Indian Decade

BJP Meets the Labour Party

India’s main opposition BJP is following a similar approach to Britain’s Labour Party. Is appealing just to core voters wise?

By Tridivesh Singh Maini for

The political landscapes in India and Britain currently have an interesting similarity. In both countries, the main opposition parties are trying to shed their centrist positions in favour of appealing to their respective base. In Britain, the Labour Party is shifting to the left under Ed Miliband, abandoning the centre ground won by Tony Blair. In India, meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party appears to be moving to the right, a reality highlighted by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to project himself as the likely BJP candidate for the 2014 election.

The centre right BJP, under the aegis of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, re-invented itself to make itself more acceptable to alliance partners. During his six-year reign as prime minister, Vajpayee grew beyond his party’s base and became acceptable to many previously non-BJP voters. Vajpayee also took some bold initiatives, something unexpected from a BJP leader, such as pitching for peace with Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots in 2002, meanwhile, he was keen for Modi to step down as chief minister. 

Pushing Modi out was firmly opposed by senior party leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani. Interestingly, Advani and Modi are currently in the midst of their own political Cold War, as the battle for the party leadership succession heats up. Modi, much to the chagrin of the senior leadership of the party, skipped the first day of the party’s National Executive meeting a few weeks back. He was apparently miffed that Advani had decided to cancel his annual trip to the Somnath temple.

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There is, of course, plenty of time to go before the next election, but Modi’s potential candidature has already received the approval of one section of BJP leaders. They believe that despite Modi’s image having taken a hit over his handling of the Gujarat riots, the state’s rapid economic growth will impress the country’s middle class, which is fed up with corruption and poor governance.
It remains to be seen whether Modi will be able to secure broad support among the party’s leadership, not least because running a state and running the country are two quite different things. For a start, Modi rules in Gujarat with a firm majority, while in Delhi, the BJP would likely depend on coalition partners. In addition, while the middle classes in Gujarat may have forgiven him for what happened in 2002, many outside the state have not. As a result, key alliance partners like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar aren’t quite comfortable with Modi campaigning in their state.
In Britain, it’s still unclear what the response will be to Miliband’s swing to the left, and whether Labour will lose more of the Conservative voters that Blair so successfully wooed. But while Labour and the BJP are moving towards different ends of the political spectrum, the questions that both parties have to contend with are similar: Is it tougher to expand a party’s base or to keep the core vote intact? Do core voters necessarily drift if a party makes pragmatic compromises, like the BJP did under the aegis of Vajpayee and Labour did during the Blair years? 
If the 2009 elections in India are any indicator, there’s scope for a political ‘third way.’ Within the BJP-led coalition of the National Democratic Alliance, some prominent alliance partners like Janata Dal (United) are uncomfortable with right wing politics. In Britain, meanwhile, there is growing disillusionment with the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance. 
The next elections in both countries could throw up some interesting results, especially if the opposition is pragmatic.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed are his own.