February 04, 2016

India: Modi-Shah template for the BJP -- slowly make Hindutva politically acceptable

The Hindu - 4 February 2016

Modi-Shah template for the BJP

Suhas Palshikar

Combining middle-class anxieties and media excitement, the party that has now settled in power is different from the hesitant party that spearheaded the ruling NDA during 1998-2004. As this new party nears completion of two years in power, it now faces four challenges

With the re-election of Amit Shah as party president, it is now clear that the Narendra Modi-Shah duo would continue to shape the future of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Fortuitously, Mr. Shah and Mr. Modi do not have much to worry about in terms of electoral performance this year compared to 2015; the four States that go to the polls in April-May are not ones where the BJP has much at stake. Whatever little gains it might make in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu can be easily touted as ‘victory’ while in Assam, three terms of incumbency of the Congress government do give the BJP an obvious advantage.
Besides, the Prime Minister seems to still enjoy goodwill despite electoral setbacks in Delhi and Bihar last year. In fact, as the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies surveys in Bihar around last year’s Assembly elections showed, there was no marked anti-Modi sentiment in Bihar. A public opinion survey conducted by Nielsen in early January also shows that his popularity continues to be robust and people’s assessment of the Central government is decently favourable. This is hardly surprising because of two reasons. One, Mr. Modi has avoided getting involved in any domestic political controversy all through his first year and a half in power — mostly taking the high moral ground on a range of issues, from attacks on minorities to the urgency of cleanliness (and also operating at high altitudes of foreign engagements!). Two, the party’s media strategy devised for the 2014 campaign continues and as a result the ‘positive image’ is constantly being projected carefully. So much so that even critics of ‘intolerance’ or the communal agenda, too, seem to be targeting the so-called fringe rather than the party and its top leadership. 

A new BJP, forged in Gujarat

Almost two years into power, the BJP has indeed come a long way from its fledgling coalition efforts in the mid-nineties and skewed social base that initially propelled it into national limelight. For a large part of its post-Ayodhya existence, the party was caught in the dilemma over Hindutva. It certainly did not intend to give up on its core agenda — however hazily defined — but it was unable to sell Hindutva to a larger audience, particularly the audience whose sensibilities were increasingly being shaped by the new wave of globalisation and more liberalised economy. In consequence, the BJP chose to hide behind the excuse of coalition politics and relied on the charm of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to sustain it in electoral politics. That proved inadequate. Despite being in power for six years in a row, the BJP stagnated all through the mid-nineties both in terms of electoral performance across States and in terms of social bases.
In the 10 years after the Godhra riots, Mr. Modi evolved a new model of Hindutva politics. The basis of this model lay in ruthless use of the state apparatus to signal to the minorities where they belonged. Once that was achieved, it was only one step to Hindutva penetrating Gujarati civil society and the popular imagination. Then his focus shifted to improving the macroeconomic performance of the State. The fourth dimension of that model was to focus on the lower middle classes instead of the lower bottom (which was the focus of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre). The ‘Gujarat model’ was further augmented by the adoption of an unprecedented and most astute media blitzkrieg. A new BJP was thus born — through the 2007 and 2012 State elections in Gujarat. It travelled to Delhi with Mr. Modi from the time of his speech at Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce in early 2013.
In hindsight, the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance helped the BJP shape its response to the new social formations. Ineffective governance and corruption scandals were indeed part of the Congress’s contribution to BJP’s victory; but the welfare approach and impatience of the lower middle classes were equally important factors. Notwithstanding many failures, Dr. Singh left behind a legacy of the new welfare thinking and a rights regime. This policy initiative particularly addressed the lower strata of the economic ladder. That strategy of the Congress-led government allowed Mr. Modi’s BJP to address the anxieties of the middle and lower middle classes. Combining middle-class anxieties and media excitement, the BJP that has now settled in power is different from the hesitant party that spearheaded the ruling National Democratic Alliance during 1998-2004. As this new party nears completion of two years in power, it now faces four challenges. 

Performance and perception

The foremost challenge is in the arena of economic policy and its concrete outcomes. The BJP would have known from the Congress’s experience that the constituency of the middle-lower middle classes that it has cultivated is an impatient one. So, the government has to do everything to keep that constituency satisfied. On the other hand, it can hardly ignore the large lower-class constituency and schemes such as Jan-Dhan Yojana and skill development must succeed. That can happen only if the government is willing to pump real energy and resources into these schemes. This would be a precarious balance, and the equivocation on land acquisition signalled that the party might not be comfortable in striking such balance. Along with the actual performance of various schemes, if the government is identified as being disinterested in the plight of the poor, then no macroeconomic data is going to save it politically.
This takes us to the issue of image. The phenomenal ability of the Modi-led BJP in dealing with image management was key to its success in 2014. Post-2014, the Prime Minister personally appears to be still successful in this task. However, too much reliance on media and image can be risky. The example of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections is instructive. Once the media lost interest in the AAP, it shrunk to Delhi. After the parliamentary victory, slowly, the English media has begun to lose interest in the performative dimension of Mr. Modi’s leadership and this can soon become characteristic of non-English media too.
So far, the strategy of the party appears to be somewhat dismissive — name-calling the media and ignoring the media are two main strategies adopted by the BJP currently. Its party president in fact keeps his distance from the media. But on occasion, the party’s more suave mouthpieces seem to engage with the media. The protests over the killing of a man in Dadri and the murder of rationalist M.M. Kalburgi were ingeniously characterised as “manufactured”. So, it is likely that the party has very little sophisticated defence of media criticisms and too little patience with it. If that trait persists, it would be tough for the party to sustain the image that its leadership built around the campaign in 2014.
Organisation and ideology

Three, would the BJP distinguish between excitement of the crowds and stable growth? Ever since Mr. Modi took over the leadership of the party, two tendencies are in evidence. The top leadership is constantly in election mode and hence addressing the public in an acerbic and polemical format — addressing the ‘crowds’ rather than party colleagues. And the prowess of the party president is reported to be with regard to micromanagement of the elections. Both would stand in good stead; but probably the BJP is ignoring the tortuous task of building the party. This suits Mr. Modi’s leadership. Like Indira Gandhi, he would like to carry the burden on his own shoulders and not allow a more robust party organisation to take shape. This would ensure his leadership position, and one suspects that the choice of his trusted colleague as party president yet again may be indicative of this. However, this would also mean a long-term debility in terms of hollow organisation.
Finally, and most fundamentally, for the BJP, which prides in its links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its espousal of Hindutva, the biggest challenge would be negotiating with its Hindutva ideology. For the past two years, the party is hiding behind the so-called fringe elements. The game plan seems to be that while the ‘fringe’ functions as storm trooper, the party would slowly make Hindutva politically acceptable. It has neither officially moved away from Hindutva nor formally made efforts to position itself as a party of Hindutva. But faced with criticism of its alleged Hindutva tendencies, the party has often retaliated with an angry response. In one respect, the party has certainly achieved success — in the public discourse, it has confused religiosity with religious assertion, nationalism with Hindu identity and religion with nationalism. How it channels this emerging understanding into political support for itself is something to be watched.
(Suhas Palshikar teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.)