A right reading of post-cleavage political parties

The grounding of AAP’s aggregative politics within a clear ideological framework, for example, is crucial for a sharper appreciation of its appeal and an understanding of its mode of mobilisation within the regional party space

Updated - March 16, 2023 01:17 pm IST

Published - February 03, 2023 12:16 am IST

An Aam Aadmi Party rally in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.

An Aam Aadmi Party rally in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is often represented in the popular media as the triumph of a post-ideological politics. Such a facile notion stems from an erroneous division of politics into an “ideological realm” (the domain of cleavage politics), and a “good governance realm” (the domain of aggregative politics). Thus, we end up in a situation where we try to understand the success of AAP without any reference to its crucial ideological underpinnings.

It is a significant analytical mistake, not least because ideology can power the dynamic of both cleavage politics (the differential mobilisation of competing social groups) as well as aggregative politics (the construction of a dominant coalition spanning across social groups). The grounding of AAP’s aggregative politics within a clear ideological framework is not only crucial for a sharper appreciation of AAP’s own political appeal but also for situating its mode of political mobilisation within a larger political churning in the regional party space.

A comparison between Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is ideal as these political parties are the clearest exemplars of a “post cleavage” turn (rather than a “post-ideological” turn) that has marked a new generation of regional parties. Some patterns of this post-cleavage paradigm can also be discerned in the political strategies of new regional parties such as the TRS (Telangana Rashtra Samithi which is now the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, or the BRS) and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), even as their continued organisational till towards a dominant farming caste (Velamas and Reddys, respectively) make them more ambiguous case studies. What is the basic ideological framework of post-cleavage parties such as the BJD and AAP? This can be answered by dividing an ideological framework into three different dimensions (moral, distributive and discursive) and demonstrating what sets the BJD and AAP apart on all of these dimensions.

The moral and distributive dimension

Both AAP and the BJD skew towards a certain conception of representative democracy, where elections are viewed primarily as a mechanism to ensure popular accountability over government functioning rather than as a mechanism to ensure the fair representation of group interests in the democratic process. To be sure, the logic of political representation never really took root in Odisha or Delhi, given the historical entrenchment of urban middle-class interests and the weak politicisation of caste identity in both the States. Odisha is one of the few major States where the political elite has largely remained disconnected from the countryside, anchored as it is among the upper castes and professional middle classes of the coastal belt. The historical dominance of mining over agriculture in the State’s developmental trajectory shifted the balance of power from a rural aristocracy to an urban aristocracy that comprised upper caste (largely Brahman-Karan) bureaucrats and industrialists (Mohanty 1990). Meanwhile, the appropriation of upwardly-mobile middle-caste Khandayat farmers into the larger Karan fold defused the possibility of any subsequent politicisation of rural caste identity. Similarly, the cleavages of caste are not as politicised in Delhi as in its neighbouring States because of its history as a bureaucrat-run Union Territory which was only granted partial statehood in 1993.

This yawning representational deficit combined with a more intense form of crony-capitalism in the post-liberalisation decades, led to widespread cynicism about institutional politics in both the States. The frustration with a malfunctioning local-level bureaucracy became interlocked with anger at high-profile corruption scandals. The consequent centre-staging of an anti-corruption discourse reinforced the need for a strongman leader who could put a lid on corruption and prevent the leakage of public resources into the hands of a small, well-networked elite. It is worth quoting a passage from James Manor’s 2015 study on the dominance of the BJD in Odisha: “What about corruption? An oft-heard narrative in Odisha provides this answer: ‘a clean Chief Minister who is also a stern disciplinarian has tidied the system up (a) by centralising and thus depriving subordinates of influence to sell, and (b) by punishing those who are caught profiteering’”.

In his 1965 study of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, Paul Brass had commended the “integrative function” of traditional Congress factionalism. “Factional conflict also broadens the base of participation within the party as each faction competes for wider group support…by drawing in new caste and religious groups,” Brass wrote. Yet, the Congress factions in Odisha (a State where Dalits and tribals form around 40% of the population) not only remained insular, as political scientist Ramashray Roy (1998) has explained, but also devolved into a chaotic scramble for tickets and the spoils of power. This kind of factionalism only reinforced perceptions of a corrupt, feckless regime.

In contrast, the BJD under Mr. Patnaik kept the party organisation deliberately weak. The aggregative populism of parties such as the BJD and AAP is acutely aware of the inevitable clashes between caste/community or interest-based groups that saddle party organisations. Instead, they try to forge “umbrella coalitions” from above, through their broad-based, programmatic welfare-oriented leadership. The BJD’s patronage strategy, for instance, involved buying off local elites and cultivating the Odiya media, without allowing for an independent centre of power to emerge in the organisation. Meanwhile, the high-rent economy of both States has been leveraged into the creation of a few marquee welfare schemes, or some grand infrastructure projects, carried out through a centralised bureaucratic apparatus. Moreover, these universal schemes have been exclusively linked to the personality of an ‘honest’ Chief Minister, enabling both parties to evolve a powerful programmatic appeal spanning across communities.

The discursive dimension

The aggregative thrust of these post-cleavage parties also extends to the articulation of a broad-based regional identity that can include everyone within its ambit. A strident linguistic identity, even in a relatively less heterogenous State, can exclude large groups of people. One can recall the uneasy relationship between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Dalits or the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) with tribal groups such as Bodos and Mishings.

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In States which are more sociologically and geographically diverse, such as Odisha and Delhi, a political strategy centred on a narrowly defined regional identity is even more fraught with risks. While the BJD’s Odisha model lays emphasis on social harmony more than progressivism/secularism, Chief Minister Patnaik has periodically reiterated the necessity of an inclusive Odia identity for the progress of the State. The association of social strife with an ‘anti-developmental agenda’ has helped the party to keep right-wing forces at bay. The BJD has made steady incursions into Dalit and tribal groups since the riots in Kandhamal in 2008, when it broke off its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, meanwhile, has flailed in finding a coherent Hindutva narrative. The Odiya ethnic landscape is complex: for instance, the violence in Kandhamal can be seen as both “Hindu versus Christian” as well as “Tribal versus Dalit” violence. The overlapping social identities do not easily lend themselves to a communalised grand narrative as much to an overarching developmental model — the ‘Delhi model’ or the ‘Odisha model’ where aspiration replaces identity.

To be sure, this combination of a strong Chief Minister/centralised administration and a weak party machinery is not an exclusive feature to these two parties. Nevertheless, the ideological grounding given by AAP and the BJD to their politics makes them good exemplars of the post-cleavage turn in Indian State politics.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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