The BJP’s new avatar

LOOKING AHEAD: The resistance from within and outside without  to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah format of the BJP will play out in the coming months.

LOOKING AHEAD: The resistance from within and outside without to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah format of the BJP will play out in the coming months.

The appointment of Amit Shah as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, followed by the constitution of a new parliamentary board, firmly announced the takeover of the BJP by a new generation, replacing the previous one. The transformation of the saffron party from the hopeless situation it found itself in May 2009 to the triumph of May 2014 has been phenomenal. In fact, until 2012, by when the anti-corruption movement inspired by Anna Hazare had gained traction, the BJP’s chances were bleak, and in that sense it took just two years for the party to emerge as the primary pole of Indian politics from being in the margins at the Centre for a decade.

As the BJP readies for the first round of Assembly elections since the Lok Sabha election, in Haryana and Maharashtra, there are three facets that make the new avatar of the saffron party distinct from its earlier versions.

Shift of centre of gravity The first characteristic of the new BJP is the shift of its centre of gravity from States to the Centre. After the eclipse of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani’s command over the party gradually eroded even as its State leaders began to wield more and more power. Between 2009 and until Narendra Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate, the BJP hardly had a central leadership that commanded any nationwide authority. The party’s strength was its Chief Ministers and leaders at the regional level. Mr. Modi, Raman Singh, B.S. Yeddyurappa, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Gopinath Munde, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and others held sway in their respective spheres of influence. One of them, Mr. Modi, emerged as a national leader, with his extraordinary sense of mass politics, and reversed the situation. The BJP today is centralised like it has never been; even when Mr. Vajpayee remained tall, he did not have absolute control, demonstrated by his failed attempts to remove Mr. Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002. It was the projection of influential, affable, relatively clean and reasonably efficient leaders at the State level that helped the party win elections in the States. With Haryana and Maharashtra, that practice has been abandoned. The BJP will have no chief ministerial candidate in Haryana; in Maharashtra the party’s claim for the post itself is in dispute with its ally — the Shiv Sena. The party has already indicated that in the Jharkhand and Bihar Assembly elections later, it is unlikely to announce any chief ministerial candidate. Mr. Modi will be the main vote-catcher for the party in all these elections.

The second facet of the new BJP flows from the first — that is the nature of the exercise of authority at the Centre. With all powers being concentrated in two individuals, namely Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah, party office-bearers, Ministers and Members of Parliament are left with little elbow room for any manoeuvring. Party MPs resentfully joke that they are scared to be at their residences as they are not in a position to oblige constituents who land up for petty favours or other interventions in the government. But Ministers, MPs and office-bearers are not in a position to rebel. Few of them have any political base of their own; far from aspiring for more, they will soon be struggling to preserve what they have. Going by the ‘Gujarat model’ of beating anti-incumbency, a good number of the sitting MPs could be denied nomination in 2019.

Dealing with alliance partners

The third characteristic of the new BJP is visible in its dealings with its allies. The Sangh Parivar’s political alliance-making follows a pattern of three different phases before it establishes primacy in a particular region.

In the first phase, the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s forebear, even surrendered its own identity to be part of the Janata Party, to gain legitimacy that it lacked after the involvement of people linked with the Parivar to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. That phase ended with the break-up of the Janata Party over the question of dual membership — i.e., about allowing party members to retain their membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — with the Parivar gaining a lot of legitimacy and keeping its ideology intact. The BJP was hence born. After a brief spell of isolation, it entered into alliances with some rump of the Janata Party in various States, and joined the government as a junior partner. In West Bengal, it gained foothold with an alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. In the early 1990s, the BJP was a junior partner in Gujarat, until 2008 it had a junior status in Karnataka, and until 2013 it was so in Bihar. In all the three States, the BJP is now a prime pole of politics. At the national level, the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Mr. Vajpayee resolved the second legitimacy crisis that the party faced, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Whether as a junior partner in many States or as the leader of the NDA, the BJP was dependent on allies who set the terms of engagement — that was the second phase in BJP’s alliance-making.

In the third stage of its growth, in relative terms with its allies, the BJP manages to leapfrog as an independent force, often replacing and liquidating its erstwhile partners in many States, or reducing them into complete dependents. That process was complete in Gujarat by the mid-1990s. It is at an advanced stage now in Karnataka and Bihar, and under way in Odisha, though still at a rudimentary stage. At the Centre, the BJP under the Modi-Shah leadership has overwhelmed its alliance partners already, with the Lok Sabha majority it commands on its own. The coercive politics of the likes of Ram Vilas Paswan, Chandrababu Naidu and the Badals is now a distant memory.

However, beyond the electoral triumph, and despite the three evidently distinctive characteristics — namely, the shift of power from States to the Centre, the absence of any balancing factor in the exercise of power by the Prime Minister and the party’s pre-eminence over alliance partners — the new BJP is still a work in progress. The party’s inability to sufficiently accommodate caste interest groups in the new format has already been proved to be expensive in the by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; its hard talk with its oldest ally, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, has not yielded the optimal results. The resistance from within and outside to the Modi-Shah format of the BJP will play out in the coming months.

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Printable version | Jul 3, 2022 9:06:16 am |