For a long time now, observers of the American political scene have been pointing out how difficult it is to distinguish between what the Republican Party stands for and what the Democratic Party advocates. In recent years, the same has happened in UK where the policies of Tony Blair are indistinguishable from those of John Major. In France and in Germany too a similar merger of ideology is discernible. This happens in all competitive systems. At the beginning of the 20th century there were several hundred manufacturers of automobiles; now there are only a handful. Not just in ownership, even in technology or styling, there is little to distinguish between the way cars are made, from one manufacturer to another. A similar evolution occurs in competitive politics too.
In electrical communication engineering, this phenomenon is known as "capture effect" - the stronger signal "captures" the weaker one and suppresses it, eliminating thereby interference and noise. That is why FM receivers provide better reception than older AM radios. Similarly, in politics too, the more popular ideology captures the weaker one until only one ideology dominates and all others get suppressed. However, this can happen only with complex systems. Simplistic ideologies which characterise single-issue groups are not subject to this capture effect. No one expects Medha Patkar or the Naxalites or even Pakistan to give up their one-point agenda. They are like AM radios; even when they are weak, they are not silenceable. However, those who seek a broad base are forced to borrow successful ideas from rivals. Then, they all look the same.
That a similar phenomenon is being witnessed here too, signifies the increasing maturity of the Indian democracy. There is evidence that the socialists, who have for decades been ardent in advocating extreme policies, are changing tack. Even though they make noises as before, it is obvious their heart is no longer in it. At the other extreme, the BJP is quietly burying its Hindutva plank. In recent years, we have had three finance ministers, all strong personalities. Though they represented three different political alignments, the policies advocated by each are hardly distinguishable from the other two. Such merger of ideas gets accentuated as communications improve and the peoples of the nation are brought closer and closer together and national culture becomes more and more uniform. Is that good, or is that bad?
It is good in the sense that with the collapse of ideological differences, internal conflicts becomes less acute. For instance, CPI(ML), one of the most dreaded political outfits in Bihar, has recently teamed up with the CPI and has started talking of reconstructing a new Bihar. It is to the credit of Indian democracy that extremist outfits like the CPI(ML), the Mizo National Front and several others have compromised on their ideology and have voluntarily joined the mainstream. However, such a congruence of ideas can be bad too, if not for anything else, at least for the reason that it reduces, even eliminates, choice. Then, the same policy may continue long after it has become obsolete with nobody bothering to think of better options. That is why it is wise to tolerate fringe groups even if they happen to be a nuisance. That is, just as biodiversity is vital for the survival of the biosphere, political diversity too is no less vital for the good health of the polity.
It must also be said that India has had more than a tolerable share of ideologues, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru himself. Even Gandhiji was moved to protest at the direction in which Nehru was taking the country. Drunk on the idea of modernism, Nehru brushed aside those criticisms. Later, Rajaji waged a campaign against the control raj instituted by Nehru. He got no support from intellectuals of the day who turned their eyes away from the evils that resulted from Nehru's mistaken policies. Later on, during the Emergency, many officials of the bureaucracy "crawled when they were only asked to bend". Ideology can be bad or good; often it is a mixture of both, but in the hands of a towering personality (even a well-intentioned one), no ideology can escape becoming an evil.
Current interest in the death of ideology arises from Prime Minister Vajpayee's style of functioning. He has proved to be a great compromiser. That is excellent for survival but not necessarily for progress. Unfortunately, the prime minister inherited a much-flawed ideology, the ideology of Hindutva. In its essence, there is much to be said in favour of Hindutva. It is not improper to propagate the view that upper caste Hindus should not suffer reverse discrimination. Unfortunately, that got mixed up with Babri Masjid and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Every ideology does need an enemy to make worthwhile impact. Unfortunately, the proponents of Hindutva picked on the wrong one.
Frankly, the fear that ideology has died in India is exaggerated. Currently, four distinct ideologies are fighting for supremacy. First, there is the long simmering conflict between distributive justice advocated by socialists and the maximisation of productivity favoured by market capitalists. In 1991, the scales swung in favour of the latter but the former is still a strong force. Then, we have the seeds sown by V.P. Singh. Truly, they are the ones who have displaced Hindutva. Neither should we forget the transformation that has taken place inside the Congress party. Since the time it changed its name from the Indian National Congress to Congress (I), the party has given up its original plank of nationalism and patriotism and has unabashedly adopted a policy that may be described only as monarchism. The problem is, each of these ideologies has a faithful following, each large enough to checkmate others but not quite enough to take over the polity on its own.
These days the fashion is to predict. Let me also make an attempt. I predict that Hindutva will be the ultimate survivor. How? Muslims look towards Mecca, they have a direction. Christians wait with anticipation for Christ's second coming. They too have a direction - the future. In contrast, Hindus are not bothered which way to go; they just go round and round their idols. Basically, all Indians are tinged by Hinduism. So, as a nation, all Indians are interested only in idols, not in ideology. They will go round and round their idols and nowhere in particular!