Challenges and opportunities for the BJP under Nadda
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has got a new President in Jagat Prasad Nadda. What are his challenges and opportunities? Answers to these questions need to be preceded by a little background.
If one goes by India’s “Party-systems” since independence, it becomes obvious that the Prime Minister belonging to the ruling party matters more than its President. In fact, when Congress was the dominant party, something that the BJP is in today’s polity, the Prime Minister also happened to be the party president. This trend changed, as far as the Congress was concerned, when Manmohan Singh was the prime Minister in between 2004 and 2014. But then, the Congress, though it had the Prime Minister, was not the dominant party. It headed a coalition, in which it was the largest but on its own it did not have the majority, unlike the BJP in NDA 2 (2014-19) and NDA 3(2019 onwards). With regard to the BJP during NDA 1 (1998-2004), even though it did not have the majority, the Prime Minister of the day, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was much more powerful than the BJP presidents of the time such as Bangaru Laxman, Venkaiyah Naidu and Jana Krishnamurthy. And now that Narendra Modi, India’s most popular leader of the day, is the Prime Minister, one can only guess how much freedom Nadda will have as the BJP President. But if Nadda has the support and confidence of Modi, which one presumes to be the case, then he can do and achieve a lot.
Nadda heads the party a time when despite its predominance and stupendous victory in the 2019 general elections, the BJP is losing not only the perception-battles but also some states. It has already lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra (though technically it had won the state but lost power because of the betrayal of an important ally) and Jharkhand. It could not capture Delhi in the Assembly elections last fortnight. But then, these loses are not insurmountable, as the BJP has retained its popular vote base in all these states. In fact, in some of them, such as in Delhi, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, its vote share increased.
A recent analytical report on India’s party system by the American think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests(I am going to quote it liberally in the following paragraphs) that “the BJP, in 2019, earned 37.4 percent of the all-India vote and won 303 seats, the best results for any party since 1989 and 1984, respectively. The composition of the BJP’s support base also points to intriguing trends. Although the BJP’s seat tally from the Hindi belt dipped slightly—the eight states mentioned earlier still accounted for 66 percent of the BJP’s overall tally in 2019—the party suffered only modest attrition in terms of its seat share. In fact, in many states across the country, the BJP’s vote share actually rose to new levels. In thirteen states and union territories—stretching from Chandigarh to Karnataka—the BJP’s vote share surged past 50 percent.”
Unlike in the past, the BJP is now a force in North-East, East and South. Beyond geography, the BJP has also increased its support from nearly all Hindu caste groups. From upper castes to OBCs to Dalits and tribals, the BJP’s vote share increased from its 2014 level—according to the 2019 National Election Study conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Although the party has traditionally performed well in more urban areas, in 2019 (as in 2014) it dominated across settlement types. In fact, in 2019 the BJP made its biggest gains in rural areas. Similarly, the party increased its vote share across social classes, with the share of poor voters backing the BJP increasing the largest (from 24 to 36 percent in five years).
Organisationally speaking Nadda heads a party which has the country’s most charismatic leader in Prime Minister Modi and a well-built and well-oiled BJP from national to booth-levels, for which credit goes to his predecessor and current Home Minister Amit Shah. Furthermore, the BJP owns a first-mover advantage insofar as integrating technology with campaigning is concerned. It has successfully harnessed digital technology from Facebook to SMS to WhatsApp to build cohesion among its workers, between voters, and between workers and voters. BJP has enormous financial advantage over other parties in the country. Data on the income of India’s major political parties in 2017–2018 compiled and analyzed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a good governance watchdog, show that the BJP’s income was twice the combined income of the other six major parties. Based on parties’ income tax returns from fiscal year 2018, the Congress raised around 2 billion rupees in donations, compared to a whopping 10 billion rupees for the ruling BJP. A report issued by the Delhi-based Center for Media Studies (CMS) found that nearly 600 billion rupees were spent on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and concurrent assembly polls, roughly doubling the amount spent in 2014. While any assessment of actual (as opposed to disclosed) expenditures requires estimation (given the opacity of electoral spending), the report concludes that candidates spent, on average, about four times more than the amount capped by law. The BJP accounted for the bulk of the increase in spending, comprising around 45 percent of all election expenditures, compared to the Congress’s 15–20 percent.
However, I have some problem in identifying the ideology of the BJP as a political party, though under Modi it has exhibited some clarity in what the party wants to do (not what it is). The general perception is that the BJP is a “Conservative Party”. Conventionally speaking, there are four essential features of a typical conservative party as far as its ideological commitments are concerned: limitations on the governmental power, particularly in domestic matters; faith in the country’s traditions, particularly in matters pertaining to morality or ethics; a deep sense of nationalism; and fervent opposition to socialism, particularly its extreme version of communism.
How does the BJP score on all these attributes? It passes on the first three points—its emphasis on “integral humanism” does not jell well with an all powerful government (though some may legitimately challenge this feature given the way the government under Modi functions); its “Hindutva” presupposes faith in the country’s culture and civilisational legacies; its commitment to nationalism has been never in doubt, given its positions on Kashmir and various security issues.
However, it is on the aspect of socialism/communism that the BJP presents a confused picture. Notwithstanding its perceived right-of the centre image, it is perhaps ignored that the BJP, going by its constitution, strives for the so-called Gandhian Socialism, a branch of socialism based on theories of Mahatma Gandhi. I doubt whether Gandhi ever used the word socialism in popularising his thoughts, be it” Hind Swaraj” or “Home Rule”. That is why one wonders how and why the BJP used the word socialism, particularly when Gandhi talked of decentralisation of political and economic power. In fact, socialism is the very anti-thesis of the first criterion of a conservative party that the BJP wants to be. Secondly, in this 21st century, does the BJP have a sceptical approach towards technology and large scale industrialisation, often associated with Gandhism, though there are many Gandhian scholars who view such an interpretation is a superficial way of looking at the thoughts of the Father of the Nation?
The point that I am making, and there are quite a few political observers like me, is that the BJP seems to be a confused party as to where exactly it stands. I doubt whether there will be many among the present day leaders of the Party who believe in the term “Gandhian Socialism. It is like asking the Congress members to wear Khadi, shun acquiring property and giving up drinking alcohol as per the norms prescribed by the Congress constitution. But then, no BJP leader, if I am not wrong, has ever questioned the party’s socialist commitment. And that, in turn, could be attributed to the fact that more often than not the BJP leaders, Modi included, display a streak of inferiority complex in them; they are not confident of their strength and genuine supporters and will go to any extent of earning a few good words from their political enemies, most of whom are of the left of the centre thoughts—ranging from the Congress to Maoists.
I have invariably argued in the past, hardly there is any substantial difference on the economic policies between the BJP (or for that matter RSS) and the Left/Liberals. Both want the “state” to be the giver of freebies and subsidies. Both are against opening up the country’s economy in true sense of the term. Both are real enemies of free trade, believing in the theory that it is India’s right to have access in all other countries for its goods, but there is no scope for any reciprocity. Even on some social issues like reservations in education and jobs, that the unthinking and limitless reservations do more harm than good to the people for whom it is meant do not impress the BJP or the Modi government. The country needs quality man-power like never before; but the Modi government or the BJP seems least bothered about the dangers in this regard.
The BJP is ambivalent about free-markets, because it confuses pro-market policies with pro-business policies. In fact, if you do not believe in giving few select businessmen the monopoly over things, something the BJP pronounces publicly, the best way to do so is strengthening the market forces and lessening the role of the government. But in reality, the BJP has now surpassed even Communists in blocking the paths of liberalisation.
I will like to quote here a Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom here: “Aspiration is the engine of progress. Countries rise when they allow their people to rise. In this world where brains matter more, where technologies shape our lives, where no-one is owed a living …the most powerful natural resource we have is our people. Not just the scientists, the entrepreneurs, the engineers … not just the teachers, the parents, the nurses … but all our people: including the poorest, those who’ve never had a job, never had a chance, never had hope. That’s why the mission for this government is to build an aspiration nation … to unleash and unlock the promise in all our people. And for us Conservatives, this is not just an economic mission—it’s also a moral one. It’s not just about growth and GDP…it’s what’s always made our hearts beat faster—aspiration; people rising from the bottom to the top. Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going”.
The above is the part of the much lauded speech that former British prime minister Cameroon had delivered a few years ago. I think it is high time the BJP leaders started similarly focussing on the “aspiration” of Indian people. As Cameroon said, in politics, conservatism does not mean anti-modernism and backward looking. The BJP needs to realise this lesson. They have to present before the Indians an action plan and convince them why they should vote for it. But in devising this action plan, they must encourage a series of internal debates and unconventional ideas involving as many party leaders, both at the central and state levels, as possible. One is told that when the BJP, or for that matter its earlier incarnation of Jan Sangh, was small, it was more open to internal debate. Not only that trait has now vanished, many rigidities also have set in, particularly since the 1990s when the BJP assumed power at the Centre and in more States.
One sincerely hopes that BJP’s new President Nadda will revive the tradition of internal debate and reconsider party’s recent positions on many burning issues facing the country in light of new facts and circumstances.
It is true that in terms of numbers, Nadda’s BJP is India’s largest political outfit. But, one hopes that it will not meet the fate of the Congress, which was also once India’s largest and most dominant. The decline of the Congress may have begun with the advent of the “coalition-era” in 1990s, particularly at the central level. Earlier, collation-experiments at the Centre had proved short-lived. But then, enough attention, perhaps, is not being given to the fact that the coalition-era at the Centre was a logical consequence of the rise and success of state-level or other parties in various states where Congress lost power by and by.
If one goes by the Indian politics during the days of the Congress-dominance, then two features were particularly striking. One was that the dominant party, that is the Congress, was not only in power at the Centre but also in majority of the states of the country. I think, under Narendra Modi, the BJP has the same status now. The second distinctive feature of the one party-dominance, which I think is more important, was that the Congress was the principal pole in Indian politics that determined the national agenda while other parties were just reactive. Even during the earlier days of the coalition-era, all other non-Congress parties were joining hands to form a pole that could resist or withstand the Congress power. Individually, none of the non-Congress parties was strong enough, but united they were of some consequence. The same is the case today, with the BJP setting the national agenda. In other words, in all likelihood Indian polity is going to witness a broad non-BJP front launching a combined challenge to BJP electorally or otherwise.
All this indicates the external characteristics of the dominant party-system. Equally important, however, are the internal characteristics. And here again, the Congress-experiment throws some light. As the dominant party, the Congress experienced two phases – one before Indira Gandhi came to the scene, another under and after her. In the pre-Indira days, the Congress was no doubt the principal pole in Indian polity; but it was democratic enough to allow strong regional Congress leaders who preferred to work in their respective states as chief ministers, ministers or party presidents. In fact, some of them guided the central leadership. The point to note here is that they were leaders on the basis of their own strength and the party as a whole depended on them. In their day-to-day functioning, they were almost autonomous, notwithstanding the facts that at the Centre there were towering leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, G B Pant and Moraji Desai. Secondly, even at the central level, the Prime Minister of the day respected, more or less, the principle of collective leadership both at the cabinet (council of ministers) and party levels.
Things underwent big changes under Indira Gandhi. In fact, it can be said in retrospect that it is these changes under Indira Gandhi that sowed the seeds of decline of the Congress in the long run. Under Indira Gandhi, regional strongmen of the Congress were systematically decimated. Under Indira Gandhi, the distinction between the central government and the party got virtually blurred. In other words, now we had one supreme leader of the Congress who was the principal vote-catcher of the party all over the country, who alone decided who would be Chief Ministers of the states where the party won elections, who alone selected the central ministers, and who alone set the agenda of both the government and party. These internal features of the Congress seem to have been legitimised or institutionalised in the Congress party and there is no likelihood of any change as long as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi remain in charge. But then it will be wrong to blame Sonia and Rahul because it is they who can keep the Congress in tact today and it is they who can fetch some votes.
Against this background, let us look at a BJP under Modi. It is the early days, but then there is an unmistakable impression that is gaining ground all over that Modi is fast emulating Indira Gandhi. In her days of glory, Indira Gandhi was simply unchallengeable. Modi seems to be in a similar situation today. It is highly unlikely that Nadda as the BJP President will ever say a thing that is unpalatable to Modi. And like Indira Gandhi, Modi seems to be the principal vote-catcher of the party in most parts of the country.
But then, if the trends that got institutionalised in the Congress party under Indira proved subsequently to be the factors of its decline, will the same happen to the BJP sooner or later? In my considered view, there are some differences between a Congress under Indira Gandhi and the BJP under Modi. On a closer scrutiny, the Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, is too formidable an organisation to allow Modi a completely free run. I am not one of those who buy the argument that it is the RSS which dictates everything to the BJP-government, but it has to be admitted that the latter cannot ignore the sentiments of the former beyond a point. All told, the RSS, which has the real all-India network in providing the social service, provides the foot soldiers to the BJP during elections.
Secondly, though Modi is undoubtedly the tallest leader of the BJP today, the fact still remains that there are at least some regional chieftains in states like Maharashtra, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan who can win elections on their own. It is in Modi’s interest and in interest of Nadda that they not only take these regional chieftains but also promote them. After all, India is a federation of states and powerful BJP Chief Ministers in states will make Modi a formidable Prime Minister. A formidable Prime Minister is not the one who centralises all the power in him or her but is the one who has formidable party and ministerial colleagues.
It is being increasingly realised that Modi has a severe paucity of talents not only in his Council of Ministers but also within the party. I think there are a good number of BJP MPs who deserve to be ministers and a number of ministers who have earned their positions not because of their talents but because of extraneous considerations such as personal loyalty, caste, creed and gender. It is difficult to understand why Modi, whom many voted because he rose above regional, casteist and religious slogans during the electioneering, goes by the “identity factor” while choosing his ministers and advisers.
Let us realise the lesson from the 2019 general elections that elections in India are no longer about arithmatic or automatic combination of votes. Elections now, and it is mainly the contribution of Modi, are more about chemistry, rather than arithmetic. In other words, leadership, messaging, coalition dynamics, and so on trump purely identity-based calculations in which a party’s popularity can be measured merely with reference to the vote banks that have traditionally supported it. That is not to say that caste is no longer a central issue in Indian politics. But the larger point, as elaborated by the Carnegie analysis, is that if identity considerations were all that mattered and every party’s core demographic constituencies were well known, then India would exhibit far less electoral volatility than it does. A useful example here is the 2019 contest in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which saw an unprecedented coming together of the BSP and SP—two sworn enemies—in an effort to parry the BJP. If one were to merely tally up the BSP and SP’s combined vote shares from the 2014 general elections, as many analysts did, it would appear that they were poised to evenly split the state’s 80 seats with the BJP. In 2014, the NDA earned 43.6 percent of the vote compared to 43 percent for the BSP-SP (the joint tally of their vote shares plus that of the RLD, a smaller, third ally). In reality, the BJP romped home with 62 seats, and the vote share of the combined BSP-SP declined from its 2014 level. In 2019, the NDA won 50.6 percent of the vote compared to just 38.9 for the opposition alliance.
In sum, if BJP is going to be the real dominant party for a long time, the BJP has to act like a true Conservative party with new ideas in a collective manner, something that is lacking at the moment. It will be a nice and productive challenge to the Modi-Nadda team to behave and act accordingly.
By Prakash Nanda