Under Narendra Modi, the party has triggered an even more disruptive churn in Indian politics.
It might be difficult to imagine given the state of national politics today, but during the time of Independence, most people believed that the major political challenge to the Congress would come from India’s communists.
During the time, not only was Communism on the upswing as an ideology across the world, the Congress had not yet been subjected to the sharp left turn which Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi would effect in the decades to come. Hence, most political observers – Nehru included – reckoned that, given the economic hardships of the vast majority of Indians post-Independence, it was only a matter of time before the supposed representatives of the ‘worker class’ would rise in popularity across the country.
Also, during the first few decades of Independent India, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the ideological predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was only regarded as a bit player in national politics – restricted both geographically and community-wise in its popularity.
And even as the Congress hegemony began to unravel during the Indira years, the opposition field was quite open, with little to choose in terms of electoral strength between the communists, the socialists and the nationalists.
And so, when the newly formed BJP fought its first national election in 1984 and ended up with a paltry total of two seats compared to the Congress’ 404, the Telugu Desam Party’s 30 and the Communists’ 28, it would have seemed that the political fate of right-leaning, Hindutva politics had been sealed.
Fast-forward to today and things seem entirely different. The convincing victory in Uttar Pradesh has sealed the status of the BJP as the leading party of the world’s largest democracy, with its electoral dominance looking so ominous that talks of a grand alliance of all opposition parties have begun a full two years before the next general election.
The problematic relationship the party shares with some of the most influential sections of the media make any analysis of its growing popularity difficult and coloured with prejudice – most commentaries are centred on religious polarisation with a few grudging nods to the Prime Minister’s personal energies thrown in.
Media cynicism aside, while it cannot be denied that the BJP’s robust embrace of India’s Hindu heritage and culture is one of the major factors for its popularity with its core electorate, coming up with a broad pan-national coalition along the same theme is easier said than done. Especially when you consider the fact that, unlike the Congress, the BJP’s rise to national prominence was not on the back of an inherited legacy, and went against what was the overwhelming trend of regionalisation of the Indian polity since the early 1990s.
In fact, the rise of the BJP more or less coincided with the rise of Mandal politics and consequently, that of caste- and community-centred regional players across states that cut their political teeth by weaning away selected groups from the Congress monolith. In the face of such a political scenario, where regional players rode on electoral strategies targeted at specific caste and regional groups, the case for any sort of pan-national consolidation of the Hindu vote was extremely difficult.
And yet, it has been achieved by the Modi-Shah duo at the national level with remarkable speed. Since 2014, the BJP has formed governments in Haryana, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh with comfortable, and sometimes overwhelming, majorities. It became single largest party in Maharashtra (where it was a secondary player in the past) and rode to power in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur – a feat which would have been considered impossible even during early 2014. And all the while, the party has carefully avoided any measure of minority appeasement and rarely strayed away from its ideological stand on national security.
In doing so, it has reversed the trend of regional fragmentation of the Indian polity, pushing a host of regional players from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to the Samajwadi Party (SP) – parties which believed the future was theirs – into an existential crisis.
And although one can understand how the promise of Modi as the Prime Minister could have swung the votes away from regional players and towards the BJP in a national election, the party’s ability to replicate the same model across a host of state elections is truly astonishing. While the former could have been deemed a wave election, where a credible prime ministerial candidate managed to push the electorate to vote along national impulses, the latter signifies a more significant and sustainable shift in voter preferences at a micro level.
And while it is certain that the BJP’s national project has benefited greatly from the political acumen of its President Amit Shah and the organizational strength of the RSS, it is undeniable that it is the leadership of the Prime Minister which has supplied his party with the ‘X factor’ to convert itself from a leading national player into a truly dominant one.
In fact, the astounding verdict delivered by UP can be seen as much as the result of not just the performance of the Prime Minister but his risk-taking appetite as well. First with the surgical strikes and then with demonization, he basically gave his party an electoral springboard by recasting the national political narrative in its favor.
The surgical strikes against Pakistani terrorists solidified the Government’s credentials viz-a-viz national security and convinced the electorate that the BJP’s tough stance on cross-border terrorism was not limited to slogans while in the opposition trenches. In one fell swoop, the Prime Minister made his party the sole political representative of the nationalist urges of the larger Indian public.
And if the surgical strikes boosted the BJP’s nationalistic credentials, demonetization increased its popularity by leaps and bounds with the poor and backward classes. The Prime Minister, the BJP President and the RSS had, even before demonetization, spent a fair amount of capital in spearheading the party’s outreach to the dalits, tribals, other backward classes and rural India. And while the painstaking organizational work which was undertaken laid the groundwork for an overarching cross-caste coalition, demonetization opened the electoral floodgates.
Hence, when the national media was busy parking cameras in front of ATMs, they missed to spot the massive electoral churning which was taking place in the Hindi hinterlands – for once the under-privileged had seen a government acting to hurt the powerful and attempt to deliver some measure of social and economic justice. And the fact that the Prime Minister came from a modest background himself only served to accentuate his credibility and give him a sort of Teflon coating in face of almost maniacal opposition from the political and editorial community.
Ever since the formation of the Modi government, both the Prime Minister and Amit Shah have spoken about using the mandate to effect a transformative change in the national narrative and that to effect such a change, it will require the BJP to be in power for at least two consecutive terms.
The truth is that this task will mostly likely require even more. Electoral domination of this type, in a vast and dynamic country like India, would require a major realignment of voting blocs – the likes of which can only be achieved through truly game-changing politics and governance.
It could be that what we have seen over the past few months was just that.
Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.
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