In his uncharacteristically over-stated proclamation of separation from the organization that had nurtured him, the veteran leader, Jaswant Singh, said that it was now a fight between the ‘asli’ (real) and ‘nakli’ (counterfeit) Bharatiya Janata Party. Although his outburst was couched in anger at what he quite bizarrely described as the party’s assault on his “territorial integrity” — a convoluted way of saying that it had fielded another candidate in his “home” constituency —the commentariat has broadly agreed with the suggestion that Singh’s exit was a landmark event. Read with the diminution of the so-called “old guard” it certainly pointed to an ongoing generational shift. However, far more significant is the question: is the Narendra Modi-led BJP travelling down a very different political path?
For a start, in spite of the professed assertion of a section of the sangh fraternity that the outlook of the BJP is non-negotiable and determined by an uncompromising faith in an undefined Hindutva, the reality is more complex.
The Bharatiya Jana Sangh — the organizational precursor of the BJP — was established in 1951 as an alliance between former Hindu Mahasabha-ites such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu volunteer body that had hitherto stayed out of politics. Mookerjee was the face of the new party and did his utmost to bring together all the pre-Independence critics of the Congress (in the Liberal Party, Unionist Party and Hindu Mahasabha) into a more relevant new organization. Under Mookerjee, the RSS was an element of the broader Jana Sangh coalition and not the dominant player. However, after Mookerjee’s death in 1953, the RSS had to step in and assume control to prevent the Jana Sangh from disintegrating. Indeed, since 1953 the RSS has played the role of an organizational adhesive to both Jana Sangh and BJP.
The Jana Sangh existed for 26 years, making a modest mark on the life of a Congress-dominated nation. It certainly had a distinctiveness of approach and even drew a sprinkling of notables who were not otherwise attached to the RSS but electorally its performance was patchy. It is worth keeping in mind the fact that Jana Sangh was unable to ever win a state election on its own throughout its existence. The nearest it came was winning the Delhi Metropolitan Council election (the capital was then a Union Territory) in 1967.
Whether the decision to participate in Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement against the Congress signalled the movement’s breakthrough is a point of contention among scholars. There are those who believe that the Jana Sangh basically ran the JP movement undercover and used the two years of the Janata Party government to spread its tentacles. The alternative suggestion is that the Jana Sangh was always a low-key, junior partner in a movement whose direct benefits accrued to veteran Congress critics of Indira Gandhi and the fractious Lohiaites. Whatever the reality, it is undeniable that in 1980 the BJP was only a part inheritor of the Jaya Prakash legacy. To prevail in the non-Congress space, it had to also upstage its other challengers who subsequently regrouped in V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal and its subsequent offshoots.
The point to note is that right from its conception in 1951 and re-birth in 1980, the politics of the BJP has been marked by a combination of flexibility and discipline. The flexibility was dictated by the long-term, single-minded determination to emerge as what L.K. Advani liked to call the “alternative pole of politics”. The discipline was provided by a watchful RSS which played the role of both a mentor and, occasionally, a stern parent. At various points in post-1977 politics, alternative narratives have emerged in the non-Congress space. Yet, the BJP has never been completely overwhelmed partly because its organizational moorings are quite firm. The BJP always has a bunker it can retreat to in times of adversity.
This is not to suggest that the forward surge of the BJP has been dictated by ideological fixity. On the contrary, few organizations (with pretensions of being an ideological party) have demonstrated such a large measure of flexibility and innovation. In 1987-89, in spite of considerable internal misgivings, the BJP was broadly supportive of V.P. Singh’s anti-Rajiv Gandhi crusade. But this solidarity was also coupled with a dogged determination to steer the larger agenda into an issue of its choosing. When the BJP actually embraced the Ram temple movement in 1988, it had absolutely no clue of its potential. However, in spite of riding the crest of a Ram wave in large parts of India and emerging as the clear alternative to the Congress in 1991, the BJP was nimble-footed enough to effect a retreat after 1993. This shift of gear wasn’t compelling enough to secure Atal Bihari Vajpayee a national mandate in 1996 but it set the stage for the National Democratic Alliance that was to emerge in 1998.
During the Janata Party phase, Advani had spoken of the politics of aggregation taking precedence over sharply defined ideological certitudes. In 1998, at the first BJP national executive meeting after Vajpayee was installed as prime minister, Advani again spoke of a “New BJP” (those were the days of Tony Blair’s captivating New Labour) that would propel it into a “natural party of governance”. He didn’t elaborate too much but in 2004 there was the unique spectacle of the BJP contesting a general election on the strength of having achieved and bringing about an “India Shining”.
This attempt to emerge as a classical right-wing party in the European mould had disastrous electoral consequences. In the post-mortem exercises, both in 2004 and 2009, the BJP concluded that it could not afford to alienate its traditional supporters who saw the party as a bulwark of Hindu nationalism. At the same time, it recognized that the elements of economic modernity injected by the economic liberalization process couldn’t be ignored.
The emergence of Narendra Modi as the leader who combined a robust leadership style with an unwavering commitment to make India an economic powerhouse helped tie in the two strands. At one time it seemed that the organizational hegemony of the RSS would be at odds with Modi’s emphasis on economic growth and individual aspirations of a Young India. But it was the pragmatism of the RSS leadership which realized that political advance was only possible through Modi that ended the impasse. The misgivings of an Advani or a Jaswant Singh were not on account of any major ideological ruptures but of the primacy of Modi in the projection of the BJP. In any other party, the personality clashes and generational wars would have created major convulsions. It was resolved relatively painlessly in the BJP because of the RSS insistence on coherence which naturally meant keeping scepticism on the back burner and fighting a larger political battle with a united face.
The extent to which Modi represents a sharp rupture between an ‘asli’ and ‘nakli’ BJP will be judged after the election, especially if the NDA is victorious. Certainly Modi’s appeal extends to far beyond the traditional sangh appeal and many of the new adherents have joined the BJP both out of commitment and expediency. The process of enlarging the social and ideological base of the BJP is going to be a complex process and it would be hazardous to make any predictions. All that can be said is that with their sullenness and small rebellions, many veterans have lost their capacity to influence future developments. It is entirely possible that Jaswant Singh and his backers will emerge from this election cutting a sorry figure.