Narendra Modi & the BJP

Right at the Centre

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Narendra Modi shows the letter from President Pranab Mukherjee inviting him to form the government, while speaking to the media outside Rashtrapathi Bhavan on May 20. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Congress President Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi arrive to attend the CWC meet after the party's worst drubbing in any general election so far, in New Delhi on May 18. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Manmohan Singh at Rajiv Gandhi’s samadhi in New Delhi on May 21, his 23rd death anniversary. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Narendra Modi’s huge victory in the 16th Lok Sabha elections has serious implications for the country, the most significant of which will be the NDA government pressing ahead with a corporate-driven neoliberal agenda.

GENERAL ELECTION 2014, right from the early build-up to it, was billed as a watershed political event in India’s history. A new generation of relatively younger leaders was to lead the campaign for both mainstream parties—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress—and a clutch of regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Shiromani Akali Dal. However, when the results emerged on May 16 its momentousness was not confined to the generational change in national politics. The verdict signified major changes in the social and political firmament and literally charted a dramatically new course, away from the track record of the past three decades in electoral politics and government formation. In the process, it exposed the generational change in the Congress, represented by Rahul Gandhi, as bereft of political imagination and lacking in people-connect, creativity and efficiency.

The most important factor in the verdict that gave the BJP 282 seats was the return of single-party majority in the Lok Sabha after a gap of 30 years. It became the first non-Congress party to achieve this feat and also led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to a creditable 336 seats. The other tangible elements were the unprecedented rout of the Congress, the rise of an imposing personality cult in the form Narendra Modi, and the near-total marginalisation of caste-, region- and identity-based small parties from the power structure at the Centre. At the social level, the verdict marked an unparalleled non-representation of the country’s largest minority community, Muslims, who account for approximately 16 per cent of the population, in the treasury benches. There is only one Muslim MP in the NDA, and none in the BJP.

Against this background, several political leaders and observers, particularly those who admire Modi’s style of functioning as a politician and as an administrator, believe that the people’s verdict represents a paradigm shift. However, an objective assessment of the verdict in all its dimensions points to both possibilities and challenges. The Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore pointed out that in the initial euphoria of a landslide victory the winning party tended to see only the possibilities, but as time and administration progressed the challenges would grow. “The characteristics ingrained in this verdict are no different,” he told Frontline. (This issue of Frontline carries articles on some key areas addressed by the BJP’s election promises and analyses the possibilities and problems of implementation, especially in the context of the social and economic outlook as well as hard-core ideological positions of the BJP and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar.)

The last time that a party governed India with a majority of its own was in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to a massive victory. After his defeat in 1989, the country has had successive coalition governments. The BJP this time broke that trend by more than doubling its vote share and getting nearly 80 per cent more than its previous best, 9.43 crore votes in 1998. It also emerged as a pan-India party, 34 years after it was formed. The party’s previous highest tally was 182 seats, but this time it won seats in almost all States from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The party trounced the ruling Congress in Assam, swept all seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Goa, and won most of the seats in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar.

At the level of political ideology, the verdict marks a complete rightward shift in terms of governance. The Right had been on the margins of Indian politics after Independence and had employed several political, ideological and organisational mechanisms and ploys to advance its cause, including the militant Ayodhya Ram mandir agitation in the 1980s and 1990s. Even after such whipping up of communal passions it could not emerge as an alternative to the Congress at the national level. However, as a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow predicted almost a year ago, the combination of the so-called Gujarat development model and the communal polarisation has worked almost at the pan-India level. In the process, the BJP pushed aside the early challengers to the Congress, such as the Left and the regional parties.

All this added up to only 31 per cent of the total votes polled, the lowest a party that can form a government on its own has got. However, this was nearly 12 percentage points higher than the 18.8 per cent the party got in 2009.

The rise of the BJP as a pan-India party has simultaneously resulted in the Congress losing that stature. The palpable resentment against the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led to the decimation of the country’s oldest party, which recorded its lowest-ever tally. The party was pushed to the margins in its erstwhile strongholds such as Maharashtra, Haryana, Assam and Jharkhand. It was left with just two seats in Uttar Pradesh and none in four big States—Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. In eight other big States, including Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh (Seemandhra and Telangana) and Kerala, the Congress did not touch double digits.

The party’s tally of 44 seats is lower than the number of seats required to be recognised as the official opposition party in the Lok Sabha—10 per cent of the total. Reports say that the party leadership is wooing the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led Yuvajana Shramika Rythu (YSR) Congress to merge with it so that the Congress can formally stake a claim for the post of Leader of Opposition. Indications are that these efforts will not succeed.

The withering away of the regional political parties in national politics is also perceived as a positive by think tanks in the saffron camp. The once-powerful caste-based regional parties of the Hindi heartland—Mulayam Singh Yadav’s S.P., Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)—lost heavily in this Lok Sabha election. While the BSP drew a blank, others managed only single-digit representation. The gambit to play on the minority community’s fears regarding a Modi-led government had the effect of evoking a strong Hindutva-oriented communal reaction. Even those regional parties that came up with spectacular performances—Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—find that their significant scores in the Lok Sabha do not add up to any influence in the corridors of power in Delhi.

Regional parties

The plight of the regional parties gives much credence to a line of argument advanced by the BJP during the election campaign. This line, advocated by close supporters of Modi, including Amit Shah, was that caste- and identity-based regional party politics, which had influenced voter preferences, this time helped gather fragmented social and political forces in the interests of stability and a clear mandate. They claimed that this trend was witnessed in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the 2012 Assembly elections and were confident that it would be replicated at the national level in the Lok Sabha elections. The argument also had it that Narendra Modi had the potential to bring together the fragmented forces across India. The results, especially in Uttar Pradesh, reinforce this line of argument.

However, equally significantly, the so-called unification of fragmented forces did not go according to the Modi script in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Odisha where Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik respectively held sway. It is in this context that the electoral value of the communal polarisation that the BJP and its associates achieved in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar must be weighed. Beyond the image of Modi, this communal polarisation went in favour of the BJP in these States and laid low parties like the S.P. and the RJD even though they had creditable vote shares. The S.P.’s vote share of 22.2 per cent in Uttar Pradesh this time was only marginally lower than the 23.26 per cent it got five years ago. However, its seats tally plummeted to five from 23. The RJD raised its vote share from 19.31 per cent to 20.1 and in the process raised its seat share from two to four. Other regional parties, such as the Janata Dal (United) and the BSP, lost both in terms of seats and vote share.

The biggest question in relation to the new government is whether it will have a nuanced understanding of the verdict vis-a-vis the regional parties and their concerns and aspirations. Already, sections of the BJP have said that the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress, the TRS and the BJD have no specific positions on any issue barring some or the other populist interest of their respective States. This approach to the regional parties in a situation of single-party rule has larger implications for the very concept of federalism.

Observers like Surendra Kishore are of the view that the personality cult that has emerged along with the verdict has the potential to make such oversight easy. “This election has marked the emergence of a personality cult after a gap of three decades. The last time the country had a political personality who towered over all others was Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984. With this verdict, Modi has emerged as a leader who could be in that mould—strong-willed, resolute and efficient. But it was Indira Gandhi’s extreme confidence in herself that was her undoing. Modi and his associates will have to be careful not to tread the same path,” Kishore told Frontline. While the BJP leadership, including party president Rajnath Singh, contends that what one sees in Modi is not the personality cult but the power of determination and vision, many in the party and even the larger Sangh Parivar admit that the Modi cult is indeed an opportunity and a challenge.

Minority representation

While the discussion so far has been on political and organisational issues, the marginalisation of the Muslim community in the ruling party and in the NDA and in the larger States that have higher representation in the Lok Sabha poses a big sociological challenge. Muslim representation in the ruling coalition is confined to Chaudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser, who won the Khagaria seat in Bihar on the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Jan Shakti Party ticket. Uttar Pradesh, which sends the highest number of members to the Lok Sabha (80), has, for the first time, no Muslim representation at all. The State has an approximately 19 per cent minority population.

This state of affairs has generated tremendous tension and fear among the minority community in different parts of the country. There are already apprehensions of violence in different parts of northern India. In southern Karnataka, victory processions of the BJP and its associates have culminated in violence against minority religious institutions, including mosques. Driven by a sense of caution, some senior BJP leaders reportedly asked their State and district units not to embark on victory processions in sensitive areas.

This situation is bound to be a major social challenge for the Modi government. BJP leaders, including Modi, asserted that the new government was not only for those who voted for the party and its allies, but that feeling is not shared down the line. “After all, a large number of those who voted for the BJP, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, were driven by the communal polarisation following the Muzaffarnagar riots and incidents such as Amit Shah’s communal campaign. So, all these statements for peace and equanimity may not work on the ground,” said Sheetal Singh, a political commentator.

However, the counter argument from a senior Sangh Parivar activist based in Mathura is that the minorities have been “terrorised” by the verdict and will not cause trouble. Notwithstanding these assurances, the fear among the minority communities is palpable. Such an atmosphere and the reactions from sections of the extremist elements in the Sangh Parivar have the potential to bring back secularism as one of the central elements of the national political discourse.

Another significant element ingrained in the verdict of 2014 is the rise of the power of corporate money and the media controlled by it. The combination impacted the election campaign in multitudinous forms and helped in the projection of Modi and in the remarkable campaign the BJP and its associates unleashed across the country. This combination, and the campaign driven by it, indeed contributed in a big way to Modi’s and the BJP’s efforts to overcome the stigma of the 2002 anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat. It also boosted the projection of Modi as the ultimate development man who has solutions for almost all the problems of the country.

However, there is a built-in conflict between the theme that has been projected and the agents who have pushed it. The corporate sector and its backers in the media and other sectors will be looking forward to the promotion of a neoliberal agenda. However, that is not what the voters have been promised. The economic dimensions of Modi’s campaign were built around the themes of economic development, efficient administration, building better infrastructure and, above all, tackling unemployment. Certainly, the pursuit of a neoliberal economic agenda is not what the voters have been promised. But, corporate vested interests are expected to come into play sooner rather than later. This will be a big challenge for the government, just as it was for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government (1998-2004). Then, too, the NDA had pursued a corporate-driven neoliberal agenda and tried to pass it off as people-oriented governance. This was done through the India Shining campaign, which evoked a strong reaction from the people in the 2004 elections.

While having the numbers for a single-party government will help the Modi government in many ways, it is going to be of no help in covering up the mismatch between pursuing and protecting corporate-driven interests and building people-oriented programmes.

The Sangh and the government

However, the near total absence of the Left in the 16th Lok Sabha will indeed give a breather to the government. Whenever it had a significant presence in Parliament, the Left consistently took up issues against the corporate-driven neoliberal agenda, albeit with varying degrees of effect and impact. The Left has now become a nominal presence in Parliament, hemmed in by regional parties like the Trinamool Congress. Even counting the nascent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a left of centre force, the Left in the Lok Sabha will be around 15 seats.

Another important challenge for the Modi government will come from the organisational affairs in the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar. Beyond the tussles for ministerial berths, Verdict 2014 will be seen by the RSS as one where it can push its Hindutva agenda. It is only a question of time before the core agenda of the RSS makes its presence felt in all areas of governance, including education, defence and home affairs. This could also mark the return of contentious issues such as the Ram mandir in Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, and the implementation of a uniform civil code. This prospective situation will pose a major challenge before Modi and his government.

But beyond all this, there is little doubt that the rise of Modi marks a real generational change in the BJP. It certainly marks the winding down of the illustrious political careers of BJP stalwarts such as Lal Krishna Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi, though some of them could be accommodated in ministerial positions. Already Jaswant Singh is out of the party.

In the final analysis, the Modi victory and the BJP’s rise to power has been driven by the dynamics of an unprecedented development promise, a campaign aided by corporate money power, and a strong communal polarisation. These are dynamics that cannot be glossed over, and clearly they will manifest themselves in different forms and as different challenges. But, undoubtedly, the BJP’s position of having a majority and a lot of potential allies are positive factors.

Comparisons with 1984 are natural in this context. In 1984, the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi won 404 seats in a Lok Sabha of 533 on the back of a sympathy wave following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. However, in five years the Congress squandered this popular support following a spate of corruption charges and sectarian decisions. A basic understanding of that electoral victory among the key associates of Rajiv Gandhi was that it was a Hindu-assertive vote triggered by the reaction to the Khalistani movement symbolically represented by the Sikh guards who assassinated Indira Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi wavered between Muslim and Hindu sectarian positions during his five-year regime, but finally settled for pandering to Hindu sentiments by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya for Hindu worship and performing shilanyas for the Ram Mandir on the eve of elections. However, all these sensational gambits did not help him. All it did was raise the BJP tally from two in 1984 to 85 in 1989.

Three decades later, the lessons of 1984 and 1989 are still relevant. The magnitude of the BJP’s victory in the first-past-the-post system and the hyperbolic image of Modi as the messiah who would bring about deliverance from Congress’ misrule, boosted by his own high-flown rhetoric, might well be the BJP’s undoing. The conflict between the sectarian communal agenda represented by the RSS and its associates and the pressures from the corporate sector’s drive to enhance its own gains and profits could be important factors in this social and political churning. Maintaining the superman image in this country of paradoxes and ironies can happen only at a considerable cost to democracy, a fact perhaps not known to the post-Emergency generation of India.