PM Narendra Modi virtually addresses the All India Presiding Officers' conference on the 12th anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack | Photo: ANI
PM Narendra Modi virtually addresses the All India Presiding Officers' conference on the 12th anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack | Photo: ANI
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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.


Also read: Modi’s centralisation of welfare delivery has a cost that BJP’s state leaders are paying


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.


Also read: BJP wins states by overriding local issues with ideological. Bihar is latest example


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.


Also read: What makes Modi’s BJP invincible? The cynicism that India is dead


Conclusions

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).

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4 COMMENTS

  1. The article is quite a good analysis, but some filling is needed.

    The reasons given for Modi’s or the BJP’s rise are partly correct : namely ‘Muslim appeasement’, frustration with corruption, and the the need for a strong leader.

    However, the dominant reason is the successful communalisation of Hindus who see their communal outlook as nationalism.
    The ‘Muslim appeasement’ story is of course now firmly planted in many Hindu minds, and that enables them to justify any persecution, cruelty, mob violence and pogroms. However, this turn of events actually has a masked face. The resentment against Congress and various non-Congress coalitions was triggered by the implementation of the Mandal Commission report by the VP Singh govt.. Until then, the posts for SC/ST were advertised and the interviewers who are generally high castes could say ‘no one was found’ and fill it with their people. Mandal made it that if no SC/ST could be found, the post would be kept open till one was found. This triggered fury and upper castes immolated themselves. In this melee, Advani stepped in and made out the hated reservation concept was foisted on the nation by Congress. And guess what, Congress was kept in power by Muslims voting en bloc for them. It was alleged Muslims were being appeased by Congress. With this canard sunk in Hindu minds, he could raise a mob and raze the Babari masjid claiming it was built over the exact spot Rama was born. With that, the concept of ‘Indian nationalism’ was gone and it became ‘Hindu nationalism’ – or Hindu communalism got equated with Indian nationalism. Nehru had written and warned about this. Advani could not attack Dalits directly over reservation, but attacking Muslims was fair game, and Hindus would go along. Of course, the target is to delegitimise Congress, secularism – and reservation. The first two were declared objectives, the last is under the table but is in fact the main one. One cannot attack Dalits directly, as they are Hindus.

    The article does not go into depth about how corruption and inefficiency fuelled the rise of the BJP. Corruption as understood by most Indians, is only bribery. They do not see that seeking power through communalism is another form of corruption. For instance, organising a pogrom or a riot, destroys the economy for a section, but brings power for a few – and power is money. Congress corruption is now replaced with something worse. The financial corruption continues (see Rafale deal). Demonetisation was a scam, but it was masked as fighting corruption – apart from the minorities, most believed Modi was fighting corruption ! Transfer of wealth from the majority to a few like Adani through shady arrangements is also corruption. But the typical BJP supporter will argue corruption vanished under Modi.

    On the weak leadership anxiety, Modi’s external projection of strength has been vain blustering which has culminated in loss of land to China, creation of a threat of a two front war, and casting around aimlessly for support from Israel, BRICS, and now Quad. He has only impressed NRIs in Madison Square or Wembley. Strong leadership inside the country only means arresting journalists and academics, lynching minorities, CAA-NRC, Article 370 – basically, anti-democratic ventures, condemned by the democratic countries but staunchly defended by his followers.

    As for whether Modism will be sustainable, the answer is ‘no’. Countries are built by creating a strong economy and voluntary internal cohesion. These cannot be built by pitting one against another. Even the article admits the outcome of Modi is a failing economy, and a disunited civil society. There is discord between Hindus and minorities; the apparent concord between Hindus is only temporal. India is a combustible tinder box. There are articles everyday in the western press about these two aspects. Hence, India is not going to be a safe investment destination.

    Modism is not sustainable. The sole reason for his adulation amongst Hindus is the Guajrat 2002 pogrom. They think he had stood up to Muslims. That was a master stroke for him certainly and he has gone far because of it. But the reality is Modi is an uneducated jahil and it shows in the way he speaks, and in his vain posing – be it his need to wear a new dress everyday, or get his own jet. Growing a Tagore beard to win Bengal is a very low IQ symbolism ! Only people with no substance will do that.

    Like Advani was followed by someone worse (that is Modi), Modi can only be followed by someone even worse like Yogi. The RSS-BJP ecosystem will only breed such people.

    On ‘what after Modi’, the article did not go far enough. India is on the slippery slope – to become like Mynamar or Yugoslavia. Oddly enough, the outside world recognises this, but Indians are oblivious.

  2. There’s is no doubt and no going back as to the vision of Modi in transforming the nation towards Hindutva led by RSS which was the need of the Bharat. However, it’s a provan fact that the foresight with which the Government worked in eradicating & identifying Terrorism,which has been globally recognised and East to West Nations Supported his thought process in eradicating and elimination of the roots. From the insight the Nation and every caste and religion has understood by now that the Government eversince 2014 has tried to address the ills of the society and helped the minority to enlighten themselves be it the woman or men in their interests. The National has struggled for over 70 years fighting the roots of poverty although the tenure of BJP led NDA since 2014 has been able to work in the interest of the common man but on certain aspects of socioeconomic factors it’s taking undesirable decisions. Every move or decision may not be correct as proved on the Maharashtra front by not accepting the Shiv Sena offers in forming the Government.

  3. Absolute rubbish,, here is a selfish man who all what interests him is vengeance and division of the country based on religion,,, no one today is free to select whst he wants to eat,, what to say and whom to msrry,, do otherwise othervthan what two stooges want,,, you are termed Snti National,, we are in for bigger surprises,,,, no Aache din,, but just bhurri raathe

  4. What Nehru inherited was largely uneducated population looking forward to just an independent country without knowing what it really meant. It took some years to get over the euphoria, but during that period the education and political awareness also increased.
    The 62 Chinese debacle and some scams started to bring in reality check. After a short stint of Lal Bhadur Shashtri ,like her son Indira got into the saddle, the success of 71 war extended her rule despite many controversies. She was thrown out once the but the opposition made a complete hash of thing and she came back again till her assassination, bringing her son to power.
    Once again during these years the education and awareness levels increased. The search for an alternate system became more obvious, expedited by the Bofor’s, to seek a government which would be clean and away from, you scratch my back and I will scratch your.
    The ideologies and secularism is a load of trash that majority is not interested in and essentially sounds good in the limited educated class. By 2014 the rulers had milked system dry, while the search for a new dispensation was on and the time was ripe for change.
    Even if we were to get someone other than Modi with a proven record of clean image, the things would not have been different. For Modi the RSS organization was bonus to capitalize on the oratory and vision presented.
    Any leader coming after Modi will have to come and display his financial integrity, even if he does not have the other qualities, and the system set by Modi will run for some time. Years of power could easily turn RSS in to Congress with the complacency which is inevitable. Then a new leadership will emerge.

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