In the crowded marketplace of Indian democracy, only the Bharatiya Janata Party has unique selling points. All other political formations, barring some regional players, have lost their steam and become a spent force. What the BJP has done is cleverly co-opt many of the development and social justice claims of other parties, but added the not-so-secret Hindutva ingredient to its dish. So, there is a clear ‘plus’ factor that the BJP brings to the table. Politics is all about creating a story. Today, BJP has a story. Others don’t anymore. You can say Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Karunanidhi offered their own idea of India. Just like the Congress did.
But those ideas have been either discredited or appropriated by the BJP ecosystem. What the BJP brings today are three ‘M’s that differentiate it from others.
We have truly entered the era of the ‘BJP System’, where all political actions revolve around the BJP. Other political parties may win elections during this era, but the politics will still revolve around the BJP and its actions as the central axis.
This will be something similar to the ‘Congress System‘ (political scientist Rajni Kothari coined this term), which existed from the early 1900s to the 1970s.
Also read: How Modi’s BJP has become Nehru’s Congress
The Congress era
The Congress became the political party of India after M.K. Gandhi returned from South Africa and became the organisation’s supreme leader and icon. The Congress’ dominant position continued till 1977, when the Janata Party defeated it in the Lok Sabha election. Even after that, the Congress came to power many times, but we can’t call it the era of the ‘Congress system’. It started facing serious challenges at both the state and central level. The Congress had lost its invincibility at the altar of the JP movement.
Until then, the Congress was a party of hope and aspiration for crores of Indians. Just like the BJP is today. The hope was that it will usher in a new India. Indians thought that Jawaharlal Nehru, and later Indira Gandhi, would make the country a democratic, developed, educated and healthy republic. In the 1960s, the initial euphoria waned as the situation in India failed to improve drastically post-Independence.
The Indian nation, at the midnight hour of 14-15 August 1947, had made many promises to itself. But a nation that ranks 129th in the UN Human Development Index can’t claim to have fulfilled those promises. The Congress can claim that it defined the idea of India and it was Nehru who ensured that India remained united. It can also claim that it is a party of governance and knows how to rule. But Indians simply said – Ye dil maange more!
Despite the Congress’ claim to secularism, India witnessed the worst form of communal riots under its governments. Even the bogey of Muslim appeasement raised by the Jana Sangh and the BJP against the Congress was incorrect. We need to read the summary of the Sachar Committee Report to understand how the Congress kept the Muslims at the margins as far as jobs and bank credits were concerned. It played majoritarian politics by opening the gates of the Babri Masjid to Hindu worshippers in 1986, which led to a series of events that finally resulted in the marginalisation of the Congress and the ascent of the BJP.
Copy, paste, improve
Three other political streams — Socialists, Communists and the Bahujan — have got stray opportunities, especially at the state level, to run the show.
Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) got an uninterrupted 15 years to deliver on their ideas and promises in Bihar. The Communist Party of India (CPI) got 34 years of continuous rule in West Bengal. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) got almost two-and-a-half decades to rule Uttar Pradesh and empower Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). But they all failed to deliver on the promises they had made to their voters.
This brings us to a question — did the BJP perform any better? On governance, economy, education, health and basic amenities for citizens, the BJP performed equally bad. Its performance in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh on these counts was actually worse than many other state governments.
The allure of the BJP for its core voters is neither development nor governance. The party’s faithful voters won’t abandon it for slow economic growth or mismanagement in governance or even its foreign policy debacles.
The Narendra Modi government has adopted many of the policies of other parties, especially the Congress, without even acknowledging it. It has adopted the MGNREGS in a big way to placate the rural poor and used Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to implement several schemes such as PM Kisan Yojana and Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana. These schemes translate into electoral dividends for the BJP. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum should thank the BJP for working on their ‘capability’ approach and expanding it to provide subsidised LPG to millions of poor households and giving them cash subsidy to build toilets.
The BJP has made an OBC the prime minister and picked a Dalit as the country’s president. It has also developed five places of importance in the life of B.R. Ambedkar and transformed them into the magnificent Panchatirtha. By doing so, it has actually matched the parks made by Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
The M factor
In a nutshell, the BJP can replicate almost every scheme and policy of other political parties. But the reverse is not true. So, the question is, what gives the BJP its unique identity? It’s the three ‘M’s.
Muslim factor: The BJP has a knack for turning all national issues into a Hindu-Muslim binary. In the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, it found an opportunity to shift the blame for the spread of Covid-19 onto Muslims. Granting citizenship to the migrants of Southeast Asia could have been the most secular act for any other party or government. But the BJP successfully turned it into a communal potboiler by excluding only Muslims from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act’s ambit. Give the BJP any issue and the party will make it into its favourite dish. It seems that the core voters of the BJP are convinced that only this party can keep Muslims under control. They haven’t voted the BJP in to control the price of petrol or onions. For them, the BJP is actually fulfilling the promises it had made.
There’s a small but potent list on what the BJP has delivered: laying the ground for the construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, scrapping of Article 370 and reorganisation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the CAA and the National Register of Citizens, threatening to confiscate properties of Muslims for taking part in citizenship protest, and making triple talaq illegal.
Masculine nationalism: Pakistan is at the centre of the foreign and, to some extent, the domestic policy of the BJP. It’s a fact that from Kargil to Balakot, issues and skirmishes related to Pakistan have yielded electoral dividends for the BJP.
Apart from the initial bonhomie of Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, the BJP has defined Indian nationalism in the context of Pakistan. China does not fit well in this playbook because Indians don’t completely understand the Chinese and their game-plan.
Manuvadi appeasement: No other party in the political history of India has ever thought of giving 10 per cent reservation to the upper castes and amending the Constitution for it. The savarna Hindu core voters of the BJP should be indebted to the party for this ‘brave’ act.
Similarly, the BJP recruiting bureaucrats in higher levels through lateral entry bypasses the provisions of reservation. It has also tried to subvert the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 by arguing in the court that this Act is being misused, and later backtracking due to mounting pressure. It is also trying to scuttle OBC reservation by including salary income in the purview of the creamy layer criteria.
Do other political parties have any such differentiators? No, making roads, schools and bridges do not count. That is the task of every government and can’t be the core of any party’s politics. Political parties in India have to define their politics in a sharper way that makes them stand out.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.