Beginning of the end?

May 9, 2021

For the first time since 2014, Modi-led BJP has encountered serious setbacks

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tasted defeat in state elections, most importantly West Bengal, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party, Trinamool Congress (TMC), has won a third consecutive term.

After a long time, Narendra Modi and his divisive policies have met a serious setback.

BJP, a political offshoot of right-wing Hindu socio-religious organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), appeared on the political horizon of India in the early 1990s when it popularised its Hindutva ideology not only religiously but also electorally.

The RSS-BJP had an anti-minorities mind set from the very beginning. Little wonder, an RSS member had killed Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 after the latter called for Pakistan to be paid its share of the assets of united India. For decades, the RSS remained in a dormant state. It continued to reach out to the lower strata of the population in socio-religious terms. The establishment of the BJP, a splinter from Janata party, in 1980 marked organisational confidence of the RSS cadre that wanted to win the entire India electorally. Since the Indian National Congress (INC) had consolidated the ‘dominant party system’ in India for decades, the RSS and its various political denominations including the the BJP took decades to break its hold. The process of electorally overtaking the INC started in the 1990s whereby the Congress was socio-politically projected as pro-minorities, especially pro-Muslim, political party that had overlooked Hindu interests and identity.

The BJP has not only emerged as an ideological party; it has also branded the Congress as a pro-Muslim party to deny it the Indian middle class vote. The short-term dividends were reaped by the RSS-BJP in 1996-1999. In this brief period, the late Atal Behari Vajpayee led the party and formed two coalition governments. Nonetheless, the second coalition collapsed in mid-May 1999 and India went to the polls in which the BJP made further electoral gains. Vajpayee then assumed office of the prime minister for the third time. Having learnt from past mistakes, the BJP completed its tenure.

The key events during 1999-2004, which shockingly attained extra-regional attention, were communal in nature and character. The 2002 Gujarat pogrom was a part of the RSS-BJP strategy. On one hand, it cornered the Congress by labelling it as a pro-Muslim party and, on the other, it expanded its agenda and organisation through governmental machinery in, at least, those states where the BJP had an electoral base. 2002 is the fateful year when the BJP government militarised its border with Pakistan. Though rationality prevailed on both sides, the BJP ably highlighted Pakistan as a Muslim threat to a Hindu India.

The anti-Muslim mantra helped the BJP organisationally make its parent-organisation, the RSS, more visible in parts of India where hitherto it was non-existent. However, it failed to win the 2004 national elections where the Congress-led coalition won more seats and formed a government at the Centre. In the following decade (2004-2014), to get rid of its Congress challenge, the RSS-BJP took massive measures.

Organisationally, veteran BJP leaders were replaced with radicals like Narendra Modi. Socio-religiously, the RSS focused on non-Hindi belt through different mini-programs, which attracted the working and lower-middle classes. Little wonder, in 2008 the BJP won state election in Karnataka this was the first ever electoral victory of the party in south India. Electorally, the BJP under the shadow of RSS expedited its social-media based populist campaign to condemn the Congress and its ‘foreign’ leadership that lacked in Hindutva values. It also launched an onslaught on its rival parties in southern India by dubbing them as communists lacking Hindu beliefs. Besides, the Congress’s abysmal economic performance was used in the election campaign in 2014. It even won seats in some key states in south India, thus, surprising not only the local /regional political leadership but also analysts within India and abroad. During its 2014-2019 tenure, the Modi-led BJP reinforced its Hindutva ideology through various development programmes such as provision of “toilets” to the rural and tribal folks. With the union and many state governments on its side, the RSS had a freehand to further expand its reach.

India is facing the worst wave of Covid-19 pandemic. Its healthcare system has collapsed. Had the prime minister behaved more sensibly and stopped his party from taking out mass election rallies, the lives of hundreds and thousands of socio-economically marginalised people would not have been jeopardised.

The Congress and the regional parties were projected as non-Hindu parties, having been rejected by the majority of the people. For its part, the BJP claimed to be the only ‘pure’ Hindu party in India. The process has been empirically and conceptually analysed recently by UC Berkeley-based political scientist Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma in their book titled Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party System of India. The central argument put forth by these scholars is that the BJP has emerged and gained ground as an ideological political party which champions Hindu beliefs and value system. Operationally, for political popularity and electoral victory, the BJP has successfully projected the Indian National Congress as a pro-Muslim party. If this logic is point of reference, one can conveniently explain the BJP’s victory in 2019 where it grabbed more seats (303) in Lok Sabha (lower house) compared to 2014 (282). The ideology and identity variables also explain why despite the Congress and regional parties’ repeated mention of the BJP’s poor economic performance, the latter won, massively.

Having assumed office for the second time, PM Modi reasserted Hindutva in forceful terms. The Muslims, for example, face RSS-BJP wrath for eating beef and a charged mob of RSS-inspired Hindu extremists lynched some 40 Muslims in Delhi in March 2020. Similar cases have been reported by independent journalists from other parts of India. Other minorities, such as the Sikhs, are facing institutional and socio-economic discrimination at the hands of Modi sarkar. The former were recently stopped from visiting Pakistan despite the issuance of visas to perform religious rites.

The Indian farmer community, of which the Sikhs are a crucial component, has launched a social movement against the discriminatory laws passed by the central government.

Millions of RSS-inspired Hindus were allured by the BJP during its state election campaign in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal. Moreover, people were implicitly encouraged by the party-in-power to attend the Kumbh religious festival. Consequently, millions have tested positive for Covid-19 and thousands are dying daily due to shortage of oxygen and related medical facilities in various parts of the country. Currently, India is facing the worst wave of coronavirus pandemic. Its health system has collapsed. Had the prime minister behaved more sensibly and stopped his party from participating in mass rallies, the lives of hundreds and thousands of socio-economically marginalised people would not have been jeopardised. The Covid impact on the Indian people and the health system is so severe that it has been termed catastrophic by health analysts. “Modi has failed us” captioned journalist Rana Ayub in the Time magazine.

The recent state elections have been a serious setback for the BJP. The BJP has made some gains in West Bengal in terms of winning a greater number of seats compared to the last time. The TMC, for its part seems to have replicated the BJP style of politics – playing the identity card, arguing for more space for ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in this case, the Bengalis. Unless the non-BJP parties put up a united challenge to the BJP in the upcoming state and national election in 2024, the BJP may not be going anywhere. The Congress is facing ideological and organisational issues. No other party has the capacity or will to take on the RSS-BJP cult nationally. To this end, anti-BJP parties may need to embrace a bit of ideology.

The writer has a PhD in political science from   Heidelberg University and a post-doc from   UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and   Fulbright fellow. Currently, he is an   associate professor at the Department of Social   Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty

Beginning of the end?