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So, which is the real ideology of the BJP?

In every election, Indian politics changes a little. Not necessarily for the better or worse.

But it changes nevertheless and then it’s never quite the same again.


As we go into the general election, let’s take some of the assumptions about the BJP, which have had to be hastily revised due to the experience of the last few years.


   The first is the old view that the BJP would never allow a personality cult to emerge around an individual leader. When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the party’s most popular leader and his face dominated the billboards and the posters, there was uneasiness within sections of the party as well as in the RSS.


   After the BJP’s crushing defeat in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, Vajpayee was sidelined and the party rallied around LK Advani.


   Advani was never a mass leader at the national level and when it became clear that his leadership would be unacceptable to coalition partners, Vajpayee was brought back. But throughout his tenure, Vajpayee was constantly needled by the RSS and it was believed that ministers loyal to Advani did not necessarily accept his supremacy.


   Contrast the experiences of those years with politics in the last decades. The BJP is now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in the way that the Congress was once Indira Gandhi’s party. He is more popular than his party. When he makes claims and promises, he does so in the name of Modi (yes, in the third person)—not so much in the name of the party. And while you may hear chants of Jai Shri Ram at rallies and party gatherings, a new chorus has supplemented it: “Modi, Modi, Modi….”


   One of the reasons Vajpayee often had a rough ride was that much of the RSS did not really like him. Now, nobody knows or even cares what the RSS thinks of Modi. The Prime Minister is too popular for any complaint from Nagpur to make much difference.


   You could argue that some of the things Modi does or talks about please the RSS (the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, the Uniform Civil Code, and the abrogation of Article 370 among others). However, he is not trying to win the approval of a cabal of elders at the RSS headquarters. He is making these moves with an eye on his own constituency.


   In the Congress era, we would scoff at the idea of a ‘High Command’ to which all decisions would be referred. Even chief ministers were selected by somebody sitting in Delhi, not by the state’s MLAs. And all CMs could be sacked and appointed at will.


   The old BJP was different: it was much harder for the party’s central leadership in Delhi to impose its will. (Remember how Vajpayee lacked the clout to move Modi out of Gujarat?) Now, when the Congress has neither an effective High Command nor even a Low Command, that old culture has been passed on to the BJP.


   Modi and Amit Shah are the party’s high command. Every major decision is referred to them. If they want to change a popular chief minister (for example, Shivraj Singh Chouhan after his victory in Madhya Pradesh), nobody will question their decision.


 "At present, there are relatively few questions from the electorate about inconsistency and morality because of Modi’s popularity." 

   Perhaps the most significant changes in the BJP have been ideological. The Congress has always prided itself on being, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s phrase, a banyan tree that offers shelter to people with differing points of view. The BJP, on the other hand, has been a cadre-based party with strict discipline. No deviations from the party line are allowed, and like the CPI(M), the BJP usually chose its leaders from the cadres. There were few walk-ins and very few lateral entries.


   That has changed. Fewer and fewer of the top ministers in the central government are men and women who have spent years in cadres or shakhas. They are lateral entrants, experts from outside the party, or favourites of the top leadership. Some are even dynasts, something the BJP used to be committed to fighting against.


   Even the old ideological consistency the BJP imposed now operates at two distinct levels. Outspoken chief ministers such as Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma often say provocative things about Muslims, sometimes echoing the language of Hindutva groups on social media. But the Prime Minister is always careful, rarely saying much that could be construed as anti-Muslim.


   So, which is the real ideology of the BJP? The invective hurled against Muslims by important party leaders? Or the more high-minded stance adopted by the PM?


   And if the PM’s position represents the true ideology of the BJP, then why does nobody tell off those who strongly deviate from that line? The once-fabled ideological consistency of the BJP is now no more than a strategic weapon.


   Finally, there is the question of membership. For most of its existence, the BJP has prided itself on the ideological purity of its senior leaders and the financial integrity of its ministers. That claim holds less water now.


   The BJP is now welcoming (actually, it is encouraging) defectors from every party. Some of them adopt the prejudices of the Hindu Right with the fervour of neo-converts (listen to Sarma talk and you will wonder if he believed all this stuff when he was in Congress) but others seem a little uncomfortable going down the Hindu-Muslim route.


   Much worse, from the BJP’s point of view, is that many individuals it has brought into the party are people it told us were crooks. In several cases, newly introduced members of the BJP have faced criminal proceedings from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). (Those cases usually wound up or pushed on a back burner once the accused person joined the BJP.)


   At present, there are relatively few questions from the electorate about inconsistency and morality because of Modi’s popularity. People want to vote for Modi so they take on all the baggage he brings with him. And the BJP justifies the entry of dodgy politicians by saying that it is more important to cripple the Opposition than to worry about each new entrant.


   However, going forward, how will the new members fit into the BJP? What effect will their admission have on cadres who have struggled for the party’s success? And what will it do for the party’s soul now that, having once boasted of standing for purity and integrity, it is filling its ranks with people who do not believe in the BJP’s ideology or personal integrity, for that matter.


   None of these issues will matter very much in the coming Lok Sabha election. The BJP’s supporters will vote for five more years of Modi regardless.


   But political parties are long-term projects. A single victory or defeat may not amount to much in the long run: this is the same party that won just two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 and is now talking of winning 400+ seats.


   Is the BJP heading for trouble in the future if it loses most of its distinctive characteristics? We have one example before us—Indira Gandhi. She destroyed the old Congress party and its structures but was able to win elections in life and death because of her charisma.


   In the long run, once she was gone, the damage she did to the Congress transformed the party forever and has since made every election an uphill task.


   Modi is one of the shrewdest politicians in modern Indian history so he must be aware of the risks. But has he done enough to guard against them?



Posted On: 11 Apr 2024 10:15 AM
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