Exploring the Centralisation of Power and the Rise of a New Political System

The Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore held a virtual roundtable on 27 May 2020, a year after India’s 2019 general election. The purpose of the roundtable was to discuss the medium-term implications of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory on India’s political system. In particular, a key question that we posed to the participants was whether India is living through a phase akin to that of the 1950s and 1960s—a phase when the Congress party exercised an overwhelming dominance over India’s politics,  the “Congress system,” as Rajni Kothari (1964) put it. Is a “BJP system” in place in post-2014 India? The collection of articles in this section looks at the kind of system that has come into being since the 2014 elections. In this introduction, we briefly highlight some of the themes that the authors analyse in their essays. 

A point of consensus—which emerged during the roundtable as well as in the articles in this collection—is that there is little resemblance, besides a superficial one, between the Congress and the BJP system. For Kothari, politics in the first decades after independence was structured around a “party of consensus” (the Congress) and “parties of pressure” (opposition), at the margins of the political system. The latter, rather than constituting a real alternative to the ruling party, influenced governance through pressure on like-minded factions within the party of consensus. Clearly, the BJP can hardly be seen as “a party of consensus,” at least in Kothari’s sense, and opposition parties can hardly hope to influence governance through the BJP. In fact, the BJP is much less structured around factions, compared to the Congress of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, under Narendra Modi’s leadership, factions within the party seem to have been marginalised, in favour of an (apparently) monolithic BJP.  While the Congress was characterised by internal pluralism and democratic competition, Modi’s BJP is still dominated by the upper castes and subject to the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which cannot be characterised as a democratic organisation. In short, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress and Modi’s BJP are two different beasts, even though they both came to exercise effective dominance over India’s political system.

A second point of near consensus that emerged from the roundtable was, as Suhas Palshikar puts it in his essay, that the BJP has achieved “undeniable” electoral dominance. As K C Suri argues, the depth and breadth of the BJP’s electoral performance since 2014 is truly remarkable, even though, as James Manor and Neelanjan Sircar note, the BJP is much less effective at winning in the states,  unlike Nehru’s Congress. The grand old party, however, is in a rather bad shape and, along with most other opposition parties, is simply unable to pose a challenge to the BJP or constitute a credible national alternative or even set the agenda, as Suri and Palshikar observe.

The dominance of the BJP, however, is deeper than its electoral manifestation. Palshikar notes that the BJP, building on processes that have been going on since the 1980s, has been able to become hegemonic—a term that implies a deep cultural consensus across a large portion of India’s society on what the party stands for. Rahul Verma and Asim Ali concur when they argue that “the ideological moorings of India’s median voter today seem to be much closer to the ideological position of the BJP” than they used to be a couple of decades ago. 

This brings us to one of the pillars of the new political system emerged after the 2014 elections: its markedly majoritarian ethos. In fact, Modi’s BJP represents the apex of a long-term process of progressive “mainstreaming” of the set of ideas, which form the core of the Hindutva project. This is a process analysed particularly by Palshikar and Verma and Ali in their essays. Both papers note that the dominance of Modi’s BJP—and its broad and apparently rock-solid popularity—is the result of a historical process that converted “the fringe into the middle” ground of Indian politics (Palshikar). In 1979, the Janata Party broke up, at least officially, because it was deemed unacceptable for a ruling party to have members that belonged to the RSS. Today, the prime minister of the country is a former RSS pracharak. More importantly, the systematic implementation of the RSS agenda—including issues that seemed unacceptable only a few years ago, like starting the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status or the amendment of the citizenship act—trigger some resistance, but it is by and large welcomed by a very large section of the electorate and most political parties. In this sense, the dominance of Modi’s BJP, despite its inability to systematically win at the state level, might be deeper than what electoral analyses suggest. Furthermore, Modi did not bring about these changes in India’s society. Rather, on the one hand, they form the basis for his success; on the other hand, Modi “quickened the pace of history” (Verma and Ali), radicalising and cementing this medium-term realignment of India’s political landscape.

The growing acceptability of Hindu majoritarianism is also linked to another dimension of the BJP’s dominance—the broadening social base of the party. This is something that reminds us of the Congress party of the 1950s and 1960s, when it could count on the votes of virtually all sections of India’s society. Similarly, the BJP has since the 1990s, significantly broadened its social support base. Like the Congress, it has become an umbrella organisation—a “Hindu umbrella” in Palshikar’s words. From its core among upper class/upper caste, urban Hindus, the BJP has been able to gradually expand its reach to rural areas and to large sections of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) (Sircar). This consolidation of the Hindu vote has been crucial to the establishment of the party’s dominance, although, as we will see below, it is also a potential source of fragility of such dominance. 

The gradual process of Hinduisation of the Indian state necessitated some degree of repression, which has become particularly evident under the Modi regime. In fact, Manor explicitly argues that “India is no longer a liberal democracy.” It is not even an “illiberal democracy” anymore, as this would simply signal a change in degree, but not in kind. Rather, Manor argues, the term that best captures India’s regime is “competitive authoritarianism,” a system that keeps the formal democratic institutions intact, but decisively tilts the playing field in favour of the incumbent. It does so mainly through repression, and the erosion and penetration of institutions. Furthermore, in the case of Modi’s India, the process of erosion of liberal democracy has been accompanied by a marked centralisation of power in the hands of the Prime Minister—a process also at the centre of Sircar’s analysis. 

This centralisation of power, besides undermining institutions, has two important consequences that are analysed by Sircar. First, it directs credit for economic benefits—particularly related to “welfarism,” a crucial component of Modi’s political strategy—towards the prime minister, who also employs a wide range of communication tools to emphasise his own (rather than his government’s or party’s) contribution to economic prosperity. Ronojoy Sen’s essay digs into Modi’s use of traditional media and shows how integral these tools are for the construction of  Modi’s personas—“a cult,” in Manor’s words. Indeed, Sen analyses the construction of the image of the prime minister from a variety of points of views—from his radio broadcast to his transformation into a “fashion icon”—which all signal the Modi-centric communication strategy of the government, which in turn sustains the BJP’s dominance at the national level and its less impressive performance at the state level (Sircar). 

Second, chief ministers—including and especially BJP ones—who built their reputation on the delivery of public goods and welfare, would have to find alternative sources of political legitimacy if over-centralisation of social policy implementation continues. Sircar analyses the case of Madhya Pradesh, where a welfarist chief minister has been outbid by an even more welfarist Prime Minister. This might signal that future chief ministers might resort to ethnic identity as a way to create their own independent base of support. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, might be a prime example of what is to come if the BJP-dominated system will endure.

A final point worth emphasising is the endurance of the BJP system. The essays in this collection point at three sources of fragility. First, notwithstanding the deeper ideological realignment noted by Palshikar and Verma and Ali, the electoral success of the post-2014 BJP depends to a significant extent on the popularity of Modi. It is worth reminding that just a relatively small drop in the party’s vote share would result in the inability of the BJP to form a government of its own—a crucial component of its dominance. Will the BJP be able to sustain its dominance after Modi? Manor points out that with no clear successor in line—also thanks to the systematic undermining of alternative sources of power within the BJP by the Prime Minister—the competitive authoritarian system put in place by Modi might just collapse and allow for a phase of “political regeneration.” A second, and connected, source of fragility of the BJP system might come from the BJP itself. As noted, among others, by Suri, the expanded social base of the party will, sooner or later, trigger demands by newly included groups—OBCs, SCs and STs—for political representation within the party leadership, still heavily dominated by the upper castes. How this process will unfold is unclear at the moment, but the deinstitutionalisation within the BJP might result in the fragmentation of the party—similar to what happened to the post-Indira Gandhi’s Congress. Third, Palshikar and Manor note that, despite the fast progress towards the construction of an ethnic state, India’s complex social fabric has not been tamed yet. Indian voters have multiple identities to which they can resort for political mobilisation and this diversity might well trigger a phase of political regeneration. However, as pointed out by Verma and Ali, Modi’s popularity must be situated within the “current national zeitgeist,” which in turn is part of a process of political realignment that promotes Hindu majoritarianism. The BJP’s dominance might be in peril after Modi, but the ideological soil that allowed it to come into being is here to stay. As they conclude, it is “a long haul before a new dawn.”  



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