New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party turned 40 years old Monday, though it has chosen to keep celebrations low-key as India battles the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
From a vote share of less than 8 per cent and just two seats in its Lok Sabha debut in 1984, the BJP has grown to a behemoth with 38 per cent vote share and a 300-plus-seat majority in the Lower House of Parliament in 2019. Its leaders are now President, Vice-President, Prime Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker, and core ideological commitments — from scrapping Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir to the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya — have been implemented, barring a Uniform Civil Code.
The BJP claims a membership figure of 18 crore, which makes it the biggest cadre-based political organisation in the world, larger even that the Chinese Communist Party.
ThePrint takes a look back at 10 important milestones of the BJP’s journey so far.
With its leaders splitting from the Janata Party on the issue of dual membership, the BJP was formed on 6 April 1980 in New Delhi. Around 3,500 delegates gathered at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground, now Arun Jaitley Stadium, to elect Bharatiya Jana Sangh veteran Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its first president, and Lal Krishna Advani, Sikander Bakht and Suraj Bhan as its general secretaries.
Six months later, at its first plenary in Bombay (now Mumbai), 25 lakh members enrolled in the party — its political precursor, the Jana Sangh, had only 16 lakh members at its peak.
Mohammadali Carim Chagla, eminent jurist and former cabinet minister with the Congress, who had been a vehement critic of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, had said at the Bombay plenary: “Who says there is no alternative to the Congress in this country? I see the alternative in front of me, in the form of the BJP, and in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I see an alternative to Indira Gandhi.”
The BJP made its first notable mark on Indian politics in the Karnataka assembly elections in 1983, winning 18 seats out of 224.
The next year, it contested its first parliamentary elections, but finished with a disappointing tally of 7.66 per cent votes and just two seats. It actually finished second in the polls on 101 seats, and was the largest opposition party in terms of vote share amid the Congress wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But even Vajpayee lost in Gwalior to Madhavrao Scindia, though the poet-politician’s words ‘andhera chhatega, kamal khilega’ (darkness will dissipate, the lotus will bloom), which he said to his colleague Advani, would prove prophetic.
First taste of power
Then-PM Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Mr Clean’ image took a hit with the Bofors scandal in 1987, and his own defence minister, V.P. Singh, revolted against the Congress and made the alleged scam his main poll plank in the 1988 Allahabad by-election, which he fought as an Independent.
Sensing an opportunity, the BJP too began a nationwide ‘satyagraha’ in January 1988, demanding Gandhi’s resignation and mid-term polls.
The 1989 elections saw the country’s politics turn on its head, as the Congress fell to 193 seats. The Janata Dal, led by V.P. Singh, finished second with 141 seats, while the BJP, now led by Advani, finished third with 86. Singh managed to form an ideologically diverse coalition and get the support of polar opposites BJP and the Left to form the government.
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement
The biggest turning point for the BJP came in the form of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and Advani’s Rath Yatra across the country in 1990.
Rajiv Gandhi’s flip-flop on the issue of shilanyas (laying the foundation stone for a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid stood), his “appeasement” of the Muslim clergy in the Shah Bano case and the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s kar seva were the starting points of the movement, but it truly took shape under BJP president Advani’s Rath Yatra, which began at Somnath in Gujarat.
Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Janata Dal ordered Advani’s arrest for communal polarisation, resulting in the fall of V.P. Singh’s central government.
The BJP then emerged more prominently at the Centre and in states, even winning 119 seats in the 1991 general election, despite the contours of the polls being changed by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on the campaign trail.
Chief ministership of UP
A handful of Jana Sangh leaders had become chief ministers of their states before under the Janata Party umbrella, but the Rath Yatra and the Ayodhya movement made the BJP a factor in other states, most prominently Uttar Pradesh.
Bhairon Singh Shekhawat led the BJP to power in Rajasthan and Sundar Lal Patwa in Madhya Pradesh in 1990, but in 1991, Kalyan Singh, one of the poster boys of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, became the UP chief minister, as the BJP won 221 of the 425 seats.
The Jana Sangh was a major part of the Janata Party government in 1977, but the prime ministership went to former Congressman Morarji Desai.
But 16 years after the formation of the BJP, Vajpayee took oath as the prime minister for the first time as the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls with 161 seats.
His government lasted just 13 days, as the BJP was unable to cobble together a majority.
Second Vajpayee govt & Pokhran tests
After a two-year United Front government led by H.D. Deve Gowda and then Inder Kumar Gujral, the BJP’s campaign slogan of ‘Abki baari Atal Bihari’ found resonance among the people as the party’s tally increased to 182 in the 1998 elections. The BJP and its new allies formed an NDA government under Vajpayee’s leadership, and within two months, conducted the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests.
The next year, India fought the Kargil War with Pakistan, but Vajpayee’s government didn’t last much longer, as the AIADMK withdrew support to force fresh elections.
But the NDA returned to power, and this time, Vajpayee’s government lasted the full five years, before losing to the Congress and its allies in the 2004 general election.
End of Vajpayee-Advani era
The next epoch-making shift in the BJP happened in 2013, when Gujarat CM Narendra Modi was selected as its prime ministerial candidate for next year’s Lok Sabha polls, bringing to an end the Vajpayee-Advani era (Vajpayee had already semi-retired due to age).
Once Modi came to power in 2014, with a simple majority of 282 seats for the BJP, older leaders like Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were relegated to the ‘Margdarshak Mandal’, a council of elders that exists mostly in name.
The cult of Modi
With Modi ruling the country and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah heading the party, the BJP’s footprint expanded rapidly across the country. At one point in 2018, the BJP was in power in 21 states, either on its own or as part of a coalition. The party’s Lok Sabha tally also rose from 282 seats in 2014 to 303 in 2019, signalling the emergence of the biggest political cult in India since that of Indira Gandhi.
The Modi-Shah BJP also ran membership drives to boost its numbers, and now claims to have over 18 crore members — more than the population of many countries in the world.
Modi’s reign has seen many examples of this cult phenomenon — be it people’s response to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or demonetisation, or even to his calls during the current nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. At his behest, they clap and bang utensils together, or light lamps and candles with fervour to show their appreciation for healthcare workers and others engaged in essential services.
Completion of ideological commitments
Barring a Uniform Civil Code, the BJP under Modi has accomplished most of its other long-standing ideological commitments. The Supreme Court’s decision to award the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya to the Hindus has ensured that a Ram mandir will come up there, while Amit Shah as Union Home Minister scrapped Article 370 that guaranteed special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, also bifurcating it into two union territories on 5 August last year.
These have been commitments that the Jana Sangh had made since the days of its founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and they’re coming to fruition within 40 years of the formation of the BJP.