The Central Force Behind India’s Fourth Party System

Is the BJP's rise a result of piggy-backing on Narendra Modi’s unique appeal or did Modi fast-forward a historical process that was imagined and set in motion by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its predecessors almost a century ago? We argue that a long-term political realignment was perhaps made inevitable by the ideological shift along with the structural makeup of the Indian society and Modi can be more pointedly credited with quickening the pace of history. We also suggest that Modi’s leadership, in no small part, has helped contain the emerging contradictions within the BJP system. However, 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. 

 

The decisive triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 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 (Mehta 2017; Palshikar 2017; Chhibber and Verma 2019). We suggest that this argument does not merely rest on the repeatedly demonstrated electoral advantage that the BJP enjoys. It also fulfils other necessary pre-conditions. The BJP’s organisational resources along with a charismatic leadership at the top far outweigh its competitors. The party, along with its allied Sangh Parivar, had always possessed an envious cadre strength on the ground, but its massive advantage in terms of financial resources (Sahoo and Tiwari 2019), disproportionate control over communication channels—both traditional media and social media—helps it set the agenda of political discourse (Ninan 2019). And, partly because it faces a fragmented and ideologically disarrayed opposition, despite electoral setbacks in the states, the ideological moorings of India’s median voter today seem to be much closer to the ideological position of the BJP (Chhibber and Verma 2019). 

However, some scholars have stopped short of calling it a BJP dominant system as for them the electoral dominance of the party does not match the Congress' level during the first (1952-67) and the second party systems (1967-89), and has yet not fulfilled the test of longevity in power (Ziegfeld 2020; Vaishnav and Hinston 2019). 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 Modi (Sircar 2020). 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.

This note makes an attempt to answer two questions. First, the underlying conditions that led to the rise of the second-dominant party system led by the BJP. Second, it outlines the challenges—both external and internal—to this system, and while doing so, estimating the life of India’s fourth party system.

The Twilight of the First Republic: A Hegelian Reading of Modi

Did the BJP merely piggy-backed on Modi’s unique appeal or Modi fast-forwarded 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. Hegel famously described Napoleon as “world spirit on horseback” as he saw, with his own eyes, Napoleon astride a horse marching victoriously through the Prussian town of Jena. For Hegel, the world historical figures were those charismatic leaders who embodied the hopes and fear of their age. They were forceful instruments of the ‘Weltgeist’—world spirit (Taylor 2015).
Hegel does not use the word “genius” to describe the distinctive quality of great historical figures, rather he uses the word “instinct.” These historical figures, Hegel argues, instinctively sensed the importance of what they are doing, and people flock around them as the instincts of the leader coincides with their inner will and desires. “These are the great men in history, whose own particular purposes comprehend the substantial content which is the will of the world-spirit. This content is the true source of their power ... the peoples assemble under his banner; he shows them what their own inner bent [immanenter Trieb] is and carries it out,” as Hegel wrote.

The political appeal of Modi, similarly, 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’s political judgment, reflected both in his policies and his style of leadership, has been able to sense and respond to the shifting expectations of Indian voters better than any rival, helping him cement his popularity (Verma and Barthwal 2020). And this national zeitgeist has been shaped by the gradual movement of India’s ideological space in favour of the BJP (Verma and Chhibber 2018). Even when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in 2004, surveys showed that the BJP’s ethno-majoritarian ideology had a wide appeal among the population (Palshikar 2004). Over many decades of painstaking groundwork, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) socialised and integrated a large grouping of subaltern castes within its framework of Hindu nationalism (Narayan 2009). 

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 RSS and BJP, and a steady expansion of the middle class (not just in size, but in social and political attitudes) creating the ground for a new politics of aspiration (Chhibber and Verma 2019). 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 BJP and RSS’s ideological agenda.

During the six years of Modi’s prime ministership, the BJP continues to transform the institutional arrangements,  restructure the governance framework, substantially expand its social and geographic base, and alter the political culture of India—what some have described as making of India’s Second Republic (Yadav 2020). While similar rhetoric did dominate certain intellectual-political circles, such a profound shift was not fathomable during the six years under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership. We suggest that this difference is better explained by political context rather than individual charisma. 

In his appraisal of transformative leaders in Presidential Leaders in Political Time, Stephen Skowrowek (2008) argues that whether presidents are able to disrupt and transform the political landscape depends on the particular economic and political context they inherit: presidential leadership needs to be understood in "political time." Only when the regime that leaders inherit is vulnerable—the existing institutional arrangements have been discredited as "failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day"—do they have the political capital to implement a transformative agenda. 

Vajpayee did not mount a forthright challenge to the economic and political ideas of his predecessors, perhaps because the old order (which we define as the institutional arrangements and the style of politics represented principally by the Congress party) was not thoroughly discredited yet. In fact, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP was itself crucially dependent on caste and region-based parties which constrained the party’s ability to manoeuvre. While the ideological base of the old order had been hollowed out by this time, it would only start to unravel in the second term of the UPA. In adapting to the old political framework, the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani, did not change the bases of political competition, and hence did not bring about a long-term political realignment. In fact, L K Advani spent the first term of the UPA in taking the party towards a moderate stance on nationalism and Hindutva, misreading the causes of the 2004 debacle. The losses in 2004 and 2009 were not, however, a repudiation of BJP’s ideology. In 2004, the BJP suffered from mismanaged electoral alliances, and in 2009, it struggled to make its ideological agenda salient against a popular incumbent. 

What led to the discrediting of the old order? As the case of the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Labour Party in Israel shows, political parties can hold on to power long after losing their ideological bases of support (Pempel 1990; Inbar 2010). The ability to dispense patronage based on control over governmental resources can paper over their structural weaknesses, but certain dramatic events can precipitate their enduring political marginalisation. In the case of the Christian Democrats it was a series of corruption scandals, and in the case of the Labour Party the failure of the Oslo accord to stop terrorism and bring peace to the country. In the case of the Congress party, it was a string of corruption scandals and internal security challenges that supercharged a potent confection of gradually mounting cultural, economic and leadership anxieties. The rise of the BJP and Modi in 2014 happened against the backdrop of these anxieties which had hollowed out the popular legitimacy of the old order represented by the Congress party. 

Three Popular Anxieties and the Rise of the 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 (Chhibber and Verma 2019).  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 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. The BJP succeeded in portraying the UPA as too soft on these security threats, while surveys indicated that people desired a more forceful response (Lokniti MOTN 2011). Palshikar (2017) has argued that it is the “conflation between nationalism and Hindutva” that is “the backbone of the new hegemony.” “The mixing of the registers of nationalism and Hindutva adroitly strengthens the BJP’s new hegemony because while many people may not have any emotional connection with the idea of Hindutva, a majority certainly has emotional investment in the idea of a nation. Because the BJP succeeds in conflating these two, new recruits to Hindutva come from a cross-section of the society,” Palshikar wrote. 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. In teasing out the effect of Modi, Chhiber and Verma (2018) wrote that “in 2014 Modi, not the BJP, drew voters opposed to statism to the party.” Chhibber and Verma’s analysis, based on the NES 2014 survey, showed that in voting for the BJP, the candidature of Modi made no difference for voters opposed to the politics of recognition, but a large difference to voters opposed to the politics of statism. Thus, they argued, the Modi effect consisted in mainly bringing aspirational “economic-right” voters to the BJP.  

However, in terms of economic philosophy in itself, there is no qualitative distinction between Modi’s BJP and Vajpayee-Advani’s BJP (Sitapati 2020). Both advocated a larger role of private enterprise in the economy. The difference is that whereas Modi presented his economic thoughts in sharp ideological terms, in the vocabulary of a clear break from the past, the BJP before Modi articulated their economic ideas in the vocabulary of incremental reforms, and were mindful of conciliating the statist factions within the party. 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. The corruption scandals exposed in the second term of the UPA further contributed to the general belief that the Prime Minister was not able to exert a disciplinary force on either his party or its allies. The Hindu nationalist movement has always advocated a strong centralised leadership to guard against both external threats and the fissiparous tendencies present in the nation. 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. 

Emerging Contradictions within the BJP-dominant System

The above discussion clearly shows that there were longstanding ideological currents gathering strength, particularly over the last three decades, that were chipping away at the bases of support of the opposition and fashioning a more fertile terrain for the BJP. These ideological currents merged into a storm during the latter phases of the UPA, discrediting the old political order and creating the space for a transformative leader.1 The personality of Modi was perfectly suited to become the instrument for this national zeitgeist, and his political instincts of preferring conflict over conciliation coincided with the popular hunger for change, indeed a new political order, which Modi has captured in his project of “New India.” 

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 dominant BJP 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 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 (Jorda et al 2020). The recent Bihar elections 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 (Barthwal and Ali 2020). 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 (Boucek 2012). 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 Suri and Verma (2017) 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 (Chandra 2000; Jaffrelot 2003). 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.

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, as we have argued in this note, 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.

 

 

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