At mid-term, Modi's BJP on cusp of change

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The party recognises how important cultivating an ideological footprint is to achieving its expansive ambitions. It certainly has its work cut out in a diverse nation like India, whose frontiers are sequestered from its hinterlands.

As the government celebrates its third anniversary, however, the effect of Mr. Modi’s premiership of his own party seems the most significant aspect. | Kamal Narang

Mid-term assessments are a mix of disappointed hopes, belied promises, and some achievements — most resemble the post-honeymoon ebb of marriages. In the case of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, the popularity ratings have remained high, trust in his leadership continues unshaken and the narrative is secure in his own hands. This unremitting sunshine on Mr. Modi’s government is of course a product of many things, including his communication strategy, tight control over his ministers and the ideological rigour and backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh so far to his government.

Accusations about jobless growth, breakdown in law and order after high-profile cases of public lynchings by cow vigilante groups and the continuing implosion of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s coalition government with the Peoples Democratic Party in Kashmir haven’t managed to dent Mr. Modi’s approval ratings, if surveys conducted on the third anniversary of his government are to be believed.

For political writers to draw causal relationships between policy issues and electoral outcomes is an exercise of spurious specificity. The only thing that can be said about Prime Minister Modi and the historic mandate that his party received in Uttar Pradesh, slap-bang in the middle of his tenure as Prime Minister, is that the country is still enamoured by the first man in 30 years to get a single-party majority in Parliament.

One of the biggest reasons that this charisma endures is that he has managed to decimate the opposition in political combat.

 

The gentle Nehruvian consensus, almost like the Edwardian Summer before the outbreak of World War I, has been disrupted, and only history will tell whether it will ever return. It is the single-biggest change that the Modi government has wrought — the debating of earlier postulates and forcing all political rivals to end moral ambivalences, that had been so much a sign of the last 30 years of coalition politics.

This change has been deliberately wrought, with much hard work, application and strategy, not just by the BJP (in fact less by it) than the larger Sangh Parivar and individually by Prime Minister Modi. 

The Prep

As the Sangh Parivar surveyed the detritus of the mandate of 2004, there were several things that it felt it needed to fix. Mr Modi, facing a barrage of criticism in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, had already re-oriented his communication and governance strategy, directly interacting with people through the social media, public meetings and giving a wide berth to what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley picturesquely described in a recent speech as “the arbitration of public opinion by half a dozen television anchors.”

The RSS, watching these developments, also reached its own conclusions on just what it needed to do. By 2005, it had deputed its former spokesperson Ram Madhav to speak for it internationally, to dispel negative ideas about it as gleaned from what the mainstream press in India said about the RSS.

 

Put simply, while electoral victories are important in terms of spreading ideology, it is ideological hegemony, in times when electoral victories are at an ebb, that create conditions for political comebacks.

In 2008, the conclusion reached was that the BJP needed to get its own “eco-system” together, of policy wonks and back-channel mandarins in foreign and defence policy. At least two think tanks, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and the India Foundation were set up at that time. Current vice-president of the BJP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe described it as a changeover in the Sangh’s overall tactics from just being action-oriented to solidifying its own ideological underpinnings in a policy framework. When Mr. Modi’s government came to power in 2014, these two think tanks provided much of the talent of the Union government.

The “ sarkar hamari , Raj Congress ka [government is ours but the rule is that of the Congress]” litany that faced the Vajpayee government between 1999-2004, with a continuity in both foreign and domestic policy and almost the same set of talking heads as in the previous non-BJP regimes was sought to be remedied.

Parallel Political Drama

All this clear thinking did not, however, mean that the question of leadership was also similarly unopaque. Running parallel to this was the internal hemorrhage of the BJP in general, a fractious leadership in Delhi that could not get any traction on any accusation of corruption that could have been levelled against the UPA government.

With just 116 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 (worse than its 2004 performance) the BJP’s political fortunes were at an ebb, with Mr. Modi emerging as the only leader with potential prime ministerial chops. It took a decade for the BJP to coalesce around Mr. Modi, but it was 10 years that solidified many things within the Sangh Parivar.

What 2014 really meant

The real meaning of the mandate of 2014, and what the following three years of Modi government has meant, was made clear when I interviewed BJP president Amit Shah on a searingly hot day in May in Nalgonda district of Telangana. Mr. Shah was touring the State as part of his “ vistarak [expansion]” programme of expanding the party’s organisational — and consequently electoral — footprint in areas where it hadn't got much traction in the past. I asked Mr. Shah why he had, in earlier interactions, separated the question of electoral victories and ideological acceptability.

“Surely electoral victories are an endorsement of ideology?” I asked. Mr Shah’s response was that ideological work cannot be totally coterminous with work done by the organisation during election time. “Parties that neglect ideological work end up as electoral machines and that ultimately does no good,” he answered.

Put simply, while electoral victories are important in terms of spreading ideology, it is ideological hegemony, in times when electoral victories are at an ebb, that create conditions for political comebacks.

 

Mid-term assessment

Mr. Modi’s government at mid-term is, therefore, the most comprehensively non-Congress government ever. It has been a ride of contestations and debates, and extraordinary decisions such as demonetisation. It has broken past templates of assessment and set its own yardstick in what is politically possible in India.

The effects of demonetisation, a decision that affected possibly every single Indian here and abroad, are still being unfurled in the economy, although the results of the Uttar Pradesh elections show that Prime Minister Modi has pulled it off politically.

As the government celebrates its third anniversary, however, the effect of Mr. Modi’s premiership of his own party seems the most significant aspect. No, not the fact that the party has gone from a collegial sort of system of decision-making to a party where Mr. Modi’s writ runs large, but in the scope of its ambitions. It is these ambitions in fact that will change the face of the BJP as it will of India.

The BJP is determined to expand. It has two governments in the country's north east and is part of the ruling alliance in India’s only Muslim-majority State. It wants to grow in the currently Left-dominated Kerala. In these areas it has had to face to tough questions on the fundamentals of its ideology. In Jammu and Kashmir, it’s the question of how to deal with the violence that has erupted, the rupture between the Valley and Jammu, and Article 370, while in the North East and Kerala it's about Hindutva and the Church, and issues of cow slaughter and beef consumption.

Here, the BJP does and will find that ideas that work in the hinterland — its north-centric version of Hindu civilisational influence — may not work so well in the frontiers of the Indian State. Symbols and metaphors from Hindutva, so easily translateable to hinterland India may not find the same traction in Meghalaya or Mizoram, Kollam or Budgam.

With these vaulting ambitions, the desire to broaden its ideological tent, the BJP will, under Prime Minister Modi, have to take the push-back from the frontiers and co-opt it. Under Prime Minister Modi, who has a universal appeal across the country, these ambitions have the best chance of succeeding. But it will, without a doubt, fundamentally change the BJP too. Mr. Modi at mid-term is on the cusp of that moment.

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