BJP and Congress are telling different stories. But they are converging.

2019 is an election year: political rhetoric will reach its height and economic policy is likely to take a backseat. A Hindustan Times column captures the stories that the two national parties are telling us about today’s India.

The narratives revolve around three aspects: quality of life; corruption; and identity, democracy and institutions.

1. Quality of life

2. Corruption

3. Identity, democracy and institutions.

The two stories are absolutely different. The result of the 2019 election will tell us the story that resonates with most Indians—or maybe there is a different story which analysts are missing at the moment.

I have little interest in the predictions game (“who will win 2019?”); more so in understanding how politics impacts everyday lives of ordinary citizens.

Will 2019 outcome make any real difference to Indian political economy?

From current trends, no: at least not in any significant way. Sure, in theory, BJP and Congress lie on the opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. But how that translates into actual policy outcomes is less clear to me.

Look at three recent events:

1. Surveillance and privacy: Both parties are complicit in expanding state surveillance without legal basis. I had explained this in the previous DisFact post.

2. Sabarimala temple politics: Despite the Supreme Court order allowing the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple, both the Congress and the BJP are opposing the Kerala government in the implementation of the court order.

(Update: Two women entered the Sabarimala temple on Wednesday. I explained the controversy here)

3. Farm loan waivers: Are loan waivers the right policy response to agrarian distress? Doesn’t matter: Eight state governments have given farm loan waivers worth ₹1.9 trillion since April last year. It began with Modi’s promise of debt relief to farmers ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections in February 2017; and most recently, Congress made similar promises ahead of the recently concluded assembly elections in five states.

What does this mean? Parties are converging

In a timely essay, Pramit Bhattacharya, Mint’s data journalism editor, argued that “both parties have moved closer to each other…even as their rhetoric suggests the opposite.”

BJP moving towards Congress: The left-ward shift on economic policy

Left-ward shift meaning increasing role of the government and less of markets. Bhattacharya says that the BJP “effectively copied the Congress stylebook in its governance style, renaming and revamping the welfare schemes of the Congress era and then adding some of its own.”

Economist Vivek Dehejia made a similar observation in a Mint column last year.

Phrases that Modi used in the election campaign, such as “maximum governance, minimum government” and “the government has no business being in business”, suggested a tilt towards both pro-business and pro-market policies. Yet, as we now know, if we did not know it then, there has been much greater continuity in governance from the previous government to the current government than such rhetoric would suggest.

Thus, Modi famously derided the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), suggesting it would be a monument to the failure of the Indian National Congress and Sonia Gandhi. Yet, after coming to power, the Modi government doubled down on MGNREGA and other Congress-era welfare schemes rather than getting rid of them, as one might have expected from a putative advocate of minimum government. Such examples abound in the Modi government’s record.

Congress moving towards BJP: The right-ward shift on social policy

Despite the Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas rhetoric, BJP “made it amply clear that it did not have much time for the question of minority rights, and suggested that such issues were highlighted by the Congress only to appease its Muslim ‘vote bank’.”

This forced the Congress to “adopt a pronounced pro-Hindu stance in an attempt to lurch towards the new median,” Bhattacharya wrote.

This is evident not only in Gandhi’s increased demonstration of religiosity but also in the changing composition of the key Congress decision-making bodies—which have seen a sharp decline in Muslim representation since 2014.

The Congress’s new strategy on social policy is also reflected in its silence on the Ram mandir issue. The party’s strategists seem to harbour the hope that the lack of any response on the party’s part will diminish the polarizing potential of this issue.

Looking ahead

This is just one explanation, and it comes with its caveats. For instance, ideological differences between the parties impact government priorities.

As we head towards the general election, political analysis in this newsletter will map out such similarities and differences. It will be less about day-to-day political action—alliances, allegations, arithmetic—and more on issues, policies and political trends that reflect the future course of India.