Understanding the Nature of Party Competition and Politics of Majoritarianism

Through its six years in office, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has become a “Modi regime.” This new regime is set to change the characteristics of India’s competitive politics such as structure of party competition and nature of agenda, through the shifting of the middle ground and forging a new social coalition behind it. But above all, through the application of populism and authoritarianism, the most crucial change that the new regime is bringing about is the politics of majoritarianism and that is, more than anything, changing and shrinking democratic politics. 

After more than one year into its second term, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be throwing up an analytical challenge. Beyond cycles of electoral victories and defeats in representative democracies, what else does the rule of BJP signify?1 If the BJP were to be electorally replaced, will the qualitative changes it has brought about be similarly replaced? Does this situation qualify for being described as a new political system?2

Following two handsome victories in succession, dominance of the BJP is not only visible but palpable and it is necessary to make sense of it. Early on, following its victory in Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly, I had suggested that this was the beginning of a ‘second dominant party system’ (Palshikar 2017). Notwithstanding its losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, its second consecutive victory in parliamentary elections of 2019—with better performance than in 2014—should alert any casual observer of Indian politics to the electoral dominance the party is likely to exercise in coming years. But does it also indicate something more than mere electoral success? 

Even before the BJP’s 2019 victory, I had further argued that BJP was in the process of shaping a new political culture and craft a new hegemony (Palshikar 2019). Indeed, the BJP leadership itself does mention the emergence of “new” India, though it has not systematically explained its ingredients. But the regime inaugurated in 2014 has been bringing to the forefront characteristics that were not so prominent earlier and as a result, the “Modi regime” has certainly indicated that India’s politics will have substantially altered character in the near future. This argument has been partially anticipated in a shorter piece I wrote about India’s ‘new republic’ (Palshikar 2020) though the term republic may appear somewhat cruelly amusing to characterise the present moment.3 
In order to understand what exactly is happening to Indian political system—something where some trends are stabilising but the actual shape is still under flux—and what direction it would take during next couple of decades, this short essay will briefly look at five dimensions of the changes that pertain to two axes: characteristics and character of the polity. Each of the following points represents the simultaneous transformation in characteristics of competitive politics and the character of democratic politics in the country. 

Nature of Party Competition 

The first and most primary question is: Has the nature of party political competition changed? Since the late 1980s, India entered into an era of multiparty coalitions. These coalitions were also characterised by a critical role played by state parties and made the larger parties (such as Congress, initially Janata Dal and subsequently BJP) dependent on their ability to accommodate the smaller and state parties. In 2014, this abruptly came to an end. Scholars have pointed out the continued potential of state parties (Kailash 2014; Tillin 2015), nevertheless the BJP has systematically reduced its dependence on state parties while state parties like BJD, TRS, TDP, and even the BSP, have mostly confined themselves at state level and to politics of survival. In many states, instead of large, statewide parties, smaller, localised or single-caste parties are becoming critical and effectively hurting the statewide parties, thus making room for the BJP. The Congress may look upon itself as the chief ‘all-India’ opposition, but it is increasingly becoming only a multistate party rather than all-India in reach and effect and is also losing its capacity to bring together many other parties on a common non-BJP platform. So, besides BJP’s second consecutive victory and despite limitations of that victory as pointed out by Ziegfeld4 (2020) the dominance of the BJP in electoral terms seems rather undeniable. The two clean majorities of the BJP besides its entry into new territories like Haryana, Assam or Maharashtra, a monolithic hold over UP and its rise both in Bihar and Odisha along with a big push in West Bengal all point to an electoral dominance that India’s politics had almost forgotten in past 25 years. Moreover, the failure of the United Progressive Alliance to keep allies and to further expand a non-BJP front is as much a function of BJP’s increasing dominance as it is a result of political incapacities of the opposition parties. 

Agenda Setting: It is not unnatural for the ruling party to be able to set the terms of political debate in the country. However, the opposition is routinely expected to intervene and thus, the agenda of political debates constitutes the different shades and issues that the system generally incorporates. Experience of the last six years of BJP rule however indicates that the agenda is almost entirely set by the ruling party at the centre. It could be argued that incompetence of the Congress leadership is responsible for this state of affairs. While the congress indeed is in bad shape, its limited attempts to change the course of political debate have consistently failed to occupy the centre stage. Instead, from ghar wapsi in its initial years of rule to ‘love jihad’ more recently, the BJP has been able to force the terms of the debate. While the media has been generally complicit in this, the political skills of issue management displayed by the BJP should not be ignored. During the aftermath of demonetisation, the mainstream media did awaken to the immediate hardships and long-term hazards; during the lockdown, many sections of the media did realise the cruelty of the situation that was forced on the vast numbers of migrant workers. But in case of both these instances, the government found ways to twist the debates or simply displace the issues from public gaze. 

On the other hand, agenda setting also connects to systematic prioritisation of the party’s ideological programmes through government policies. In the first term of the government, amid noises over demonetisation and (through it) a brutally forced digitisation strategy that the government enforced in the economic arena, the overall strategy was to give leeway to the cultural preferences of the party’s Hindutva agenda. This was done through orchestrated vigilantism that was never adequately handled legally by the government and at the same time many states went ahead with more stringent laws against cow slaughter. In its second term, similarly, the emphasis has been on ideological issues central to Hindutva: dismantling the autonomy provisions for Kashmir, criminalising triple talaq and through the issue of ‘love jihad’ restricting the right to conversion. So, the agenda setting is not merely a publicity ploy or clever handling of how issues are presented in the public arena, it is also a determined effort to prioritise those policy arenas that have traditionally generated heated debates, have stigmatised minorities and provoked the deep-seated prejudices of the majority community. 

This astonishing ability of the BJP to set the agenda in not just the realm of political economy but also in the realm of religiosity, culture and morality can be explained by two further elements that mark the new polity being constructed by the BJP. 

Shifting the Middle

All along the Ayodhya agitation, the central aim of the BJP was to move the ‘middle ground’ (Palshikar 2004) of normative universe in the country. This involved changing the boundaries of the fringe, that is, to convert the fringe into the middle. Retrospectively, we need to recognise that that objective was successfully achieved. While the process began in the late eighties, received momentum through the rath yatra and got notorious popularity when the Babri mosque was demolished, the onward march of that process became faster after the much more violent politics that unfolded in Gujarat in 2002. In its ability to weather the storm over rajadharma and retain Modi as chief minister, the BJP signalled that at least for its voters, a new normativity was acceptable. That normativity was initially wrapped in the logic of the development model—a model that implicitly argued that growth can be prioritised by the collective act of not bothering for deeper values of tolerance, coexistence, etc. 

When Modi campaigned through the length and breadth of India during 2013-14, he was greeted as a leader who would/could bring development and in that enthusiastic welcome, the awkward questions over 2002 were willingly drowned by large sections–this was an unmistakable sign, not of forgiveness, nor of repositioning of the leader but of the changed ‘middle ground.’ Much before 2014, many parties (JDU, TMC, TDP, BJD, AIADMK) had indicated that they did not mind operating within the new normative universe rather than oppose it. Vajpayee was their fig leaf then. But Vajpayee’s limitations in delaying the shaping of the new middle ground was known to them; in that sense, the parties which went ahead with their alliance with the BJP were willing to accept this changed reality. 

The current moment is special in spite of this overall background because of the smoothness with which the ideological transformation is underway. This transformation is happening at multiple levels—economists and technocrats turning a blind eye to the ugliness of the transformation, BJP cadres correctly reading the meaning of its victory, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh surging ahead without making noise, the ‘Hindutva fringe’ swiftly being turned into a new normal, the media developing cold feet on the anti-democratic dimension of the change, institutions like bureaucracy and judiciary ducking the issue of constitutional morality, different sections of Hindu society getting attracted to the BJP and above all, the opposition being clueless about the path of contestation. In fact, the opposition is so clueless that everyone suddenly seems to have begun wearing their religiosity on their shirtsleeves because the distinction between religiosity and nationalism has vanished; the fear of being branded anti-national haunts the entire democratic enterprise and public display of religiosity is understood as democratic expression. In this sense, the BJP is emerging as a hegemonic force.

Broad Social Coalition 

This hegemony originated in the expansion of its electoral base. In spite of the seemingly ‘limited’ share of vote (although 38% in a multiparty competition is certainly impressive), the composition of these voters is something notable. Survey data shows that while there is internal variation in the extent of support from different communities and classes, the vote in favour of the BJP comes very close to the ‘umbrella’ nature that the congress was famous for. Of course, being a Hindu umbrella, by definition, the BJP’s social umbrella does not include Muslims, but otherwise, it covers most other social groups. The upper castes and OBCs have contributed the greatest to the victories but that is nothing new, because even in the 1990s, this was precisely the social coalition that the BJP sought to build as its core. Since then, it has added intermediate communities, Dalits and Adivasis in fair numbers to rob its opponents of any substantial base in most states (for the social base of the BJP in 2014 and 2019, see Chhibber and Verma 2019; Suri 2019). 

Clearly, all the BJP voters are unlikely to be strong believers in its core project of building a new India–or at least, they may not have clarity as to what that project is. But the confidence that the BJP built among cross sections of the society about its ability to pursue a new and more profitable path brought it back to power in 2019 with an additional 8% vote. The voter base of the BJP is a significant factor precisely because there is a diversity of factors that attract the voters toward the party. Three such factors have been noted: the welfare schemes of the BJP government (Deshpande et al 2019), the ‘Modi factor' (Shastri 2019), and the post-Pulwama surgical strikes (Lokniti Team 2019).  Two key points emerge from these additional factors contributing to the expansion of BJP vote: first, while these three factors contributed to the expansion of pro-BJP voters, they implicitly connect with the structuring of a new hegemony that is characterised by a strong state (that is, consolidation of state capacity), strong leadership and strong nation. Second, with such a broad social coalition behind the BJP, the space for non-BJP parties to build a viable electoral base shrinks both ideologically and socially while the opportunity for the BJP to convert more and more sections to its ideological position keeps expanding. 

Change of Character

A large body of scholars seems to be in agreement that BJP’s rule has ushered in more fundamental changes in the manner in which democracy functions and is understood. Besides Jaffrelot-Verniers mentioned above, there have been discussions about the growing distance between India’s electoral democracy and liberal democracy (Varshney 2019), India’s transformation into an “ethnic democracy” (Adeney 2020) and rise of “Hindutva constitutionalism” (Ahmed 2020). What do these changes actually mean? The core change being effected by the Modi regime might be located in the conjunction of a triad—majoritarianism, populism and authoritarianism.5  

While many observers have not got used to using the framework of majoritarianism, a couple of points need to be made. First, this regime hinges on majoritarianism and that is the link which binds it with the many segments of Hindutva thinking and politics. While majoritarianism6 is not confined to Hindutva majoritarianism alone, all other versions have been either localised or temporally limited in comparison to the almost century-old project of establishing Hindutva majoritarianism as the pervasive logic and public morality of Indian society. The present regime has been a critical moment in realising that. Second, while majoritarianism has been in considerable supply in terms of rhetoric, prejudice and “othering,” the present moment makes majoritarianism far more politically potent and durable because multiple anxieties have been skilfully appropriated in order to create newer audiences and loyalists for the majoritarian project. As the economic crisis aggravated by mishandling of the pandemic assumes more and more serious proportion, majoritarian politics has been employed more and more vociferously and is being received enthusiastically. Thus, majoritarianism is the mainstay of the regime; it is equally the legitimating logic for the regime. By imposing it on Indian polity, the BJP has been near-successful in forcing all non-BJP parties to operate within that same framework. 

When the BJP came to power, another node around which the change was explained was the framework of populism. Again, this too has an element of persuasiveness in view of the global acceptance that populist politics has “arrived.” Ajay Gudavarthy has perhaps been the most vocal proponent of this view in India’s context (Gudavarthy 2018), though as Partha Chatterjee (2019) points out, it actually takes something more than populism in the context of the Modi regime and its success—majoritarianism. There is of course no doubt that the Modi regime excels in employing every aspect of populist politics in a very systematic manner and therefore, it comes very close to making Indian politics take a populist shape. The demagoguery, the clever ‘Harvard vs Hard Work’ anti-elitism, the assiduous cultivation of an ascetic image and personification of authority, are all undeniable elements of populism. So, if one compares India’s populists—past and present (Indira Gandhi at the all-India level to regional populists such as Bal Thackeray, N T Rama Rao and so on), Modi would win hands down as the master of the art of populist politics. But two notes of caution are required here. One is to determine whether its populism or majoritarianism of the current regime that is more crucial to its objectives, and second, if populism without majoritarianism would have had similar debilitating effects that India’s democracy faces. Therefore, the raison d'être of the regime needs to be located in majoritarian worldview of what ‘we’ are/were/shall be/should be and populism remains its useful apparatus.

In a similar manner, another political apparatus of the regime which is in consonance with both majoritarianism and populism is the overall increase in the tendency to adopt an authoritarian approach to routine politics and collective mobilisations alike. This has been evident in the handling of all opposition actions. The use of nationalist rhetoric to legitimise repressive measures by law and order agencies is the key to understanding the authoritarian turn. This has been widely commented upon and chronicled and Manor8 (2020, in this section itself) goes into considerable details about this, describing it as “competitive authoritarianism.” As Yadav puts it, the point is not about discontinuity of electoral politics but the limitations on that politics both in terms of structures and processes (Yadav 2020: 28-29).

Concluding Remarks

With increasing recourse to “legal” measures for implementing the authoritarian agenda, the question that remains to be answered is this: if the regime is moving toward authoritarianism, is the discussion of a system somewhat odd and irrelevant? 

This requires two related responses. One is that the current regime requires repression and as such, repression (and consequent shrinking of democracy) is the core character of the new system that the regime seeks to bring about. The necessity of repression arises from the fact that the majoritarian project is not yet fully achieved and the cultural plurality of India is not yet adequately tamed. Until that happens—and that may take almost a decade in the least—majoritarian politics will require a string of strategies such as populism, authoritarianism, etc, in order to suppress all opposition and ultimately force the political opponents to adopt the framework of majoritarianism. Second, even without authoritarianism, the project of majoritarian politics and governance does incorporate elements that shrink the scope of democracy. In fact, this is precisely why the “theoretical” distinction between liberal and illiberal democracy is not very relevant in India’s context. Once the majoritarian project settles down, democracy would have adopted a different meaning altogether, and therefore, a new system would have come into being. As such, the current use of repression and the contempt of “liberal” apparatus are not very strange nor inconsistent with the ongoing politics of changing the “system.”



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