The Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) is in the midst of a crisis. However much its leaders deny its existence, it is very real. The crisis is layered: from factionalism and leadership problems, it extends to fundamental ideological and programmatic drift.
There was a time the bjp liked to say Gandhian socialism existed in its vision of development. Much of that was just a claim. Later, fringe players tried to pressure the party into adopting a vague kind of swadeshi programme. I refer principally to the likes of S Gurumurthy and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. That didn’t get anywhere either—when the bjp led a coalition government at the Centre for over six years. What did happen was the party bought wholeheartedly into the neo-liberal, market paradigm. Second-generation reforms, marketization, loosening of controls, state retreat—we saw them all.
From all this to random disinvestment (remember Balco) meant a bonanza for big capital. This was unidimensional policy with no thought for the disadvantaged.
Along with this came an attitude exemplified by its ‘India shining’ campaign. The party was aligning itself not only to capital but also to those strata that were getting a good bargain out of the deal—the salaried and the middle classes in general. Without question, the poor and the marginalized were remaining poor and marginalized, and throughout 1998-2004 inequalities continued to get deeper and sharper—as they had done through the 1990s. Not many will contest the proposition that this was the major factor behind the bjp’s electoral debacle in 2004.
Despite its loss, the bjp hasn’t been able to mark a change in direction. Party spokespersons like to say bjp chief ministers are delivering on social infrastructure, but the claims are over-blown. Madhya Pradesh has seen some progress, but it has largely been through the implementation of Central schemes. In Gujarat, demonstrably, Narendra Modi, has reinvented himself as the champion of ‘development’—meaning industrialization—no questions asked, to the extent that he has the top entrepreneurs in the country eating out of his hand, never mind the butchery of 2002.
The party’s lack of vision shows up all the more because the upa government has been successful in putting in place some kind of a welfarist agenda and policy framework, however flawed and halting. The effect, as was seen in 2009, has been a decisive shift from the bjp to the Congress and its allies.
The increasing hold of the saffron elders makes it likely, if not inevitable, that there will be a rightward push in the bjp’s politics—a return to the divisive politics of Hindutva centred on the Ram mandir -Babri masjid agenda. The 2009 elections seemed to have signalled that the Indian electorate is becoming more conscious of governance in a material sense and less swayed by the Hindutva kind of rhetoric. At the same time, voters seem to be exhibiting more individualistic behaviour rather than being bound to communitarian ideologies and networks.
Where does this leave the bjp ? The party will have to reinvent itself with substantial material programmes and policies for governance if it has to play catch-up with its main adversaries. Far before the next general elections, it will have several stiff tests—assembly elections. None is likely to be as testing as the one in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. The bjp has been all but wiped out in its original laboratory of communal politics. It would be fair to say it will have to devise a new political arithmetic to rediscover some relevance in the country’s largest state, electorally speaking.
But the internal logic of bjp’s politics seems to rule out any kind of constructive engagement with questions of redistribution, entitlement and welfare.
Suhit Sen is a fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata
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