India’s BJP: Lessons learned (or not) from the Republicans

By Anjalika Bardalai

On the face of it, India and the US have more differences than similarities: They diverge markedly in terms of income and a host of other qualitative and quantitative indicators. They seem like political opposites as well-one is a two-party presidential system, the other a parliamentary system comprising no fewer than 70 recognized parties (the newest was launched just this week). But Mitt Romney's defeat in the recent US presidential campaign has highlighted several weaknesses of the Republican Party that are mirrored in India's center-right national party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been the main national opposition party since its spectacular loss in India's 2004 general election.

Most critically, both parties exhibit a split between a conventionally center-right, business-friendly faction and an overtly religious faction that tries to politicize social issues. In the US, the extremely conservative stance of a few Republicans on issues such as rape and abortion periodically overshadowed the presidential campaign and arguably alienated potential voters who favor the right's economic policies, but who found its social policies abhorrent. The BJP, too, exhibits a fault-line between one faction that is secular, pro-business, pro-economic reform, and (relatively) fiscally conservative, and another wing-the hardline "Hindu-nationalists."

The GOP's hardline stance and rhetoric on immigration reform in the US contributed to an extremely poor showing for the party among Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority group in the US.  Similarly, the consequences for the BJP of the Hindutva influence are grave, and will become ever more so as rising incomes inevitably weaken the bonds of religious, ethnic- and caste-based identity in India. For one thing, the BJP's perceived pro-Hindu stance means that it will be all but impossible to make serious electoral inroads among the roughly 15% of India's population that is Muslim.

In addition, the BJP's position is a serious liability in terms of its ability to form alliances with India's myriad regional parties. In an increasingly fractured political system, this could be an utterly debilitating political handicap. As a debate raged this week about whether or not a symbolic parliamentary confidence vote would be held on a the government's recent move to liberalize FDI in the retail sector, the BJP was unable to persuade key parties that are stridently opposed to the reform that they should side with it in a vote against the government. As much as they may fear the recent liberalization, the other parties may fear what they have termed the "communal forces" represented by the BJP even more.

The broader consequences of the BJP's schizophrenic identity are no better. In the absence of a strong, coherent policy platform, the party has relied on sheer obstinacy and obstructionism, preventing the legislature from attending to important legislation (some would argue echoing the behavior of the Republicans in Congress for much of the recent past). The Indian government certainly cannot be absolved of responsibility for the current disastrous policymaking environment, but the main opposition party is behaving irresponsibly.

Finally, the division between the secular and religious right complicates the choice of party leadership. Some analysts argued that with public approval of Obama relatively low and, crucially, the US economy still relatively weak, the presidency was the Republicans' to lose if only the party had been able to muster a stronger candidate than Romney. In India, the BJP has yet to anoint a prime ministerial candidate for the next general election, which is due by May 2014. The man widely hailed as the front-runner is the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. Having presided since 2001 over one of India's fastest-growing and most industrialized states, he has developed a sterling reputation for economic management and as such is well-placed to campaign on the main issue of the day: economic revival.

Unfortunately for him, however, he is also one of the country's most divisive figures, with a shadow still hanging over him from communal riots in the state in 2002 in which around 1,000 people-75% of them Muslims-were killed. Even if he prevails in the BJP's internal leadership struggle, this potentially bodes ill for the party's electability in 2014. The BJP urgently needs to reflect on finding a leader who could bring to the table both economic management and political cohesion. Both the Indian BJP and the US GOP have similar lessons to learn from recent history as they attempt to stake out a brighter political future.

Anjalika Bardalai is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.