Political scientist and CSDS founder Professor Rajni Kothari had in the 1960s described India’s political system as ‘the Congress system”, formulating the ‘One-Party Dominance’ theory. The Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress defined India’s polity then, while the opposition was largely at the fringes.
Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi appears to have taken the Indian political system back to the Nehru era to create what Professor Kothari would call ‘the BJP system’.
Opposition’s crucial role
One of the aspects of the One Party Dominance political system is that it is also a “one leader dominance’ system — Nehru and later Indira Gandhi for the Congress then and Modi for the BJP now. But just as the leader’s charisma is significant, the lack of a cohesive, strong opposition too plays a crucial role in creating the ‘system’.
Until Nehru’s reign, the opposition, comprising the likes of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party, and the Communist Party of India, had remained largely at the fringes. Even after Nehru’s passing away in 1964, the ‘Congress system’ survived, with a mini jolt in the 1967 general election, when the party came to power with a thin majority (283 seats) and loss in eight states. The Congress kept its dominance alive until the next election too.
However, it was routed resoundingly in 1977, in the aftermath of the Emergency. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi both lost their seats. Many pundits thought that the Janata Party, which had emerged under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, would create a parallel network and end the ‘Congress system’ as well as the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Jana Sangh’s brief window
But the Janata Party itself had a very large number of former Congress leaders — Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, Chandra Shekhar, Nandini Satpathy and many others. In a way, it was a continuation of the ‘Congress system’ with a different nameplate. Moreover, the Janata Party continued, by and large, the same pattern of governance.
If it failed to capitalise on its success and create a parallel system, then it was largely due to internal contradictions and ambitious leaders. The refusal of the Jana Sangh leaders to delink themselves from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) created a rift.
The party was accused of creating a parallel power centre with the help of the RSS. Madhu Limaye, the renowned socialist leader-intellectual, used to say that the RSS will strangulate the Janata Party and take over the reins.
BJP’s missed opportunity
The Jana Sangh, in its new avatar as the BJP, then got a chance to establish its own “One Party Dominance” under the charismatic leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Some commentators have gone to the extent of calling Vajpayee the Jana Sangh’s Nehru. But the Vajpayee-led BJP did not have the majority that the Congress under Nehru and Indira Gandhi had, and therefore it could not ‘dominate’ the system. Thereafter, the RSS began to work towards establishing its political arm with a majority in the seat of power.
The presumptive successor to Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, failed to rise to the occasion despite his successful Ayodhya campaign in the early nineties. After the BJP’s failure in 2004 and again in 2009, under the dual leadership of Vajpayee and Advani, the party, following the cue from the RSS, dumped Advani. By that time, the RSS had identified a new star in the Saffron firmament — Narendra Modi.
Dismantle the old system
In order to even hope to lodge a BJP system, the ‘Congress system’ had to be dislodged first. The ‘regime change’ India saw in 2014 began with the so-called “India Against Corruption” movement, launched in early 2011 with social activist Anna Hazare starting a series of fasts. All opposition parties with the “anti-Congress” agenda joined hands to dethrone the Congress from power. But they could not the ‘Congress system’. It’s easy to see why.
Most political parties in India have followed the same ‘Congress system’ — ‘high command’ structure, a dominant leader with the party workers’ unbridled loyalty, and rule by dynasts. Be it the Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena, the DMK, National Conference, the YSR Congress Party, the RJD — all internalised the similar, familiar patterns of the system they had vouched to overthrow.
The movement against corruption with the sole aim to set up the Lokpal began with a huge media blitzkrieg. TV channels had only one story for the public for the major part of the year. Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mandar became virtual Parliament. Most opposition leaders were seen agitating, garnering as much media attention as they could. The Manmohan Singh government’s moment of reckoning had arrived, but it panicked and crumbled under pressure.
As allegations of corruption grew, the Congress party’s power structure began to crack, and with that, the rise of Modi began to look inevitable.
Modi’s RSS-backed ‘system’
It is surprising that the “great revolutionary struggle” to make India corruption-free by establishing the Lokpal fizzled out without offering anything to the public soon as Narendra Modi took the reign. Anna Hazare disappeared in the wings after performing his ‘role’. In time, it would become clear that the entire ‘anti-corruption movement’ was coordinated and mobilised by the RSS and the BJP.
Mohan Bhagwat has publicly stated that the movement was supported by the RSS, which had “urged” Anna Hazare to launch the crusade. Anna Hazare did not press for the Lokpal all through Modi’s first term. Finally, the Lokpal was appointed at the fag end of the term, without any brouhaha.
In the first term, Modi abolished many institutions and conventions that were created under the ‘Congress system’ — from the Planning Commission to the non-alignment policy. Even the role of the Standing Committees of Parliament got marginalised.
The Modi government in its second term, aided by Home Minister Amit Shah, has now begun to dismantle what remains of the ‘Congress system’ to create a new ‘one party-one leader’ dominance. Will it succeed? The way BJP is recruiting almost anyone from the Congress and other parties shows it will have in its belly the same ‘Congress system’.
Looking back, one can perhaps say that the BJP today, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, is going ahead with the project its previous avatar, the Janata Party, had to abandon in 1979.
Karl Marx had once observed prophetically: “History repeats itself – the first as tragedy, and then as farce.” We are witnessing the farce, but with fierce communal face, which could destroy the system without creating a new one.
The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.