Debating India


The BJP’s future


Friday 9 October 1998, by NOORANI*A.G.

HAS the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) peaked? Or does it have a future as a political party which can win power at the Centre by itself in order to carry out its Hindutva programme without the constraints of alliances? This book, published early in September, helps immensely in answering these questions.

Thomas Blom Hansen, Associate Professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, is the author of The Saffron Wave: Democratic Revolution and Hindu Nationalism in India and an authority on the Shiv Sena-BJP combine’s policies in Maharashtra. Christophe Jaffrelot, a French scholar, is the author of the definitive work The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (1925-90s). The collection of integrated essays which they have edited revolves round the theme of the BJP’s future and the challenge it poses to Indian democracy. "The BJP has probably reached its saturation point in the northern and western states, and to expand further in geographical terms, the party needs to make more alliances." It needs "local ’interpreters’ of the general idiom of Hindutva... who could generalise Hindu communalism into local vernaculars... to help the BJP to overcome its upper-caste bias and northern image," the editors write in the Introduction.

The only regional ally that subscribes to the credo of Hindutva is the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Other allies are far less enthusiastic, hence the so-called "National" Agenda for Governance that papers over the cracks between the BJP and its allies in the A.B. Vajpayee Government.

The BJP professes to represent the "middle ground" in national politics but is faced, time and again, with pressures from the "mother" of the Sangh Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Its past blights its future. There is a strange spectacle of enormous flexibility on issues like corruption and utter rigidity on the core question of Hindutva.

For years, the BJP (and its ancestor, the Jan Sangh) claimed for itself higher ethical standards in India’s public life. The sordid tactics adopted in Uttar Pradesh in October 1997 and at the Centre this year exposed the hollowness of these claims. Out of the 126 MLAs in U.P. who faced charges in criminal cases, 49 belonged to the BJP, which had 177 MLAs in all during the 1993-95 period. This trend was accentuated after 1997. Nor have claims to being a disciplined party stood the test of time.

The volume contains detached assessments by different scholars of the BJP’s strengths and weaknesses in U.P., Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, besides studies of the party’s ambivalence on caste and "economic nationalism" and swadeshi. The piece de resistance is the Afterword by the editors and Zoya Hasan, author of a recent study on post-Congress politics in U.P. (Quest for Power). The Afterword traces the BJP’s "short cuts to power: from Lucknow to Delhi", bringing the resume right up to the formation of the Vajpayee Government.

RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar defended the caste system. An attempt has been made of late to treat Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on a par with the leading figures in the Congress. Apart from the fact that he served in the Bengal Cabinet during the War, the man was not only communal to the core but casteist as well. He regarded the Muslims of Bengal as "a set of converts from low caste Hindus".

The BJP has, it is true, made a strong bid for support from the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), but as on other issues, its past refuses to release it from its tight grip. Men like Murli Manohar Joshi openly ridicule the concept of "social engineering" espoused by K.N. Govindacharya.

In Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena enthusiastically endorses Hindutva, the BJP has had problems keeping pace with the Sena’s erratic ways. In a revealing interview he gave Hansen on December 10, 1992, Pramod Mahajan said: "At this time (in 1984-85) the BJP could not anticipate what was happening in the Hindu mind, but the Shiv Sena was the first to see it. So, Thackeray was the first to go for the Hindu line. Slowly from 1985-87, (the) Shiv Sena was solely in charge of the Hindu wave in the country... My problem was that if I am not with the Shiv Sena then the Shiv Sena would slowly kill me and capture my entire constituency. If you cannot beat them you join them... It was a precise political expediency if you want."

The two fed on each other. The Shiv Sena ardently supported L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990. The Sunday Observer of November 4, 1990 quoted Sena supremo Bal Thackeray as having urged the kar sevaks to destroy totally the Babri Masjid. The Sena became "the fighting unit" of Hindutva.

The demolition of the Masjid on December 6, 1992 was followed by the rout of the BJP in elections to the Madhya Pradesh and U.P. Assemblies in 1993. However, the crime did help the BJP to consolidate its vote bank. Events in U.P. in October 1997 marked a defining moment in the party’s career for two reasons. One was the reported use of money power to break the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress and the abandonment of all norms of decency in the formation of the 91-member jumbo Cabinet that included politicians with criminal records. The other reason was the fact that the BJP realised that it could not win power by itself. "From then onwards, the focus was on winning power not through political mobilisation but through instant alliances and electoral adjustments. In particular the BJP realised that it had to make itself more acceptable to regional parties beyond the Hindi belt." But even as it moderates its stance "by toning down the anti-Muslim attitude, the competing pressure to sustain its commitment to Hindutva is unmistakable."

Last February, the RSS ideologue, K. Sudarshan, warned that any compromise on core issues "would endanger the very existence of the BJP." But RSS supremo Rajendra Singh has been more "understanding." He has repeatedly supported the experiment at the Centre for reasons that are not hard to understand. He told the RSS organ Organiser (February 22, 1998) that a "Central Government with a positive outlook would remove many hurdles in our way. This would benefit the country in general and the Hindu society in particular." The Vajpayee Government has set its eyes on many institutions. The Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) was the first to be targeted. Plans are afoot for the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi and the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Seva Bharti, a front organisation of the RSS, has been granted a subsidy.

How far can the process go? Only so long as the RSS feels that the benefits far outweigh the losses in the compromises on which the Government survives. Hansen, Zoya Hasan and Jaffrelot point out in the Afterword that "there are strong reasons to believe that the BJP can easily return to militancy if the critical issue that determines the BJP’s trajectory remains its relationship to the RSS". Kushabhau Thakre’s election as BJP president strengthens the RSS’ hold on the party organisation. The book says: "What then is the challenge that the altered tactics of the BJP present to India’s politics? It is this: the assimilationist agenda to eradicate any legal and political recognition of cultural and religious differences involves the inevitable inferiorising of marginal groups and the minorities. At stake, then, is the question of pluralism and the very notion of a composite and multilayered identity which for five decades has sustained India’s quest for unity and democracy."

This is the enormity of the challenge which the BJP’s continuance in power poses not only to India’s democracy but also to the identity it has acquired as a plural and secular society. But, like the fascist movements in Italy and Germany, the BJP has come as far as it has through a mix of demagogic exploitation of insecurities through a campaign of alliances plus tactical alliances. The Jan Sangh won considerable respectability as a constituent of the Janata Party. There is, however, no "wave" or groundswell of popular support on which it has ridden to power in any State. The BJP can be checked. Its march is not inexorable. It can be checked and repulsed. Every segment of society which it wooed successfully is now alienated from it in a matter of six months since it came to power at the Centre. Its incompetence in governance, factionalism and indiscipline, the rifts at the very apex of its power structure, condonation of and even complicity in corruption have disillusioned very many supporters. Neither Muslims nor the Scheduled Castes have any illusions, either. The BJP’s record in office has been most educative. Only the hard core of the old Hindutva constituency continues its support, though not without doubt and anxiety. It has nowhere else to go.

WHAT has sustained the BJP Government politically is the fractured state of the Opposition. As the State-wise studies in the volume establish, there is no State where it is invincible. As Jasmine Zerenini-Brotel, a Ph.D. student at the Sorbonne who has specialised in U.P. politics, demonstrates convincingly in an excellent essay, in U.P. "consensual politics has become a necessity for the BJP, all the more so as divisions inside the Hindu electorate are sharpening." It has reached a dead-end so far as the Hindutva plank is concerned. Only the games of October 1997 can help it.

In Rajasthan, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is battling for survival in the Assembly elections due in November. His Ministry’s record has been dismal. In Maharashtra the Congress(I) demonstrated in the Lok Sabha elections the vulnerability of the Sena-BJP alliance. Attempts to undermine the one man who can lead the secular forces to victory, Sharad Pawar, serve only to help the alliance. In Karnataka, James Manor’s incisive analysis concludes, the BJP’s success depends "on the disintegration of the Janata Dal. The BJP is not yet strong enough to be the master of its own fate in Karnataka." If Ramakrishna Hegde had not thrown in his lot with the BJP, it would "probably have won only a tiny number of seats amid a sweeping victory for a Congress-Lok Shakti alliance."

In Gujarat, caste, rather than religion, plays a dominant role. The BJP’s support base among the OBC and Dalit communities is none too strong. The Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP has "experienced groupism, even factionalism and a brutal decline of party discipline."

Sadly, in none of these States have the non-BJP parties shown awareness of the challenge that faces the country. The Central leadership of these parties can ill-afford a policy of drift. The country’s interests demand a united front of secular political parties at the Centre as well as in the States.

See online :


"The BJP and the Compulsions of Politics in India", edited by Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot; Oxford University Press, 1998; pages 332, Rs.545.

Frontline, volume 15, n?20, Sep. 26 - Oct. 09, 1998.

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