The rise of the BJP as the dominant political party is the most important political phenomenon of the past quarter-century
From coalition success to single-leader party power
INDIA’s political landscape in the first quarter of the 21st century was defined by two dualisms. First, a visible divide has emerged in the political preferences of the predominantly Hindi-speaking India as compared to non-Hindi speaking regions of the subcontinent. Second, in the first decade of the 21st century the electorate showed a strong preference for multi-party coalitions, while in the second decade voter preference has been in favour of single-party governments, both at the Centre and in the states. Going forward, politics across the country is likely to revolve around these two tendencies. Will the electorate continue to be divided along linguistic and regional lines? Will it continue to opt for single-party governments with a dominant leader?
There is a third aspect to India’s political personality that has also changed over this past quarter-century. When Civil Society magazine was launched two decades ago, civil society organizations were not just politically active but had acquired an unprecedented degree of influence in policymaking. Political parties were forced to pay attention to the demands of civil society. There is no better example of this than the role played by the National Advisory Council of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that gave an unprecedented voice to representatives of civil society in the shaping of government policy.
As this period has progressed, dominant political parties have been able to reassert themselves in the policy space, sidelining civil society movements. Indeed, whatever civil society activism we see today seems to be dominated by the various political extensions of the dominant political organizations, namely, the RSS and the BJP, and in that sense raises doubts about whether such organizations do represent civil society or in fact are extensions of the ruling dispensation pretending to be representatives of civil society.
Consider each of these three propositions. There has been much talk of a North-South divide in political preferences of the electorate in the wake of recent assembly elections. The real divide is not North-South but in fact Hindi-non-Hindi, with Gujarat and Assam being exceptions. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the dominant political party is the most important political phenomenon of this past quarter-century. However, there are two aspects to the BJP’s rise that require to be spelt out.
First, the fundamental change in the political and social character of the BJP itself. The BJP that was led by Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a very different political phenomenon compared to the BJP led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. The Advani-Vajpayee BJP was dominated by upper castes, especially Brahmins and Banias, and the Punjabi Hindu refugees who had come to India from Pakistan after Partition held sway in Delhi.
Second, the rise of the Advani-Vajpayee BJP during the so-called ‘Era of Coalitions’, 1988-98, its participation in coalition governments, made that BJP a more ‘inclusive’ party. While the party remained loyal to its core ideology of Hindutva, interpreted by most political scientists as ‘Hindu majoritarianism’, it sought to present a more plural personality and successfully worked with a range of non-sectarian parties. Prime Minister Vajpayee became popular across the political spectrum, given his consensual style of political management.
By contrast, the Modi-Shah BJP that came to power in 2014 was not only more assertive in terms of pursuing the Hindutva agenda, but it also deliberately chose an ‘exclusionary’ model of political management rather than an inclusive model. Further, the Modi-Shah BJP saw a decline in the influence of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, with the retirement/ouster/death of leaders such as Murali Manohar Joshi, Ananth Kumar, Sushma Swaraj, Prakash Javadekar, Suresh Prabhu, Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parikkar and so on. The only Brahmins with important portfolios in the Modi government are Rajya Sabha members Nirmala Sitharaman and S. Jaishankar.
For all his popularity Modi has not been able to make a decisive dent in the non-Hindi states, barring his home state of Gujarat. From Punjab and Bihar in the north, to Bengal and Odisha in the east to the entire south, the BJP remains a marginal player. Even in Maharashtra its hold remains tenuous. Overcoming its ‘Hindu-Hindi’ personality remains a challenge. It is both its principal strength and its principal weakness. What this has meant is that there is no tall and politically significant leader from anywhere in the non-Hindi states within the BJP leadership pantheon. Hindi-speaking leaders dominate the BJP and will continue to do so for some time to come, given current trends.
RISE OF REGIONAL PARTIES
While this period has seen the gradual and continuing decline of the Indian National Congress, except for the brief hurrah of 2009, the persistence of what are called ‘regional’ parties in the non-Hindi states remains an important aspect of Indian politics in this period. Even a national party like the Congress has been able to make its presence felt in Karnataka and Telangana by elevating the role and profile of its ‘regional’ leaders. Interestingly, in Uttar Pradesh the dominant political personality is no longer the BJP’s national leadership but the ‘son of the soil’, Yogi Adityanath.
As the country moves towards the 2024 general election, this dualism in Indian politics — between Hindi-Hindutva nationalism and non-Hindi regionalism — will remain a significant element, defining the nature of the competition and its outcome. The formation of the I.N.D.I.A. coalition is, therefore, a significant event and it is at present the only platform that offers political space to political leaders from the non-Hindi regions. The I.N.D.I.A. coalition is, in many ways, a natural response to the dominance of the BJP. Every time a single party has dominated national politics coalitions have emerged to challenge that dominance.
In 1989 Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh declared that Indian politics had entered the ‘era of coalitions’. He proved prophetic. Between 1989 and 2014, for a quarter-century, the ruling political dispensation in New Delhi was an explicit or implicit coalition of multiple political entities. Three prime ministers, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, provided astute and consensual political leadership, holding together the coalitions they headed. While Vajpayee and Singh headed explicit coalitions, Rao headed an implicit coalition, which is what the Congress party certainly was after the deaths of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
With the political consolidation of the BJP under the highly centralized leadership style of Prime Minister Modi the polity has entered a new era of ‘single leader dominance’. Even regional political parties function in the manner in which the BJP under Modi does, that is, with a highly centralized leadership. If Modi dominates the BJP, Mamata Banerjee dominates the Trinamool Congress, M.K. Stalin controls the DMK, K. Chandrashekar Rao the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, Naveen Patnaik the Biju Janata Dal, and so on.
NEED FOR CONSENSUS
With the centralization of political control within most political parties, Indian democracy has become weaker. Indeed, single-party dominance is a characteristic of most non-democratic societies. Most mature democracies are governed by coalitions that are forced to pursue consensual politics and policymaking. Given this fact, Indian democracy has generally become weaker over the past decade as political coalitions have been replaced by parties with centralized leadership.
Not surprisingly, though, the one national party that is once again moving in the direction of consensual leadership is the Congress party. Its more recent experiment with empowering provincial leaders has so far met with mixed results. In Karnataka and Telangana, it helped the Congress return to power. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the strategy failed to deliver success.
If the BJP does not perform well in 2024, provincial leadership within the party may once again assert itself against central leaders. Thus a Yogi Adityanath, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, B.S. Yediyurappa, Vasundhara Raje and such like may assert themselves against the Modi-Shah-Nadda triumvirate.
This constant jostling between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in Indian politics will remain a natural characteristic of democratic politics in a diverse and plural polity. No single political force can hope to retain its sway across the country for all time. This remains the key strength of Indian democracy.
As the electorate approaches the 2024 general election, the BJP and its enthusiasts are putting forward the thesis that the country requires a government run by a single party with adequate parliamentary majority to enable it to sail through the choppy waters of domestic and external uncertainties and challenges. This is a self-serving argument of the ruling party.
The fact is that coalition governments have performed as well as any in managing crises and challenges to national security and stability. In fact, the best years for independent India in terms of economic development, poverty reduction and global standing have been the ‘coalition era’ years of 1991-2014. Under three consensual prime ministers, India weathered many storms, economic and geopolitical, and emerged as a major power. If the current decade of one-leader dominance is replaced by an era of coalitions, it will do Indian democracy and the economy no harm. It may well do some good.
Sanjaya Baru is a writer and Distinguished Fellow at the United Service Institution of India. He was media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.