Book Review: Ideology and Identity, The Changing Party Systems of India by Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma

Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma write a very interesting and thought provoking book. The book challenges the conventional wisdom held by many, that the competition amongst political parties in India as well as Indian elections are not based on ideological differences, but revolve around the politics of patronage and vote buying. It argues that since independence, Indian politics and party systems are rooted in ideological differences these having become more, not less ideological in recent years.

  • The authors argue that the ideological cleavage around which which western democracies were organised (as defined by Lipset and Rokkan) were the four axis of capital versus labour, centre versus periphery, cities versus rural areas and church versus state. However, these are not the axis around which ideological cleaves are formed in the Indian political party system. Instead, it is organised around the two axis of ‘politics of statism’ and the ‘politics of recognition’. ‘Statism’ is the idea that the state should exercise substantial influence on social and economic policy, the state intervening actively in remaking social norms and practices, and also to redistribute wealth in society. ‘Recognition’, on the other hand, is the intervention by the state for correcting group based social inequalities and the state working to accommodate the interests of historically marginalized social groups. Making use of the CSDS data since 1967, they argue that ideological divisions between these two types of politics have remained stable for over the 50 years now. They argue that since 1996, more and more voters make up their mind early as to which party they would vote for, indicating the greater influence that ideology has started playing in elections, even over campaign promises and freebies.
  • The authors argue that both these cleavages ie. the ‘politics of statism’ and ‘politics of recognition’, had sufficient tradition/intellectual capital in Indian political as well as mass of social support, who stood for or against ‘statism’ and ‘recognition’, thus creating conditions around which political parties could be organised. The traditional Indian political and philosophical thought argued of the primacy of society over state (unlike in the western tradition), had a strong welfarist orientation (job of the ruler to look after the masses), but not on the redistribution of wealth. This tradition was challenged by modernists like Nehru and Ambedkar. The authors use the CSDS/Lokniti National Election Survey (NES) data to argue that while these cleavages have been around for a long time, they became more pronounced in the 2014 election, where a distinct rightward shift was seen in both the politics of ‘statism’ and politics of ‘recognition’. The factors informing this rightward shift was the transformational leadership of Narendra Modi as well as the perception of corruption associated with the UPA government, and its statist policies of welfarism rather than aspiration.
  • Interestingly, they argue that the perception that the voters can be bought is false (they use use NES 2009 and 2014 data as well as cite ethnographic work by Bjorkman (2014) to justify their argument), and all that money does in elections is to probably act as a substitute for party organization. However, ideology has a much greater affect on voter behaviour, for that makes them identify with a party thereby making them more committed voters. They also discuss the impact that transformational leaders committed to an ideological vision, as well as vote mobilisers have in transmitting party ideology and also mobilising voters in their favour. The book also has chapters dealing with the decline of the Congress and the rise of the ideological right in form of BJP. ideological rise of and the ideological consolidation of the right manifested in the rise of the BJP.

The book makes for an interesting read, though frankly speaking in my view, the data questions around which the authors have built their argument are not exhaustive enough. While I would not challenge the conclusions in toto, but there is surely a need for a more focused research on the role ideology plays in organising political parties as well as in Indian elections.

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