Emergence of BJP’s Dominance and Its Durability

The rise of the BJP to political dominance is the result of multiple factors that are external and internal to the party. The decay and decline of the once-dominant Congress and regional parties and the failure of the non-Congress non-BJP parties to forge stable governments are the external ones. BJP’s innovative political strategy to adapt itself to the changing times and the popularity of Narendra Modi are the internal ones. Therefore, the durability of the BJP’s dominance depends on how these factors take further shape. Will the BJP accommodate the rising aspirations of backward social groups for social justice and to have their due place in the leadership echelons of the party and also not upset the delicate balance between the imperatives of social welfare and economic growth? Will the non-BJP parties cease to be family fiefdoms of autocratic leaders and a network of power-hungry and greedy political entrepreneurs and emerge as a credible alternative to the BJP?

 

Reversing the trend of coalition governments that India saw for 25 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 election secured a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha on its own. The party further consolidated its strength since 2014 as evident in the increased vote share and seat share in the 2019 election. There is a precipitous decline of the chief opposition party, the Congress, and a perceptible disarray among the opposition parties in general. Going by the conventional meaning of the term dominant party, the BJP can be said to have established itself as a dominant party if it wins one more term, demonstrating its capacity to stay in power continuously.   

A glance at the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha election gives us a sense of the breadth and depth of the BJP. From about 7.4% popular vote in 1984, the first national general election the party contested, the BJP’s vote share increased to 37.36% in the 2019 election. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) polled 44.84% vote. In these years, the BJP has extended its geographical spread as well. In 2019, the party contested in all states and union territories, either on its own or with its allies. Of the 34 states and union territories in which it fielded candidates, the party polled half or more than half of the votes in 14 states and union territories. The number goes up to 17 for the NDA. It polled between one third and half of the total votes in another nine states and union territories. The number goes up to 11 for the NDA. But more significantly, the BJP polled 46.14% of the popular vote if we look at the vote per seat it contested. The number of seats the party won with more than 50% of the popular vote has increased over the years, from 35 in 1996 to 224 in 2019. The 2019 National Election Study shows that of the people who have reported that they identify with a political party, 41% said that they like the BJP. This marks a huge increase from 25% in 1999 (NES 2019). The party claims a membership of 11 crore, the largest for any party in the political history of the world. 

Many political scientists and commentators have explained in their own way the rise of the BJP to dominance. In this article, I propose to analyse some aspects of the emergence of BJP’s dominance and its durability which I think have not received due and proper attention.  

The Decline of Congress Dominance and the Rise of the BJP

There are four causes for the emergence of the BJP as a dominant party. The first is the decay and decline of the Congress party and many of the regional parties. We all know that it was not the Congress dominance but its decline that became critical to shaping the party system in India. But why did the Congress decline so soon after independence? Was it because the Congress began to decay as it transformed itself from a movement party to a ruling party, as it happened in many postcolonial nations? Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru began the undemocratic traditions of dismissing other party governments, of curbing dissent, and the practice of coupling up the positions of the president of the ruling party and the prime minister. For a long time, Rajni Kothari’s model of the dominant party system,  applied to India, dominated our analysis of Indian politics and party system. Perhaps, it is time to revisit that model. In retrospection, the Congress system appears to be a problematic construct, both theoretically and empirically. Even in its heydays of the 1950s, the Congress was deficient in the criteria laid down by Kothari: a party of consensus that possessed the characteristics of ideological flexibility, accommodating opposition, and democratic functioning. 

As years passed, the Congress became a playground for political entrepreneurs, factions and wily provincial satraps, in their unceasing pursuit of power and wealth, flaunting loyalty to the high command. This was stated by no less a person than the Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In his famous 1985 speech, as the newly anointed president of the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi lamented that power brokers converted the party into a feudal oligarchy, that corruption became the hallmark of leadership, and that the party was a mere shell without substance. He accused the power brokers and corrupt leaders for the party’s decay. Was he not aware of the inconvenient fact that nothing else but lineage parachuted him to the coupled-up positions of prime minister and the president of the Congress? It is ironic that a man who proclaimed lofty ideals functioned like a “king among courtiers” and got embroiled in a corruption scandal accelerating the downfall of the party. Once again, after a generation, Rahul Gandhi is caught in the same predicament of proclaiming a commitment to the lofty ideal of strengthening democracy while he is conscious of the fact that it was the family connection that enthroned him in the highest position, a position he wants to abdicate. The Congress as a party is caught in the toughest political bind ; the prospects of the party falling apart without a dynastic leader, and the bleak chances to prosper with a dynastic leader at the helm. 

The second reason for the BJP’s rise to dominance is the failure of the attempts of the non-Congress non-BJP parties to forge stable governments. The decline of Congress dominance in the 1960s and 1970s opened up many possibilities. For a short while after the Emergency, the Janata Party appeared to be a solid alternative giving rise to speculation of the possibility of a two-party system taking shape. But the party was shattered soon by the internecine quarrels of its ambitious leaders. Again, after a decade, the formation of the National Front government led by the Janata Dal in 1989 kindled hopes of forging a formidable third front, consisting of parties that professed secularism and social justice. But this experiment ended in a fiasco. One more experiment in 1996 to form a United Front government consisting again of many disparate parties too collapsed in no time. State-based parties came to prominence in these years of political churning and governmental instability. They claimed themselves to be the representatives of regional interests, guardians of state autonomy, cultural moorings of their people and the aspirations of the backward social groups. But their practice did not match their claims. Many of them had degenerated into family fiefdoms, and outfits of personal aggrandisement, political corruption and bad governance. They have shown how parties can be reduced to personal fiefs and political power can be passed on to family members like private property. The failure of the non-BJP parties to offer an effective alternative to the Congress made people slowly turn towards the BJP. 

The third reason for BJP’s dominance is its innovative political strategy and ability to adapt itself to the changing times and the changing Indian voter. It could sense the political vacuum in the wake of Congress decay and the disintegration of the third front. But ‘mandalisation’ of politics and the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP), and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as principal contenders for power in UP and Bihar made the BJP leadership to recognise that in order to come to power, the party has to secure the support of the members of the numerically large lower strata of the Hindu social order, namely the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). This new political strategy, known as social engineering, contributed to the electoral success of the BJP in the late 1990s. There was a temporary lull in social engineering during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule, but got a fillip once again under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, with Modi himself becoming a shining star of the disadvantaged and backward strata of the “Hindu society.” 

In 2014 and 2019, we see a massive surge in the percentage of people from these social groups voting for the BJP— from 19% in 1996 to 44% in 2019 among the OBCs, from 14% to 34% among the SCs; and from 21% to 44% among the STs (Suri 2019: 236). The political strategy of the BJP under Modi’s leadership synchronised well with the structural transformation of the Indian society and the dynamics of democratic politics. The new social coalition of the upper castes, OBCs, SCs and STs that the BJP could forge altered the internal composition of the BJP’s electoral support and, hence, the BJP’s social character. This massive change in its support base pushed the party to the centre stage. 

Some commentators wrongly attribute BJP’s overwhelming success in 2014 and 2019 to Modi’s personality, calling him a polarising figure; polarising people on the basis of religious identities. Certainly, Hindutva was the foundation for the BJP’s success despite its ideological moderation over the years. It remains crucial to Modi’s political strategy. But we know that Modi was not the first leader to make it a political issue. Political Hindutva has been around quite for some time, since the 1980s. Polarisation of voters did not happen in 2014. It is not as if Muslims were voting for the BJP before Modi and now under Modi they had moved away from the BJP. The fact is only 2% Muslims voted for the BJP in 1996. In 2014, the percentage of Muslims who voted for the BJP had actually increased to eight percent and it remained at that level in 2019. Can we then say that Vajpayee was a more polarising figure than Modi? So, polarisation was not the reason for BJP’s massive victory in 2014. What Modi did was to consolidate the Hindu vote. What the Modi-led BJP achieved was to bind together the diverse social groups within the ‘Hindu society’ and rally them behind the party. 

The fourth reason for BJP’s success is Modi’s popular appeal. In 2019, about half of the people wanted Modi as the Prime Minister. Close to one-third of those who voted for the BJP said that their voting preference would have changed if Modi was not the prime ministerial candidate (Shastri 2019: 214). No believer in democracy can dismiss this as false consciousness or attribute it to the condition of being misled by propaganda. So, the question we should ask is: How did Modi strike a chord with ordinary people? I can think of three ways. 

One, Modi was subjected to severe public scrutiny for ten years under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which could not indict him despite setting up special investigation teams and carrying on years of prosecution in the highest courts. People empathise with leaders who they perceive are persecuted for political reasons by the regimes of the day, whose leaders themselves are corrupt and cling to power by fair means or foul. 

Two, his social background. He hailed from an ordinary family. He is not a janeudhari, has no famous gotra to flaunt, no claims to illustrious lineage or wealth. He is not from Delhi’s high society. He has not received education in any premier institution. He does not speak the language and lingo of the urban elite. These traits of a self-made leader who fought against odds and struggled hard to transcend sociocultural barriers to rise to the level of a national leader evoke a strong emotional effect of sympathy and shared feelings. 

And three, his political journey. Modi became a renunciate at a very early age when he could have indulged in all the sensual pleasures of life. One may disagree with and oppose his ideology, but he worked as an ordinary propagandist of the ideas that gave a perspective that he could call his own. This is in sharp contrast to other leaders who begin as pragmatists, crave for political power from early on in life and use their position of power to amass wealth and reproduce political power for themselves and for their children. This evokes strong emotional effects of admiration for the leader. 

How Durable is BJP’s Dominance?

Institutionalisation of greed to amass political power and material wealth through family control of the party, autocratic leadership, and political corruption have come to occupy a central place in India’s political practice over the past few decades. These afflictions that began with the Congress party gradually spread to most of the regional parties. For the BJP under Modi’s leadership, these afflictions have become the focal point of political attack against other parties, eliciting a positive response from people. Insofar as these parties are run as family fiefdoms by autocratic leaders continue as centres of corruption by unscrupulous political entrepreneurs and remain nests of intrigue by cronies, they cannot hope to emerge as a credible alternative to the BJP. So far, most of these parties have not gone through the leadership turnover test in which leadership succession takes place in a democratic manner according to the procedure laid down in the party constitution. Hardly they have chosen any person other than the founder or founder’s close family member to head the party. The left parties are different and they are akin to BJP in terms of organisation and leadership, although on different sides of the ideological divide. But they too have declined over the years for different reasons and are too languid to become an alternative to the BJP. In the given situation in which the opposition parties do not have realistic chances of posing a credible alternative, a threat to BJP’s dominance from outside in the short term seems less likely. 

But a threat to a party’s dominance can arise from factors internal to the party itself, which are more difficult to notice than the external threats and difficult to resolve.  The BJP received a huge fillip due to a major dealignment of the socially backward groups from the entrenched political parties and their shift towards it. Can the BJP sustain that momentum and further consolidate its position? Would the party’s top leadership move in tandem with the logic of the new situation? Would it encourage an equitable sharing of power? Any attempts to erect invisible barriers hindering the rise of leaders from backward social groups into the higher echelons of the party and government would be detrimental to the BJP. 

BJP came to power on the basis of its promise sabka saath, sabka vikas (together with all and development for all). What does this slogan mean to people? They expect the government to come to their help in a variety of ways, including provision of welfare goods, health benefits, financial and material assistance, and expansion of educational and employment opportunities. While the BJP professes Gandhian socialism as one of its five guiding principles, the dominant tendency in the finance ministry and among the policy makers seem to recklessly discard elements of socialism and push India aggressively towards a libertarian paradigm of state and market. Democracy is all about individual well-being and a fair access to opportunities for a good life. Would not this new economic reform policy upset the balance between the imperatives of welfare and economic growth? 

Finally, a word on the desirability of dominance and dominant party system. The term dominant party, although often used, is not well-defined. Some argued that a system of one-party dominance should be considered a variant of democracy, instead of treating it as inimical to democracy. However, the experience with dominant party systems is not all that encouraging. Democracy depends on the alternation of power between parties and the hope for the losing party to win next election by gathering sufficient popular support. While a desire to rule is inherent to all political parties and leaders, a will to dominate others can become expansive. If pushed to extremes, it can result in a desire to relegate other parties to the status of permanent opposition or a desire to revive the anachronistic dominant party system in which a ruling party claims to represent the will of the nation. 

We should not conflate electoral dominance of a party with the establishment of a dominant party system or a system of one-party dominance. Congress, like many other parties that led freedom struggles in various countries, was caught in this trap for some time and suffered from its negative consequences. Unlike the early years of Congress dominance when the opposition was in its incipient stage, the BJP today has to live with the reality of high party competition and multiple formats of party competition at the state level. Different parties dominate in different states and it is not easy to displace all of them. It is not possible nor desirable for the BJP to become like the People’s Action Party of Singapore or the African National Congress in South Africa. In this sense, the BJP cannot and need not hope to become a hegemonic party or hope to revive a dominant party system of the Congress type that India saw in the 1950s. 

BJP’s rise to dominance today is partly due to Modi’s popularity as was the dominance of the Congress in the 1950s due to Nehru’s popularity. During the Nehru era, Congress faced the question of who would become prime minister after Nehru. BJP too may have to face this question soon: What next for the BJP after Modi? 

 

 

The author is thankful to colleagues K K Kailash, G Koteswara Prasad, Diego Maiorano and Ronojoy Sen for their comments and suggestions.

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