The cultural and political power of the Hindu Right is visible in the constant video and audio amplification of the Ram mandir at Ayodhya, which is frequently merged with the ubiquitous projection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Television channels and the BJP have left no stone unturned to project the Ram temple as the ultimate symbol of the nation and Modi as an avatar of an undefeatable leader.
We could therefore say that 2024 is set to be a year that combines majoritarianism with authoritarianism as never before: towards the end of 2023, laws that increase state control over citizens were passed, 146 MPs were suspended from Parliament, and the Centre’s role in choosing the Chief Election Commissioner enhanced.
But in the process of attaining absolute control over everything, everywhere, all at once, dramatic changes were also imposed on the internal equations of the BJP. First, Narendra Modi has wilfully taken a position where he not only symbolises the BJP’s present but also its past and future. In contemporary narratives, pushed vigorously by the loyal broadcast media, there is a certain erasure of the old leaders of the party who led the Ram temple movement that put the BJP on the political map. Simultaneously, State leaders of the BJP associated with long reigns have been diminished. New faces are being propped up on the understanding that they are eminently replaceable.
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The most significant has been the axing of Shivraj Singh Chouhan as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, a State he ruled for nearly two decades and where the BJP has just won a phenomenal victory. It is being speculated that Chouhan’s departure was to create a precedent for other powerful or popular State leaders to submit to the will of the high command, which effectively consists of Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Although Modi is currently omnipotent and omnipresent, Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath are believed to be his future successors. The latter is the most independent of State leaders, and it is now a matter of speculation whether there will be an attempt to cut Yogi down to size should Modi-Shah prevail magnificently in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
“Narendra Modi has wilfully taken a position where he not only symbolises the BJP’s present but also its past and future. ”
Another school of thought within the BJP/RSS argues that this would be impossible given Yogi’s popularity and profile as the creator of hell-raising templates such as “bulldozer raj” and his control over the Hindu Yuva Vahini. Founded in 2002 by Yogi, the Hindu Yuva Vahini has the street cred of an outfit dispensing vigilante justice from a Hindutva perspective (which means considerable intimidation of the State’s Muslims, estimated to make up 20 per cent of the population). Still, going into the future, there is the larger question of how many autocratic leaders can be accommodated within one party.
The social matrix of the BJP has also undergone changes since the Modi era of single-party rule began in 2014. These changes became starkly visible following the party’s recent electoral victories in three States (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh). For even as sections of the opposition were demanding a caste census, the BJP moved on to the next stage where it did not deem it necessary to camouflage the importance of savarnas (privileged castes) in its social pyramid.
“Social engineering” was a phrase used by former RSS/BJP ideologues such as K. Govindacharya who emphasised the need to extend the caste catchment of the party. Founded in 1980, the BJP was referred to as a “Brahmin-Bania” formation. This would change with the Ram temple agitation that combined religious mobilisation with the considered positing of OBC faces in the movement and in leadership positions.
Now we have come full circle. With the appointment of Bhajan Lal Sharma as Chief Minister of Rajasthan, the BJP has two Brahmin Chief Ministers, the other being Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam. At the end of 2023, two Brahmin Deputy Chief Ministers were appointed—in Madhya Pradesh (Rajendra Shukla) and Chhattisgarh (Vijay Sharma)—although the top jobs in these States were given to an OBC and an Adivasi respectively. If we include the earlier Deputy Chief Ministers appointed by the party—Brajesh Pathak in Uttar Pradesh and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra—the numbers of Brahmins in this post now comes to four. This is noteworthy.
Scan the other Chief Ministers of the BJP and we get a clear picture: Yogi Adityanath and Pushkar Singh Dhami of Uttarakhand are Thakurs, Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana is a Khatri, N. Biren Singh of Manipur belongs to the dominant Meitei community, Bhupendra Patel in Gujarat comes from the influential Patel caste, while Pramod Sawant in Goa is a Maratha. True, the Prime Minister is technically from a backward caste, but his success in politics from his time in Gujarat was built not on caste numbers but a Hindutva identity that has catapulted him to being the absolute leader in the de facto Hindu Rashtra.
The era when politics was fronted by OBC figures such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan (all former Chief Ministers) can now be seen as an intermediate phase of the RSS project that is no longer necessary. Sangh ideologues also believe that Brahmins are an all-India caste, and figures such as the first BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had acceptability because of his social origins.
Woolly headed approach
The Congress, in contrast, does not seem to have understood how caste can be applied in politics today. There is a woolly headed approach to the caste census that may work in Bihar when fronted by OBC leaders but not by the Congress, which has a different history and social composition. The Gandhi-led party needs to appeal as a broad-based centrist formation for all social groups. It erred badly in recent State elections by pushing the idea of OBC empowerment in parts that have large tribal populations (such as 32 per cent in Chhattisgarh) for whom this pitch would be meaningless, if not counterproductive.
The party seemed oblivious to the shift taking place in this voter demographic. And since the December 3 results of the Assembly elections, the RSS project of delisting Christian tribal communities (from lists of those entitled to reservation) has a new impetus even as reports have come in of vigilante actions against Christians in the Adivasi pockets of India.
The BJP/RSS strategic thinking involves seeing social categories from the perspective of ideological objectives. These are very clear regarding Christians, regardless of gestures such as the Prime Minister meeting members of the community on Christmas in 2023. The Sangh also understands that OBCs are not a bloc but a category made up of several castes that compete with each other and with Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
The BJP organisation has templates to create competitions within caste groups in ways that now make it challenging to present them as one entity in many parts of the Hindi-speaking States. Simultaneously and counter-intuitively, they also seek to unite all as Hindu by positing them against Muslims and Christians. In the recent Assembly elections, too, localised anti-minority narratives contributed to electoral success.
The grand all-India narrative is, of course, sought to be built around the figures of Lord Ram and Narendra Modi. And no one else.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.