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What Makes BJP Really Different

Suhas Palshikar (suhaspalshikar@gmail.com) is a political commentator and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

It is not very difficult to identify features that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shares with other parties. As actors in a common political environment and institutional set-up, parties evolve many similarities. However, it would be a mistake to overemphasise these similarities. For a comprehensive understanding of the BJP and its success, it is necessary not only to remember the common features that it shares with other political parties, but also to look at what is so different about the BJP.

It is not very difficult to identify features that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shares with other parties. As actors in a common political environment and institutional set-up, parties evolve many similarities. However, it would be a mistake to overemphasise these similarities. For a comprehensive understanding of the BJP and its success, it is necessary not only to remember the common features that it shares with other political parties, but also to look at what is so different about the BJP.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it needs to be stated that the key difference between the BJP and most other parties in India is regarding the organisational trajectory and expanse of the former. Observers have always noted that there is a complex relationship between the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Sometimes, the RSS distances itself from the BJP saying that the latter is a separate entity, but nobody can seriously doubt the organic link between the two. This link, and the organisational network that the RSS has evolved, constitute the core difference between the BJP and most other parties.

Let us pause to review how political parties in India historically emerged and evolved. Many contemporary parties emerged from the ambition and ability of the founder leader and, in turn, became leader-centric parties. A few, like the Jan Sangh and the communist parties, emerged on the basis of a certain ideology and world view. Many parties have emerged from pre-existing movements, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the Asom Gana Parishad. But, as the founding movement converted itself into a party, the originating movement almost vanished. Though not a movement, an instance where the founding organisation retained its separate existence is the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) that was instrumental in creating the Akali Dal. Both have retained a separate existence, though the relationship of the party with the founding organisation has remained tenuous.

In the case of the Jan Sangh, and later the BJP, it is not merely a certain ideological position that brought together like-minded actors to form a party. They emerged through close organisational links and overlap with the RSS. They were seen (by the RSS itself) as the political party wing of the Sangh. The RSS and BJP (earlier, the Jan Sangh) are not the same and yet they have a close relationship, something that has always confounded the critics of the RSS and BJP, but has been missed by analysts of the BJP. The range of organisations that the RSS has been associated with, and their complicated yet complementary relationship with the BJP, is unparalleled as far as other parties are concerned. Thus, both in terms of its origin (arising out of an ideological project) and its linkages with the originating organisation (in terms of their diffused presence in the sphere of civil society), the BJP stands apart from most parties in India. It certainly throws up an analytical challenge to students of political science.

The RSS connection is not important for proving or accusing the BJP of its Hindutva. The BJP, in any case, adheres to Hindutva. The connection is important to understand the flexibility that both of them enjoy and the possibilities of mobilising public opinion in favour of the BJP. Winning elections is a complex manoeuvre and the RSS might not have been very instrumental in facilitating the political victories of the BJP beyond a limited extent. The RSS has cadres that can easily be deployed as party workers for purposes of booth management and booth-level presence, but, after all, the party would have to have more skilled workers to actually mobilise voters during the campaign. So, the RSS’s deployment is not the real story. It is its presence in civil society and its effects that should be the focus of attention.

The Organisational Network

When the RSS came into being, its ideas, way of thinking, and manner of operation were all alien, quite different from the then existing ways of collective action. Even after independence, and when the Jan Sangh was formed, neither the RSS nor the Jan Sangh really had a mass following. Three decades after the formation of the Jan Sangh, the story was not very different. Acutely aware of the uphill task, the RSS embarked on floating organisations that would not frontally propagate Hindutva, but would anyway be run by its trusted cadres. With many formal organisations, like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram or the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the RSS also has close linkages with hundreds of organisations knit together through the network of the Seva Bharati. Practically, there is no area of the social universe where the Seva Bharati does not have a presence. As the overarching title indicates, they are all organisations in the apparently apolitical arena of “service.” While some studies do point to the role of these affiliates,1 the larger organisational narrative often remains either hazy or hidden behind debates over ­ideology.

While the BJP was not strong enough or was out of power, the organisational network kept on consolidating itself. But, when the BJP suddenly revived in 2014 and began to surge ahead after that, this unique organisational arrangement could achieve three things. One, many of the RSS affiliates and “voluntary” organisations registered under the Seva Bharati began to sustain the new regime by deputing their personnel to the formal tasks of the party and/or the government. Even otherwise, the principles of transfers and deputation always operate within the huge network of Sangh organisations. Now, as the new regime needed expertise and manpower with multiple social and technical skills, the organisational network mostly fulfilled that need. The Narendra Modi regime did indeed also induct many “outsiders”—those not even remotely connected to the RSS network—but the backbone of its sustenance at the state level and also in the party organisation could come from the network itself.

Two, these organisations came forward, as and when necessary, to extend support to the various decisions of the new government. This is an important task, because the Modi government came to power with only 31% of the vote share and could not have enjoyed sustained support and goodwill even when we take the public relations skills of Modi and his team into account. And, even in order to skilfully use social media and media in general, not only did the regime require money and a battery of employable trolls, it also required independent interventions by social actors with their own base and identity. The Modi regime has faced three critical moments in the past three years—different in scale, intensity and context. One was the controversy surrounding the returning of awards by eminent intellectuals and artists, the other was demonetisation, and the third, currently unfolding, is the failure in Kashmir. At each of these times, many voices from “outside” the party have emerged from this larger organisational network and joined the debates on behalf of the regime. Sensing that the media, particularly English media, is not adequately enamoured with all aspects of the Modi regime, a slew of new writers and columnists is thrusting itself forward into the public domain, just as many persons not directly associated with the party have been occupying the cultural space. The entire space of the public sphere is being increasingly occupied by the new entrants from various organisational backgrounds belonging to the larger Sangh network. The BJP government has been able to sustain ideologically, and generate and receive support for many of its risky initiatives through a range of pre-existing organisations and activists belonging to those organisations.

But, most crucially, the many organisations of the Sangh2 are “independently” raising many issues and shaping public debates. Just as the Sanatan Sanstha does not have any direct links to the RSS, so also the Hindu Yuva Vahini is unconnected with the RSS. Nevertheless, in the last three years, many issues have been brought to the forefront, steering the debate unmistakably towards the idea of Hindutva. Thus, for instance, love jihad or ghar wapsi were not formally pursued by the party in power. For the record, the Prime Minister assured all minorities full protection, while public debates were revolving around these sensitive issues because there was enough organisational space within Hindutva for such “fringe” elements to exist and push their own agenda. The vigilantism associated with gau raksha is also an instance of the same confusion between the mainstream and the fringe. Again, the Prime Minister has chastised the vigilantes, but street action and shrill rhetoric both continue because of the organisational space available to them.

Backed by the Network

In other words, there is a very happy and convenient situation for the BJP, which is keen to construct its dominance politically and ideologically. The party has ready-made apparatus of voluntary organisations, which supplies manpower and generates support for the regime, but, at the same time, also raises issues that the party may not formally want to be seen as raising. The formal electoral battle will be fought by the party, with the organisational network chipping in, but the real battle is ideological and, for that, the network is all the more important to expand and complicate the agenda, and thus overcome the limits of the party.

One caveat, here, may be in order: with a hugely popular and self-conscious leader like Modi at the top, it would be a fascinating scenario to watch as to how the three elements of organisational auto­nomy, ideological puritanism, and perso­nal authority would interact. This interaction might hold a clue as to the long-term developments in relation to the newly born, second dominant party system.

Discussions of party organisations are often confined to the European or Ame­rican experience. Thus, the relationship between British trade unions and the Labour Party is seen as critical for the trajectory of Labour. Similar attention is needed regarding forms of organising parties in the Indian context. One can find various organisational novelties, such as fan clubs or family-centred politics, etc, or even insurgent organisations as the basis of a party. But, party literature looks upon them more as aberrations and strange showpieces, though they are important features of party organisation in India. In the case of the BJP, the huge autonomous but organically linked network constitutes the organisational base of the party. Needless to say, “BJP versus Others” is an unequal contest because most other parties lack even a skeletal organisational presence in the arena of civil society and, therefore, when they meet with electoral setback, they are left sulking or further decline.

Notes

1 See, for example, the more recent work by Tariq Thachil (2014) on how the goodwill earned through “service” can be converted into a political asset.

2 Many of the organisations, in fact, do not even have a direct formal link with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. See Dhirendra Jha (2017).

References

Jha, Dhirendra K (2017): Shadow Armies of Hindutva, New Delhi: Juggernaut.

Thachil, Tariq (2014): Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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