Why BJP’s Dominance Will Continue

There is no sign of it losing popularity with a significant section of the voting population, which appears to be attracted to the party for identity reasons, observes Aakar Patel.

The standout feature of India’s democracy has been the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party .

This rise has come in two phases. The first was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political unit tasked with protecting the interests of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 after an internal debate concluded that the RSS had been wrongly attacked for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination (its head M S Golwalkar had been jailed for months) and needed a voice in electoral politics.

The Jana Sangh was not especially popular electorally for two reasons.

The first was that many of the so-called ‘Hindu’ issues were championed by the Congress.

This included cow slaughter, which was banned by most Congress states, and also religious propagation, which was settled by the mid-1970s through legislation and then a Supreme Court order (Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh).

The second reason was that the party did not know what issue to mass-mobilise on.

The Jana Sangh manifestoes from the 1950s onwards were published by the BJP as part of its official history a few years ago, and they show that there was no real consistency in policy.

For instance, the Jana Sangh did not want automation in industry, to protect labour; it wanted, right up until Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a cap on all income at Rs 2,000 per person per month no matter what they did; and a ban on the use of tractors, to prevent the slaughter of bullocks.

As may be imagined, this sort of thing did not work especially well with voters.

The Jana Sangh collected only a single-digit vote share nationally in the first four decades of its existence.

In the four elections preceding its merger into the umbrella opposition Janata Party, the Jana Sangh won 3, 4, 14 and 35 seats across India.

Its vote share was never more than 9 per cent.

It did not win a single state on its own, meaning without a coalition, till 1990.

After the Janata Party collapsed, the Jana Sangh, now renamed the BJP, won 7 per cent of the vote nationally in 1984 and had two seats.

This was a period of introspection and, not knowing in what direction to take the party, Vajpayee stepped down as president.

It is only with the taking over of L K Advani that the party began to find its rhythm.

In 1986, when some members of the party participated in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign on Ayodhya, Mr Advani stumbled upon the issue that would expand the party.

He threw himself into it enthusiastically, particularly after discovering, to his delight, as he recounts in his autobiography, that Indian crowds were warm to the idea of religious polarisation.

In the 1989 election, the party crossed double digits in terms of the national vote share and took 85 seats, more than they had won in all of the previous elections combined.

The following year, the party had chief ministers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh came in 1991.

The same year there was another general election and this time the party won 20 per cent of the national vote and 120 seats.

The next year, the mosque was brought down and the BJP established itself permanently as the party that represented Hindus against Indian Muslims.

From here on, and until the present day, peripheral issues like the economy and employment would not dent the essential popularity of the BJP.

In 1996, for the first time, the BJP became the largest party in Parliament with 161 seats.

In the 1998 general elections, the BJP was again the largest party (182 seats) with a quarter of the vote.

The next year, in another general election, it again took 182 seats.

In 2004, it was narrowly edged out by the Congress, 138 to 145, but it retained its vote share.

In 2009, it suffered its first real setback and fell to 116 seats with the Congress doing well in north India.

Happily for the BJP this was just a blip.

The rise to prominence of the Gujarat chief minister and a return to the core Hindutva principles once again, and quite easily, established the BJP as the dominant force in 2014, where it remains today.

There is no sign of it losing this popularity with a significant section of the voting population, which appears to be attracted to the party for identity reasons.

There is also no indication that the Congress will ever return to its national stature; 2009 seems to be as much of a blip for it as it was for the BJP, for which at least one quarter of the vote seems permanently secured.

That the BJP’s narrative has strengthened over the last three and a half decades should alert us to the fact that there is something essential about its rise.

The Congress had the advantage electorally for many decades after 1950 because it was nationally organised, understood mass-mobilisation because of the freedom movement, and had three generations of leaders before independence.

However, it was inauthentic as the party of Hindus and always vulnerable to an attack from the real thing.

The BJP provided this under Mr Advani and then under Narendra Modi, and it is easy to see why this dominance will continue into the foreseeable future, given the structure of our first-past-the-post democracy, the nature of the issues that are relevant and the quality of the debate.

Aakar Patel is chair of Amnesty International India.

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