Party with a Difference?
From adopting winnability as the core principle of nominating candidates to removing political appointees of the previous government, and in dealing with governments of opposition parties, the behaviour of the Bharatiya Janata Party has been so much like the Congress that the latter would rejoice in the assurance that there is no mukti from its ways and manners. The crucial difference between the BJP and other parties is that it is able to instil a sense of destiny not just among its rank and file but also the general public and convince it that the party is doing desh seva while others have been doing only politics.
Political parties in India have long displayed a tendency towards what some commentators have called “Congressisation.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, has received criticisms that in the moment of its high glory and political ascendance, it is beginning to behave much like the Congress (Sen 2017).
Improving upon the classical war cry of non-Congressism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi aggressively campaigned for a “Congress-mukt” India during the election campaign of 2014. While the aggression was a novelty, the idea itself has been basic to the existence of the BJP. Not only has it (and the Jan Sangh earlier) always aimed at replacing the Congress but it has also spoken of clearing the political ground of “Congress-type” politics.
The BJP has so self-consciously been different from the Congress that its politics often amounted to a complete contempt for and rejection of the ideas and practices that got identified with the Congress. This distinguishes the Jan Sangh–BJP from other fragments of the Janata family of parties of the 1970s and the 1980s. The insistence on being different from the Congress was the origin of the BJP’s audacious slogan of “party with a difference.” At a very broad level, this slogan captures a critique not just of the Congress but of the politics of the “establishment,” a genre of politics that was contaminated by the Congress. At another level, this slogan also represented the middle class exasperation with various forms of “politicking” that the Congress party evolved. The “difference” also originated in the diverse patterns of organisational structures that the BJP and Congress adopted—the latter having a chaotic pattern while the former, since the Jan Sangh days, always believed in a strict hierarchy and chain of command. So long as the BJP (and previously, the Jan Sangh) was a party with a limited spread, narrow social base and a partial cadre base, it could afford to retain this “difference.”
The question is, can the BJP manage to be different from the Congress (and indeed other parties) in the times of its current pre-eminence? Since the BJP’s victory of 2014, it has begun to resemble the Congress in two respects. One is in its policy of accommodating anyone and everyone and the other is in the cynical pursuit of power at any cost. This process of the BJP’s “Congressisation” began in the 1990s when leaders like Pramod Mahajan convinced the party to become pragmatic in its approach to ideology and programmes and practical in its dealings with the many non-Congress parties. It could of course be said that an alliance with various parties (who did not subscribe to the BJP’s ideas) constituted a tactical move. But now in power on its own strength, unencumbered by the pressures of coalition politics, is the BJP living up to its claim of being different?
Dilemma of ‘Opening Up’
Starting with the Ram Janmabhoomi mobilisations, the BJP began expanding its social base. Post 2014, the party conducted a massive drive for membership recruitment and during that time again, the filters or gatekeeping mechanisms became practically non-existent. This “opened up” the party to all kinds of political entrepreneurs. In this sense, the BJP has lived for a long time with the dilemma. The dilemma is to maintain a balance between the impulse of expansion and that of being different. (Incidentally, following from this same dilemma, many have always believed that as the BJP grows, its Hindutva too would become moderate. More on this issue later.)
It would however be a mistake to blame the party’s failure to be different on the entry of new social sections into the BJP. The real challenge to its claims of being “different” does not come from its opening up to the masses. The real Congressisation that afflicts the party comes from its urge to grab formal power and prove its political smartness. So, its real challenge is to attract the same known (and once detested) faces from the Congress, do what the Congress used to do, and yet claim a moral high ground. In other words, can ex-Congresspersons and the Congress’s ways of doing politics bring in mukti (freedom) from the Congress?
Thus, a critical aspect of Congressisation pertains to indiscriminate accommodation of political actors from other parties, including the Congress, for immediate electoral gains, and even giving them plum positions of power. Its chief minister in Manipur was not long ago an important Congress functionary in the state. An important central minister from Assam too has been a Congress stalwart there. A prominent anti-BJP ex-Congressperson has got a berth in the Goa cabinet. Similarly, an important Congress functionary in Uttar Pradesh is now a minister in the BJP government in the state.
One can make a long list of such imported personalities that the party has been flaunting during the past three years. Particularly in states where the BJP is not yet very strong, prominent leaders of other parties are given important positions when they join the BJP. In a state like Maharashtra, where the party has not been traditionally very strong, the 2014 assembly elections witnessed induction of political actors from the two Congress parties on a visibly large scale. Later, in the recently concluded local body elections, the party actually went on an aggressive shopping expedition for candidates from any and every party with a potential to get elected. This practice—both of political entrepreneurs hopping parties and parties shopping for useful merchandise—is not necessarily new.
One more criticism of the “party with a difference” can arise from the conduct of formal power. When a party comes to occupy formal institutions of government, one begins to expect that the party would impose self-restraint over its political anxieties. The power-holders are surely not expected to be exemplars of selfless choices, but at least need to adopt the fig leaf of normative constraints. The BJP has excelled the Congress in ridding itself of that fig leaf. More than morality, this is a matter of procedural probity. That the Congress often violated the procedural aspects of democratic behaviour, both in politics and governance, does not absolve the BJP from similar acts of commission and omission. From adopting winnability as the core principle of nominating candidates to removing political appointees of the previous government, and in dealing with governments of opposition parties, the behaviour of the BJP has been so much like Congress that the latter would rejoice in the assurance that there is no mukti from its ways and manners.
The BJP’s crucial test came after the recently held assembly elections in five states. During the tumultuous phase of the decline of the Congress, on many occasions, hung legislatures emerged in a number of states and through them, the principle that the leader of the largest party (or pre-election alliance), gets the first opportunity to be invited to form the government became the norm. But throwing patience and prudence to the wind, the BJP gloated about its better political management skills and the governors of Goa and Manipur allowed themselves to violate this norm. Not only did the party rush to violate the norm, it also frankly sought to publicise its midnight smartness (Times of India 2017).
A New Norm
But the BJP is after all, a party with a difference and therefore, the alleged violations of the norm and other accusations can be countered by it by recourse to the world of new norms and principles. Thus, its haste in forming the governments has been defended on the ground of a new norm: if the leader of the larger party does not make a formal claim, then the governor could legitimately invite the next in line instead of inviting—as a routine—the leader of the largest party. The fig leaf here was the hair-splitting over the difference between “claiming” the right to government formation and “waiting” for the governor to invite to form a government. When the Congress violated the norms it often resulted in the norms getting judicially strengthened; when the BJP does that the same, it seeks to redefine the existing norm to suit it—and get judicial approval.
Just as in the case of government formation the BJP hid behind the thin argument of “waiting versus claiming,” in the case of its open door policy for eager Congresspersons to cross over, it is not unlikely that the party would soon come out with some official justification of being different in spite of the similarity. In the recently held local elections in Maharashtra, second rung leaders did justify the candidatures of many tainted persons by likening the BJP’s struggle to that of the Pandavas against the Kauravas. It was openly argued that those with a tainted past (legal or political), actually become purified by joining the cause of good against the evil. (For a straightforward justification and argument that those with a criminal past become “ex-criminals” once they join the BJP and that by joining the BJP they get reformed, see Nitin Gadkari’s interview.) And he is surely not a second rung leader (APB Majha 2017)! So, even in being similar, the BJP manifests some very crucial signs of difference: it is the adherence to the idea that the political adversary constitutes evil and that aligning with the BJP is not only an act of piety, it is also an act of expiation. This approach is fundamentally “different” from what one would expect in a competitive democratic set-up.
These twin beliefs that it is engaged in a war against evil and that whoever joins that war becomes automatically purified, sustain and will keep on sustaining the inner faith of the BJP in not only its difference from others but a self-belief in the intrinsic necessity of its own variant of politics. These beliefs allow the party to adroitly marry a pragmatic political instinct with its claims to the moral high ground.
It is besides the point whether the architects of these argumentative manoeuvres are cynical or sincere; the crucial difference (between BJP and other parties) is that it is able to instil a sense of destiny not just among its rank and file but the general public and convince them that the party is doing desh seva while others have been doing only politics.
It is this manoeuvre that informs the dominance of the BJP in the present juncture of India’s politics.
APB Majha (2017): “Ranenni Shivsena Sodu Naye Mhanun Shevatparyant Tyanchyajaval Basun Hoto: Gadkari,” 1 April, http://abpmajha.abplive.in/mumbai/nitin-gadkari-on-majha-katta-latest-up....
Sen, Ronojoy (2017): “In the New India Proclaimed by PM Modi How, in so Many Ways, BJP Is the New Congress,” Times of India, 18 March, http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/in-the-new-india-....
Times of India (2017): “How Amit Shah and Nitin Gadkari Checkmated Congress to Form BJP Government in Goa,” 16 March, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/assembly-elections/goa/news....
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