India's conservative vacuum

Brajeshwar Oinam/Flickr

With business confidence sagging, relations with the U.S. listless and the government in New Delhi paralyzed by a series of corruption scandals, you might expect the world's largest democracy to throw up a principled alternative to the failed policies of the ruling left-leaning Congress Party.

Some supporters of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party claim it is just that: a recognizably conservative political party, an Indian equivalent of America's Republicans or Britain's Tories or Israel's Likud. But there are ample inconsistencies to this claim, because of which the BJP hasn't been able to offer voters a reliable choice--even in foreign policy questions such as New Delhi's ties with Washington. As the party prepares for its parliamentary delegation to officially visit the U.S. later this month, it should ponder why that is so.

If you tilt your head and squint, you might see the outlines of a modern conservative party. Like many conservatives, BJP supporters tend to be robustly patriotic. The party plays up its respect for the armed forces, and senior BJP leaders Jaswant Singh and B.C. Khanduri began their careers in the army before switching to politics. Largely unconcerned about alienating Muslim voters, the BJP supports tougher antiterrorism laws than Congress.

And so it is with foreign policy. Historically the BJP was regarded as reliably pro-U.S., in part as a response to Congress's pro-Soviet tilt during the Cold War. And indeed, after an initial hiccup in the aftermath of India's 1998 nuclear tests, the BJP used its six years in office to put the U.S.-India relationship on arguably its firmest footing in five decades.

The BJP also remains Israel's only unambiguous friend in Indian politics. It's no coincidence that Ariel Sharon, the only Israeli prime minister to visit India, did so in 2003, while the BJP was in office.

In economic policy, BJP supporters argue that the party's traditional base of traders and shopkeepers makes it leery of government interference. Gujarat's BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the darling of Indian big business, is the only major Indian politician to espouse a philosophy of minimum government that Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher might recognize. Nitin Gadkari, the party's president, is a businessman with interests in paper mills and power plants.

The BJP is also devotedly Hindu. It espouses "Hindutva," or cultural nationalism revolving around Hinduness, and relies on the vast Hindu-nationalist grassroots group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for ideological direction; it also recruits cadres from the RSS. The comparison would be to Republicans turning to evangelical Christians for support, or Likud to the more muscular sort of Zionist.

On closer examination, however, the case for the BJP as a modern conservative party falls apart. The party does not consistently espouse faith in free markets. It remains ambivalent about India's ties with the U.S. and the West. And it lacks the capacity to draw a clear line between its largely moderate mainstream supporters and the assorted flakes and bigots who seem to consider the party their natural home.

In recent months, for instance, the BJP has attacked the government's tawdry record on corruption not by demanding less government and fewer cumbersome regulations, but by backing assorted crackpots and activists: from lawyer Prashant Bhushan, to yoga guru Baba Ramdev, to ardent alcohol-prohibitionist Anna Hazare. Mr. Bhushan believes that corruption in India has soared on account of too much liberalization rather than too little. The less said about Mr. Ramdev's bizarre views on currency valuations and punishment for tax offenders, the better.

The BJP's foreign-policy credentials would otherwise seem right-thinking and pro-Western, unlike the Congress Party. But in an abrupt about-face, three years ago the party voted against the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal in parliament, on the absurd charge that New Delhi had sold out to Washington. The party's 2009 election manifesto spoke of restoring "balance" in relations with America.

Unlike, say, the Tories, whom nobody confuses with the quasi-fascist British National Party, the BJP appears unable to draw a line between assertive political Hindus and flaming bigots. One of its most prominent young leaders, Varun Gandhi, was caught on tape in 2009 describing Muslims in the vilest terms. And though Gujarat's Mr. Modi has moderated his rhetoric in recent years, a question mark hangs over him for his alleged complicity in Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat nine years ago that killed 1000 people, about three-quarters of them Muslim. Even today, it's hard to imagine a BJP leader being punished rather than rewarded by the party for expressing anti-Muslim sentiment.

The BJP's tough line against terrorism, its commitment to a strong defense and its espousal of pride in India's Hindu culture are all within the bounds of a responsible Indian conservatism. But to enter the global mainstream the party needs to grow up and become a responsible voice for limited government, market-based solutions to India's myriad problems and pragmatic foreign policy. As long as it continues to be limited by a narrow focus on identity politics, and as long as it pursues policies based on opportunism rather than on principle, the BJP will fail both India and itself.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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