The art of building majorities
The BJP’s ideology has more takers than before because it is framing the main issues for elections
The State elections of 2017 clearly demonstrate that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has replaced the Congress as the principal national party in the country. It won massive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and emerged as a big player in Manipur. In Goa it remained the single largest party in terms of vote share despite a hugely unpopular outgoing Chief Minister. The only disappointment is Punjab where the party was routed with its senior partner Shiromani Akali Dal after ruling the State for 10 years.The spectacular performance of the BJP in U.P. should not detract from its formidable achievements in the recently concluded local elections, where it made huge strides in previously uncharted territory. In Odisha’s Zilla Parishad elections, the party expanded its footprint from 36 seats in 2012 to 306 in 2017, snatching second place away from the Congress to become a formidable contender to the long incumbent Biju Janata Dal. In Maharashtra, the BJP won eight of 10 municipal corporations with its total number of seats nearly equal to that of all other parties combined.
Explaining the riseThe electoral success of the BJP raises an important question. Without being able to meet expectations built up in 2014, in the absence of a surging economy, and with the poor decision on demonetisation, how is the party achieving so much success? There is one obvious reason: Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains very popular while the Congress party’s leadership no longer resonates with voters. However, leadership is not the only factor. The BJP is acquiring hegemonic status in the Indian polity owing largely to ideological consolidation and its creation of an unparalleled election machine.
For a very long time the Jan Sangh and then the BJP relied almost exclusively on the hard-line Hindu nationalists who reside with its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This is no longer the case. Hindu traditionalists, those who are drawn to a conservative Hindu way of life but are largely opposed to the hard-line Hindutva world view and its intolerance towards other religions, have now shifted their support from the Congress to the BJP. This allows the BJP to win elections without nominating a single Muslim, as it did recently in U.P.
Forging multi-caste coalitionsThe party has also revamped its electoral strategy, one focussed on widening its appeal by stitching together multi-caste coalitions. As is widely known, the BJP’s traditional social base is predominantly upper caste. To increase its support base, it has been building an electoral machine of its own at the local level in the form of caste-based coalitions. Fully aware that the party would not receive much support from the Muslims and perhaps even the Jatavs, the former traditionally associated with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the latter with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), its leaders targeted the smaller groups that don’t have adequate representation in any of the larger parties. For instance, the BJP tied up with parties like the Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, giving it the support of a large section of the Kurmi and Rajbhar populations, respectively. It also increased its ticket allocations to non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. Its campaign was led by a galaxy of local and national leaders, together covering an eclectic set of caste groups — almost a Congress-style coalition — but without the Muslims and some Dalit communities.
Risks of rapid expansionOn the electoral front, this has translated into the BJP aggressively co-opting individuals and units of other parties to strengthen its leadership. From Rita Bahuguna Joshi in U.P. to Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, the BJP has taken in many rival leaders into its fold before elections. This resembles the strategy followed by the Congress in the 1970s, at the peak of Indira Gandhi’s rule. While in the short term, this strategy is giving the party immense electoral success and helping it expand its footprint, just as it had done for the Congress back then, in the medium to long term it poses grave risks. Many politicians and smaller parties have joined the BJP bandwagon as it looks the most lucrative option electorally, and they may desert it at next chance. In addition, as the BJP continues to bring into its fold leaders and parties from outside its ideological umbrella, it risks diluting the content of its ideology over time. If uninhibited, this could also lead to tensions between the BJP and the RSS.
The BJP has undoubtedly replaced the Congress as the dominant national party and the cornerstone of India’s political and electoral system. This development has squeezed the space for centre-left forces in India’s polity and has given popular legitimacy to the centre-right narrative on issues of nationalism, secularism and social justice. As Yogendra Yadav has rightly pointed out, the centre-left needs a new vocabulary on the issue of social justice as the BJP has managed to convince a large section of society that the left’s language on the issue reeks of biases based on caste and religion.
However, in order for the BJP to remain the dominant national party for a sustained period of time, it too needs to introspect to ensure it isn’t compromising long-term success for short-term rewards. Going forward, it should continue to widen its social base while ensuring it doesn’t lose its ideological identity. Otherwise, it will only remain dominant as long as a Mr. Modi remains at the helm. As when individuals acquire larger salience over ideology and organisation in parties, it leads to their decline down the road. That is exactly what happened to the Congress.
Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma are with the University of California, Berkeley. Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley