Andrew Sullivan has a blog post comparing the Indian and U.S. political situations today, citing an anonymous reader. The reader’s main point is that the current infighting within the U.S. Republican party might be seen as resembling the BJP’s own internal chaos in India:
Perhaps the Democrats can look to India for reasons to be optimistic. At this time, the BJP is in electoral ruins, aided by their rank and honest fundamentalism. They’ve been smashed by Congress for two elections in a row and the report on Ayodhya is about as damning as can be. In response, the hardcore base is working to eliminate anyone who can lead them out of the wilderness. Just as in the GOP, this is done in a pursuit of ideological purity. The only difference is the religion being espoused. (link)
This seems like a viable parallel for a minute, but only for a minute. First, the recent report on Ayodhya, which I blogged about recently, doesn’t seem politically significant; it’s more of a symbolic event. As the reader continues, the parallel starts to seem really shaky:
The RSS, which provides the ideological grounding of Hindu nationalism, as well as a significant section of the ground game, has forced Jaswant Singh out for the simple act of praising the founder of Pakistan. They’ve warned all other moderates to basically shut up and toe the party line. No one seems to remember that the BJP became nationally popular thanks to a pragmatic program of economic growth, reducing corruption, and downplaying Hindutva. Again, the moderates in the party are bemoaning these trends, and warn that divisive communalism may lead to short term electoral gain, but will ultimately lead to total marginalization. No one is listening.
I question the reader’s understanding of what happened during the 1990s. Yes, the Congress Party was widely seen as deeply corrupt and incompetent after the disastrous decades of the 1970s and 1980s. But as I understand history, the BJP actually gained quite a bit of popular momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s, specifically through communal rhetoric focused on issues such as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and Shahbano. They may have also had another face, which appealed to educated urbanites focused on economic issues, but there were not enough such people to win elections at the national level. As I read it, for better or worse, it was the rhetoric of communalism that finally brought them to power late in the 1990s. Moreover, the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 did not hurt them politically, in regional elections in 2002-2003. (Admittedly, most of what the NDA/BJP government actually accomplished while in power between 1999 and 2004 was related to economic policy. But that shift in focus happened after the election.)
Even in the U.S., one has to keep in mind that a big part of what enabled Republican dominance in American politics for more than a decade was a pronounced message of social conservatism focused on divisive issues (abortion, gay marriage) combined with belligerent partisanship. George Bush, though he talked about “compassionate conservatism” during his election campaign in 2000, embodied that identity.
In short, one could just as easily argue that the BJP is weak right now not because of infighting or the kind of ideological litmus test that led to Jaswant Singh’s expulsion. Rather, they simply haven’t found the “next” popular issue yet — their next Shahbano, Mandal Commission Report, or Ayodhya. I think they thought terrorism would be it in the most recent election cycle, but for whatever reason, the attempt to label the Congress Party as weak on terrorism didn’t seem to stick.