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NASTY AND NICE

- Two contending parties that mean what they say

The ideological face-off in the run-up to the general elections grows starker by the day. Most democratic countries have a Nice Party that deals in inclusive liberal politics and ameliorative economics, and a Nasty Party that swears by nativist or majoritarian politics and give-to-the-rich economics. Generally, though, this divide is papered over by each party trying to steal pages from the other party’s playbook. Thus, the Nice Party sometimes tries to prove it can be uncharacteristically stern (Labour talking tough about immigration or Clintonian Democrats reforming welfare) while the Nasty Party occasionally tries to seem human(e) (the rhetorical inclusiveness of One Nation Tories, for example, or George W. Bush’s ‘No child left behind’ initiative).

Sometimes, though, both parties choose to play true to type: the Nice Party plays nice and the Nasty Party doubles down on being nasty. So Bill de Blasio, running for the mayorship of New York, runs a “I’m for the poor, against inequality and against the police profiling of black people” campaign and wins. On the other side, the Nasties, represented by Tea Party activists in the Republican Party, wallow in their whiteness and re-organize themselves into Ayn Rand choirs, reasoning that the Republicans lost the last presidential election because Mitt Romney wasn’t nasty enough.

The seemingly terminal decline of the Indian National Congress in the run-up to the general elections has allowed the principal actors on the Nice and Nasty sides of Indian politics to be ever more themselves.

For the past twenty years, the Congress has tried to be the party of both economic liberalization and redistributive justice, with varying degrees of success and conviction. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in one hand and foreign direct investment in the other, it has attempted, as is its instinct, to be all things to all men. Its principal opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, constrained by coalition politics, the power of regional parties and the realities of governance, has tacked between a feral majoritarianism (the aftermath of Ayodhya, the Godhra pogrom) and a more centrist pitch based on its claim to being the best available steward of economic modernization.

Through Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership up to the failure of L.K. Advani’s bid to lead the BJP to power in 2009, hopeful observers thought that they discerned a change in the BJP: it was evolving, they thought, from being the party of majoritarian Hindu grievance to becoming a conventionally right-wing party like the Christian Democratic Union in Germany. Vajpayee’s greatest achievement was a personal one: by reprising Reagan-ite good cheer and benevolence, he made the BJP seem respectable, even benign. Even his hapless misgivings about Godhra seemed to redound to his credit: here was a BJP prime minister who thought the mass murder of Muslims was a bad thing.

And though Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ motto didn’t deliver, as Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ did, a second term in office, L.K. Advani chose to reprise Vajpayee’s centrism, instead of his own rath yatra persona, when he led the BJP into the elections of 2009. Advani’s tryst with M.A. Jinnah must count as the most eccentric political adventure in recent Indian politics, but it was clearly designed to burnish Advani’s hitherto hidden secular credentials.

Advani’s failure to lead the BJP to power in 2009 cleared the way for Narendra Modi’s unapologetically Hindutvavadi leadership. Unlike Advani, Modi has no interest in respectability as defined by the republic’s political history. His project is to re-make the republic’s political culture in the image of Hindutva. Modi’s political and economic success in Gujarat, his fan-following amongst India’s leading industrialists and his conspicuous success—till recently—in making the political running in this election campaign, has allowed the BJP to cast off its ill-fitting centrist motley. India’s Nasty Party, thanks in equal measure to its charismatic leader and a corrupt and dysfunctional Congress, can be itself again.

The most vivid illustration of this was the sequence of events that began with Modi and Baba Ramdev in close conclave, discussing tax reform. This was followed by the BJP’s finance-minister-in-waiting, Subramanian Swamy (famous for writing that Indian Muslims who didn’t acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus shouldn’t be allowed to vote) declaring to the world that the BJP was planning to replace the income tax with a bank transaction tax. So, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was channelling a godman’s fiscal ideas to propose a measure that would give the most Randian right-wing party in the West pause. It was like the first item in a checklist: Nasty Things To Do. 1. Abolish progressive taxation. Check.

The Congress, in contrast, can no longer even fake being the Nice Party despite an alphabet soup of do-gooder initiatives: its storied corruption and dynastic absurdity get in the way. Stuck between an inert prime minister, long past his sell-by date, and a dauphin wholly unfit for political purpose, it can’t, despite its incumbency, play the BJP’s political foil. It seems almost resigned to its fate as a dynastic rump.

The Nice Party space vacated by the Congress has been filled, startlingly, by a brand-new party, the Aam Aadmi Party. It is a speaking comment on the political vacuum that the Congress has created while still in office that the social-democratic space in national politics is now ceded by newspaper editorials and television talk shows to a party that runs a minority government in a single city-state.

Even more interesting is the speed with which the AAP has embraced both pluralism and populism. Before Arvind Kejriwal & Co became a party, they seemed to have no political or economic ideas to speak of. It’s worth remembering that Baba Ramdev was recruited by Kejriwal to boost the popularity and reach of India Against Corruption, which tells us that Kejriwal’s ideology is something of a work-in-progress.

And yet, inside the space of an election campaign, the AAP jettisoned its grumpy mentor, purged assorted godmen, moved sharply to the left, adopted a rhetorical pluralism that would make the Congress in its Nehruvian heyday blush… and effectively won the Delhi election. It proved to itself and (it must hope) to a larger national electorate, that Nice Parties don’t finish last.

Within a few days of coming to office, Kejriwal rejected FDI for multi-brand retail in Delhi. This came on top of announcements that electricity bills would be reduced, free water provided and a constant dialogue maintained between the Delhi government and its citizens. The AAP was doubling down on populism in the belief that welfarist politics, minus the Congress’s dynastic baggage and record of corruption, was a winning platform.

And so we have a resurgent majoritarian Goliath committed to Hindutvavadi politics and radical right-wing economics, going toe-to-toe with a social-democratic David, armed with an anti-corruption slingshot. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight but there seems to be a curious consensus that it’s the only game in town.

This is partly because it’s been a long time since Nasty and Nice have squared off against each other with such ideological purity, such explicit intent. The Nasty Party feels free to seize the moment that the Congress drift has created, uninhibited by centrist scruple or republican decencies. The Nice Party, newly-minted, actually believes in the virtue of its ideas in a way that a time-serving Congress had long since ceased to do. Enthralled by the integrity of their champions, their partisans urge them on.

On the face of it, the BJP’s supporters have more going for them than the AAP’s: bench strength, cadre, organization, corporate donors, the apparatus of office in the states that the BJP rules and the entrenched influence of the sangh parivar. Also unlike the movies, the AAP can’t say “mere paas Ma hai”, because that’s something the elections will decide.

I suspect that the AAP’s supporters, even the true believers, are hoping that the regional parties pull their weight in this election so that the seats that this fledgling party wins count for something in the political struggle to deny a born-again BJP a mandate. Who knows, even the post-election Congress rump that everyone seems to anticipate, might be drafted in to play its part in thwarting the Nasty Party.

For the moment, though, we can treat ourselves to that unusual spectacle in Indian politics, two contending parties who seem to mean what they say.