American analogies

The culture wars erupted as a consequence of economic change, the rise of feminism and rediscovery of religiosity have had an impact on party systems

American presidential elections, with all its accompanying media hype and razzmatazz, hold out a strange fascination for those who insist on celebrating the virtues of “evolved” democracies over fledgling ones.

In the early phase of the 2009 general election when the memories of President Barack Obama’s spectacular 2008 triumph was fresh in everyone’s mind, the chief poll strategist of the BJP was exasperated by the frequency with which advertising professionals making a pitch for the party account tried to suggest that the themes of the Democratic Party campaign could be replicated in India.
Since the Left-liberal intelligentsia exercises a disproportionate influence on media common sense, President Obama’s re-election earlier this month has again begun to shape a part of the political discourse in India. Apart from the usual lamentation about the Indian politician’s inability to make the type of inspirational speeches the US President delivered in Chicago to celebrate his victory, there has been the familiar outpouring of multiculturalist joy at white, male Americans having been shown their place by a rainbow coalition of the diverse. Most important, there has been unconcealed glee over the deflation of a Christian fundamentalist agenda centred on the denial of abortion rights for women. The implications were clear: the age of conservatism that Ronald Reagan heralded in 1980 and which George W. Bush upheld so robustly till 2008, has finally been rolled back.
Whether two successive defeats in the race for the White House can upturn a social agenda that has struck roots in the past 25 years must await the judgment of history. After all, between the Reagan and Bushes, Bill Clinton also occupied the White House for eight years. Mr Clinton was a charismatic figure and still remains a great charmer who contributed in no small measure to motivating the loyalists to stand in long queues for Mr Obama on November 6. But, as the conservative writer George Will had remarked in 1998, he was “akin to the man that walked across a field of snow and left no footprints.”
That it takes more than securing 270 electoral votes to redefine the tone of society should be apparent. In most democratic countries, politics is by and large about governmental power and not social attitudes. True, there is no Great Wall of China separating the two. Yet, until the notion of the “moral majority” came into play in the US of the 1970s as a reaction to the permissive liberalism of the late-1960s, it was impossible to apply the conservative-liberal schism to political parties en bloc. The Democratic Party of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, had its share of liberals such as the Kennedys, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern but they coexisted with pragmatists such as Lyndon Johnson and racial segregationists such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.
In India too, it was facile to suggest that the Nehruvian era was marked by a simple liberal-conservative polarisation. The Nehru family may have paraded their “progressive” views but they had to factor in the deep social conservatism of the likes of Purshottam Das Tandon and Morarji Desai. Likewise, the conservatism of the Swatantra Party was limited to economic management and the conduct of foreign policy. On social issues, the pro-business stalwarts such as Minoo Masani and even, up to a point, C. Rajagopalachari were definitely more “progressive” than many of their Congress counterparts.
Past trends are, however, not necessarily a guide to the present. The culture wars that have erupted as a consequence of economic change (notably globalisation), the rise of feminism and the rediscovery of religiosity have had an impact on party systems. According to the discourse that is shaped by liberal perceptions, the Congress is held to be the progressive party while the BJP is construed as the epitome of regressive attitudes. This perception has even shaped voting preferences. The Congress, which is seriously beleaguered on the issue of mega-corruption and crony capitalism, has tried (often very successfully) to offset its poor performance in government with its allegedly uncompromising stand on secularism. The secular-communal divide has become the Indian equivalent of the sharp polarisation in the US over “family values”, the Judaeo-Christian ethos and abortion. Consequently, using an imagery borrowed from a very different democracy, the BJP has been painted as the desi version of Mitt Romney’s white, male votebank which is disdainful of the educated, the modern woman and ethnic minorities.
As a caricature of the real world this polarisation holds good. However, on closer examination the loose ends become visible. The Congress makes a big deal about the separation of religion and politics. Ironically, what is conveniently glossed over is the fact that the greatest influence of theology-based certitudes is to be found in the Muslim minority of India, particularly its defence of Shariah law and its identification with the wider ummah. These attitudes have, ironically, been internalised in the Congress and repackaged as secularism. Thus, secular commonality makes it possible for the Congress to seek expedient alliances with the Samajwadi Party which combines its espousal of Muslim autonomy with regressive attitudes towards women.
Like Mr Obama’s successful leveraging of the culture wars and old-style votebank politics to defeat the Romney challenge, social issues have always proved handy for formations that don’t have a worthwhile record of good governance. This is a lesson India’s politicians would do well to imbibe. To some, Mr Obama is inspirational; to others he is a hoax.

The writer is a senior journalist

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