Political scientist Yogendra Yadav has argued in his recent column that Narendra Modi and the present Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation are now trying to achieve “total dominance over all other sectors of power—social, cultural, religious and economic.” His premise is that the BJP has parliamentary numbers in its favour and is going full throttle to control other spaces from the position of strength. But I disagree. The BJP is still not comfortably placed in the power structures and its brazenness is the result of its weakness and insecurity.
In the power discourse, politics, especially parliamentary numbers, is only one form of power. Power also vests in civil society through ideas, culture, ideologies and narratives. Perhaps it’s the BJP’s inability to control the vast swath of Indian civil society that is making it uncomfortable. Interestingly, elite spaces, personified by the BJP as ‘Khan Market gangs’, are still out of its control.
BJP can impose its will on people, groups and institutions and can do almost everything it wants. It can destabilise almost any state government or business. The Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Income Tax department can knock off-balance any individual or organisation, and the BJP government is using them quite frequently. The executive and the legislative branches of the power structures are, by and large, aligned with the ruling party, and the judiciary and the media per se are not going contrarian to the BJP. But that is only one part of the story.
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Authority and power aren’t the same
BJP is now realising the difference between ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘power’ as coercion. As one of the founders of modern sociology, Max Weber explained: “legitimate authority is power whose use is considered just and appropriate by those over whom the power is exercised”, whereas ‘power’ is defined as “the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them.” Having unlimited coercive power to bulldoze one’s will or orders, as the BJP-led governments are doing, is not the same as people and institutions accepting and willingly acting on the orders or wishes of the government.
Consent or willingness of the masses and institutions to obey, follow or act on orders may also come from the charisma of the leaders or of the ideas. Despite the BJP’s possession of one of the most charismatic leaders of our times—Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister—it still has to use coercive force to implement its decisions and ideas.
This is a position of weakness, rather than a position of power that Yogendra Yadav is postulating.
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Understanding Nehru vs Gandhis rule
To better understand this, we can compare the power and authority of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Nehru had power and legitimate authority both at the same time. This absolute position of authority made him and the Congress immensely powerful. During this period, the State sparingly used its coercive apparatuses to impose its decisions and ideas. Barring exceptions like police action in Hyderabad just after India’s Independence and army actions in parts of the Northeast to quell separatist forces, the Nehru era was more about rule by consent and less about the use of coercion.
This can’t be said about Indira Gandhi, who won a grand majority (352 seats) in the 1971 general elections. Despite having such a majority in Lok Sabha and her unquestionable position in the party, her authority soon eroded. She had to increasingly opt for coercive action, culminating in the imposition of the Emergency. She lost her charisma and the next general elections. This was also true for her son Rajiv Gandhi, who had 400 plus seats in the Lok Sabha. He had almost absolute political power but soon his authority waned. He started acting brazenly, bulldozed the Supreme Court judgment on Shah Bano case, sent the Indian Army to Sri Lanka and then allowed the opening of the gates of Ayodhya’s disputed structure.
These two examples of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi underline the fact that having a majority in the Lok Sabha and also having many of the states in its kitty, in itself, doesn’t ensure that the party will also command legal and moral authority and consent to rule seamlessly.
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BJP’s critical flaws
The BJP and its governments at the centre and the states are accused of using too much coercive power. The bulldozer is a symbol of coercive power and its use demonstrates that the State lacks the consent of the ruled. Heavy deployment of security forces demonstrates the power of the state, but the need to do so is a sign of the unwilling citizenry.
The State’s order that anyone involved in violent protests against the Agnipath scheme will become ineligible to join the armed forces may have quelled the protests for now, but it also proves that it has failed to persuade and reason with its citizen.
Similarly, forcing students to discard hijab by coercive orders shows a lack of legitimate authority on the BJP’s part. This shows how the party lacks the predominance or moral legitimacy of rule.
It’s a fact that all governments use consent and coercion together. In Gramscian terms, “hegemony entails for a class its execution of a leadership role on the economic, political, moral, and intellectual levels vis-a-vis other classes in the system.” BJP has achieved its hegemonic position in the sphere of politics and to some extent in the economic arena. The same cannot be said about moral and intellectual spaces or the consciousness of the masses. Until it does, the party will feel uncomfortable and shaky because people are not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas.
The BJP has the numbers. But does it have the narrative or the spontaneous consent of the masses? BJP has control over the political society. But does it have control over civil society? Perhaps not. And until it controls the narrative and achieves moral and intellectual authority, it will continue its rule by power, force and coercion.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)