The decisive triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019, following its spectacular victory in 2014, has firmly put India’s party system into its fourth phase, what some describe as the BJP-dominant system. However, some scholars have stopped short of calling it a BJP-dominant system because for them, the electoral dominance of the party does not match the Congress’s level during the first (1952-67) and the second party systems (1967-89), and has yet not fulfilled the test of longevity in power.
The latter view is held by the notion that the electoral dominance of the BJP is largely built on, and is sustained by, the unique charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In this telling, it is unlikely, or at the very least unclear, that the BJP’s electoral ascendency would outlive the reign of Modi. The place of Modi at the top of this system is thus unimaginable and irreplaceable. While there is little to quibble with this cautious approach in gazing the future, it becomes important to analyse whether the BJP-dominant system rests fundamentally on a long-term realignment of Indian politics, or the contingent advantages that might be lost in the near future.
Did the BJP merely piggy-back on Modi’s unique appeal or did Modi fast-forward a historical process which was imagined and set in motion by the BJP and its predecessors? There are no easy answers to this question but a Modi-centric reading of the current moment divorces the political appeal of Modi not just from the immediate political context of his rise, but more essentially from the political age.
The political appeal of Modi is situated in the current national zeitgeist (spirit), which is why his political instinct is so often in lockstep with popular desires, and which is often misattributed “political genius.”
Modi can be more pointedly credited with quickening the pace of history. A long-term political realignment was perhaps made inevitable by the gathering ideological strength of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, and a steady expansion of the middle class (not just in size, but also in social and political attitudes), creating the ground for a new politics of aspiration. Modi’s charismatic leadership helped effect that shift in 2014. In fact, Modi rode to power based on three forms of popular anxieties, all of which, as we would show, were decidedly constituted or shaped by the BJP and the RSS’s ideological agenda.
Three popular anxieties and the rise of Modi-led BJP
The first was a cultural anxiety, or the belief that Hindus must “politically” unite to check the politics of “Muslim appeasement.” This was reflected in the growing ethno-political majoritarianism of the population, which most sharply correlates to the vote for the BJP. The majority public opinion has long been wary of special protections for minorities and BJP has skilfully succeeded in sticking this charge of “Muslim appeasement” on its political opponents. Some of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-era Congress’s rhetoric on minorities—whether the Prime Minister’s statement on minorities having the first right on resources, to some party leaders questioning police encounters, to talk of reservations for backward Muslims—was also latched on to by the BJP to embellish this charge of appeasement.
These sentiments got further fuelled due to a series of terror attacks, and increasing tensions with Pakistan also aided to the rise of Modi. Suhas Palshikar has argued that it is the “conflation between nationalism and Hindutva” that is “the backbone of the new hegemony.” Modi’s uncompromising stance on “Muslim appeasement,” an unabashed invocation of Hindu nationalism, as well as his hard-line stance on Pakistan helped him benefit from this cultural anxiety.
The second was an economic anxiety, or the belief that the corruption and inefficiency of the state is throttling the economic aspirations of the people. Many voters were increasingly disillusioned by the ‘statist economic model,’ which they thought brought neither prosperity nor equality, but resulted in the enrichment of politicians and their supporters. Modi’s style of conflict in legislating or executing contentious economic policy is popular precisely because he frames it as necessary to break through the stranglehold of the ‘middlemen, brokers and vested interests’—the vestiges of the old order.
The third was a leadership anxiety, or the belief that weak leadership is sapping the collective strength of the nation. The dual leadership structure of the UPA government, and the perception of political weakness of the prime minister Manmohan Singh, had resulted in a popular craving for strong leadership. Modi rode this leadership anxiety because his forceful, strongman personality (encapsulated in the invocation of the “56-inch chest”) was the polar opposite of the cautious, guarded personality of Manmohan Singh.
Emerging contradictions within the BJP-dominant system
Because the BJP under Modi has succeeded in transforming the political basis of electoral competition, disrupted caste- and community-based political alignments, expanded its social base of support, and set the ideological agenda of the country, the current political system can indeed be accurately described as the BJP-dominant system. The effects of such fundamental political realignments accelerated by a transformative leader goes beyond electoral cycles and should be seen in generational terms (for example, the effect of Reagan and Thatcher on the political structure of their countries lasted well beyond their individual terms in office). And the BJP-dominant system can continue to thrive without the leadership of Modi, provided that the successor is able to replicate the intensely ideological appeal of Modi.
However, none of this implies that the BJP has become politically invincible. Every period of political dominance carries within it the seeds of its own decline. There are three dangerous contradictions—both external and internal—in the BJP’s pattern of dominance that can potentially unravel it.
The first contradiction is that the uncompromising style of leadership that has so far proved beneficial to the Modi-led BJP can also lead to hubris, and prevent the party from adequately addressing the anxieties bubbling under the surface. The slowdown in the economy, farm crisis, and the inability to produce enough jobs — three economic problems that have dogged the government in recent years — have been intensified by the Covid-19-induced recession. The economic effects of the pandemic would likely last, at least, for the remainder of the second Modi term. The 2020 Bihar assembly election reinforced the notion that an opposition political campaign based on class and economic opportunities has the potential to challenge the BJP-led coalition. Relatedly, surveys have captured a growing restlessness among the educated urban youth of India and dissatisfaction towards the government, not only about economic opportunities, but also about political crackdowns on civil liberties. A global integration of youth, through the internet and social media, means that this section of the population is especially aware of their claims to freedoms of speech and lifestyle, and the BJP has recently found itself on the opposite end of some of these issues.
Second, the conflict between purists and power seekers that can lead to intense factional conflicts in a dominant party. In its phase of expansion, the BJP has liberally incorporated politicians from every political party and given them important posts, which has led to an undercurrent of resentment within the party, and the larger Sangh Parivar. A continued smooth relationship with the larger Sangh Parivar, based on ideological convergence, is crucial to the BJP as the Parivar remains important for both ideological resources and personnel mobilisation. Relatedly, in expanding its geographical and social base, the BJP also pragmatically reconfigures its core ideological message to fit regional contexts. This is, for instance, part of the BJP strategy to expand its political space in Southern India. In the long term, it risks diluting its ideological positions, and thus losing the distinctive character that has led to its dominance.
The third contradiction, as K.C. Suri and Rahul Verma pointed out, is between the increasing disproportionality of the BJP’s upper-caste leadership and the vote base of the party that is mostly made up of backward castes. It was this identity-based struggle of representation and the benefits of office that progressively tore apart the Congress’s social coalition. Going forward, this would require tremendous political skill to gradually integrate more backward castes in leadership positions, to satisfy the demands of its backward caste base, without provoking a backlash from the upper castes.
To be sure, Modi’s leadership, in no small part, has helped contain these latent contradictions. When Modi departs, certain dissatisfied factions might rear their head and try to shape the course of a post-Modi BJP, bringing these tensions to the surface. The political skill and charisma of the successor would no doubt be tested in this phase of transition.
Yet, the sociopolitical and ideological advantage that the BJP enjoys was neither created by Modi nor would end with him, but instead would likely accrue to his successor. If they successfully negotiate the fractious phase of transition, there is little reason to believe that they would not be able to take the baton from Modi and continue with this system that enjoys a pole position in the electoral battles as well as in the arena of political culture.
The Congress party ruled the majority of years even in the third party system (1989-2014) and continued to influence the political and policy discourse. It is unlikely that the departure of Modi would represent an abrupt end to the BJP-dominant system; rather the increasing electoral expansion of the BJP indicates further shifting of India’s ideological space in the party’s favour. It is a long haul before a new dawn.
The authors are with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Views are personal.
This article is an edited excerpt of the authors’ essay, which first appeared in the journal Economic & Political Weekly (EPW).