
I will return to Maharashtra, but for now, my mind is spinning back to 1977, when I first acquired a fledgling political consciousness. Indira Gandhi had unexpectedly lifted the Emergency to revive democratic functioning. She had completely failed to sense people’s suppressed anger. Her political opponents, emerging from 18 months of shared incarceration, sniffed a hitherto unthinkable possibility. The mighty Indira could be defeated if they put up a united fight.
But there was a problem. Ideologically, the half-a-dozen or so opposition parties were completely disparate, even inimical: the free-market liberals of Swatantra Party, the centrist, disgruntled ex-Congressmen who had bitterly broken away from Indira, the sworn anti-Congress, anti-Sangh socialist followers of Lohia, the conservative, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-blessed Jana Sangh, and many others spanning the Left and labour unions’ spectrum.
Yet, the political compulsion of the moment was relentless. All ideologies were put in abeyance – nay, even dissolved – and a ‘united’ Janata Party was formed. Its arithmetic and momentary logic were invincible. Indira Gandhi’s ruling Congress was wiped out from the west-north-east arc stretching from Kutch to Kohima, even as she swept south of the Vindhyas.
But the victory mirror cracked soon, at first over the ‘dual membership’ of the erstwhile Jana Sangh and RSS members. Soon, petty egos, ambitions, and convictions unleashed a million new mutinies. The Janata government collapsed in a heap, to be replaced by an even more incompatible ‘coalition’. Indira Gandhi’s Congress supported a rump-Janata fragment led by the farmers’ titan, Chaudhary Charan Singh, who then had the singular distinction of being a Prime Minister who never got ratified by Parliament, as he resigned before a floor test. Another ‘unholy alliance’ disintegrated.
'Accidental' Prime Ministers
A decade later, India was ripe for one more irascible coalition when the ‘renegade’ VP Singh welded socialists and ex-Congressmen into another Janata Dal in 1989. This time, the Right and the Left, ie, the BJP and Communists, did not jump into the cauldron but propped up VP Singh from ‘outside’. Rajiv Gandhi’s defeated Congress was the single largest party, but being far short of the majority, it sat in the opposition.
But before long, the ‘scourge of 1977’ re-hit the second Janata experiment. The BJP ratcheted up Hindutva with Advani’s political chariot, and VP Singh retaliated with Mandal’s caste arithmetic. These two ideologies – one that saw India as a monolith Hindu nation, and another that built itself on the caste underpinnings of an intrinsically diverse/divided society – collided. The Left parties were left smouldering with their uncompromising secularism. Within 11 months, another unholy, incompatible political experiment came to grief. In a surreal replay of 1979, the maverick Chandrashekar ‘did a Chaudhary Charan Singh’ with Rajiv Gandhi’s support to essay another unheralded, six-month stint that was destined to abort.
But those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. In 1996, a ‘reverse VP Singh of 1989’ structure was crafted. Now, the Congress joined the Left and gave oxygen to the Deve Gowda-led United Front (a new nomenclature for the erstwhile Janata formations), while the BJP occupied the opposition space.
Again, doom was written all over, as most United Front constituents practised diehard anti-Congressism. Naturally, a restive Congress destroyed the United Front twice, first by replacing Deve Gowda with Inder Gujral, and later by pulling the rug from under him, too. Another two ‘accidental Prime Ministers’ joined the ranks of Chaudhary Charan Singh and Chandrashekhar. Another chalk-plus-cheese coalition of incompatibles fell from grace.
Nitish Kumar's Grand Volte-Face
I could conclude my tour of history right here, but would be amiss not to recount this one, perhaps the most stunning volte-face in Indian politics. In 2015, Nitish Kumar tied the knot with sworn political enemies, Lalu Yadav and Congress, to annihilate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar. It was the plus-est point in political irony, as two leaders, whose only vocabulary was cuss words for each other, embraced to hand a knockout punch to Prime Minister Modi. Of course, it couldn’t last. These ones don’t, as history has repeatedly proved. Before long, Nitish walked ‘back home’ to the BJP, his avowed ‘natural ally’.
So now, can we still say that “ideology does not matter in Indian politics”? Any such quick, shorthand conclusion would be amateurish. Like all politicians anywhere on the globe, Indian leaders are ‘flexible’, perhaps a tad more than others. They are prepared to compromise a bit more with ideologies that are a shade more fungible than what may be acceptable. But whenever parties with utterly incompatible ideologies – those who’ve been sworn, implacable foes over decades – have tried to cobble an unnatural alliance, it has not lasted, ever.
So, ideology does matter, it does define uncrossable boundaries, a Lakshman Rekha beyond which political decimation is foretold. That’s precisely what happened in Maharashtra. The Thackerays crossed the Rubicon when they chose to cohabit with two Congress formations with whom they’ve been in a blood sport for half a century. How could they have defied history? They couldn’t. They didn’t.
Ideology Can't Be Dismissed Easily
The final assault on my hypothesis will come from bitter critics of each political formation, but what they say won’t hold:
The BJP and the Shiv Sena are fanatics, not political activists. To that I would say, sorry, however repugnant it may be to you, a conservative, right-wing political persuasion is a legitimate argument, and cannot be demolished by innuendo. It has to be fought and neutralised politically.
Likewise with the Communists, whose ideology may be abhorrent to many, but nonetheless, it’s legit.
Also with the centrists like the Congress and its regional breakaway factions. They may often be muddling through ambivalence, but centrist, moderate political positions are perfectly legitimate, too.
So, contrary to popular perception, I believe Indian politics does have its roots in competing ideologies. And while a political party can stray into grey compromises, it comes to grief when it does a volte-face, crossing the boundary into the impermissible territory. That’s resisted by and is unsellable to its core supporters and cadre. They revolt.
Because however dodgy the competing ideological frameworks may be, they are not entirely irrelevant in Indian politics.
Ideological moorings cannot be abandoned cavalierly.
Ideology does matter.