Theft can be good for you

What does Atal Behari Vajpayee have in common with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair? He, like them, is trying to gain power by stealing the electoral planks of his opponents. I welcome the burglary. Such theft is excellent for society.

Bill Clinton started as a traditional Democrat seeking to expand welfare through health reforms. He was halted by the US Congress. There followed an unprecedented swing to the Republicans in the 1994 Congressional elections. So Republican leader Newt Gingrich came to believe the country wanted a right-wing revolution, and so launched his Contract with America to sweep away welfare. But he soon found that American voters, like voters everywhere, are middle-readers even when they seemingly vote for extremism. Soon Gingrich was in deep political trouble. Meanwhile, Clinton stole several parts of the Republican platform, including welfare reform, and swept to victory in 1996.

In Britain, the Labour Party lost an unprecedented four straight elections to the Conservatives between 1979 and 1992. It realised finally that the language of class war no longer appealed to an increasingly centrist polity. So Tony Blair created New Labour, abandoned the more extreme Labour ideology, and stole several ideas from the Tories. This was announced as treason by his party hardliners, yet it won Blair one of the biggest election victories ever. Purism failed, compromise worked.

That is a great lesson from the history of democracy. Most voters are in the electoral middle, and dislike extremism. On the other hand extremism often helps create a new party. A new party needs to organise people with a grievance, generate deep passion and build a dedicated, fanatic cadre. This often means adopting a purist, fundamentalist line. If such mobilisation succeeds, the party becomes a significant political player, and may win in some regions. But once it has become significant, the very purism that initially gave it a fanatical following becomes a disadvantage. It puts off the bulk of voters in the centre. So, to get beyond mere significance to actual power, the party has to broaden its base and incorporate concerns of those who were not in its original camp. In the process it has to dilute its original purism, and steal parts of the programme of its opponents. Purism is a good launching pad, but compromise is the key to a successful landing.

Many observers sneer today at the Congressisation of the BJP.The party has widely and rightly been derided for abandoning its platform of good governance in favor of the lowest opportunism and induction of criminals in Uttar Pradesh. It is now replete with factional quarrels (which used to be a hallmark of the Congress) and splits based on a naked power-grab, as in Gujarat.

However, I see some very positive signs in this too. I am glad the thirst for power is eroding the BJP’s purism. I am even happier that the BJP is so desperately trying to expand its social base and incorporate the concerns of more groups and regions. Above all I am glad that the BJP has engaged in such large-scale theft of the Congress platform. This sort of Congressisation can only tame the fundamentalism that still lurks deep in the BJP. The Congress originally claimed to be the party representing stability. The BJP has stolen this plank. The Congress was the original party of Swadeshi, another slogan the BJP has stolen. The Congress claimed to represent all regions and sections of the population, another platform which the BJP is striving for. The BJP is even trying to steal the secularism slogan of the Congress. It will fail here, but no matter. In trying to broaden its appeal, the BJP itself is changing in ways that should make outsiders cheer.

Is this opportunistic? Yes. Is it hypocritical Yes. Is it tactical rather than strategic ? Yes. Is it a liberal veneer covering a fundamentalist core? Yes.

For all that, it represents a welcome change. By strengthening the hands of moderates from within, this is the way democracy changes parties. No party has ever been changed by the lectures of its opponents, or of intellectuals pontificating in the press. Change comes when a party realises that this is in its self- interest. And democracy makes moderation the self-interest of every party

Regardless of how cynical or opportunistic the motivation of the change, the process takes on a life of its own. Once the fundamentalist core is repeatedly coated with liberal layers, the layers begin to compete with the core for supremacy.

We are already witnessing this in the BJP. The BJP’s web-site on the internet talked of cleansing the minorities and making them integrate with the mainstream. This shows how fundamentalist is the thinking in the core of party.Yet Vajpayee quickly and angrily dissociated himself from such sentiments. Some BJP Neanderthals proposed that the exchange rate should be Rs 17 to the dollar as a sign of Hindu virility. That too was quickly reversed by the party’s liberal veneer. A similar reversal took place on the proposal to lock in foreign portfolio investment for six months (experts pointed out that this would make foreign capital flee, so the attempted lock-in of dollars would actually lock them out.)

Change is not inevitable, of course. There will continue to be a long struggle between the hardliners and liberals in the BJP, the core and new layers. But if the hardliners win, the party will again be consigned to the fringes of the electoral system. Democracy will ensure that the party can retain ideological purity only at the cost of abandoning its quest for power.

Note what has happened in Italy. The Communist Party converted itself into a social democratic party after the Soviet collapse. It grew in strength as it appealed to a larger section of society. This was found intolerable by its hard-core communists, who ultimately split to form a separate party.

Will this happen to a liberalising BJP ? Will it become so Congressised that the RSS core ultimately breaks away? I do not know. But if so, I will welcome the outcome. The country could certainly do with a BJP purged of the RSS.

I suspect however that the party will stay intact and continue on its muddled path of wooing the political centre. That is where the votes lie, where real power lies. Democracy’s allures have seduced many extremists into centrism. The example of Vishwamitra suggests that the BJP will not be immune either, no matter how much the RSS core rejects the resultant progeny.

What do you think?