The BJP is undergoing a churn. It is shedding its old skin and trying to emerge as a completely new entity. Its spin meisters and drum beaters are trying to weave a story of it being a generational shift, where the old guard retires and makes way for young, energetic leaders, but that doesn’t quite explain it. What is emerging is an entirely new avatar which will be different from all that the party has been and stood for. Indeed, it will be the BJP only in name — the rest will undergo a complete overhaul.
Leading this transition is Narendra Modi. He is not just the party’s prime ministerial candidate, its leading campaigner, its mascot to bring in new voters. He is the man who will fashion a new machine in which fealty to the leader replaces belief in the party’s core values. His followers will look to him for signals on what to say and what to do. Some of them may not even know what the BJP stands for — his words are their manifesto, his thoughts their ideology. Anyone not a fully paid member of the Modi cult has no place in the new BJP.
The manner in which the old guard has been weeded out or humiliated is a good sign of things to come. LK Advani, the founder member of the BJP and the man who brought it enormous success after its abject defeat in 1984, was made to wait to find out where he could contest from. First, hints were dropped that he should retire and move to the Rajya Sabha. When that did not work, and he expressed a desire to contest from his old constituency Gandhinagar, he did not find his name in the first Gujarat list. No sooner than he let it be known that he would shift to Bhopal, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan would have enthusiastically welcomed him than the party insist on giving him Gandhinagar.
At least Advani, thanks to his stature, managed to get what he had originally wanted. Murli Manohar Joshi was virtually ordered to contest from Kanpur and vacate the Varanasi seat for Modi. Varanasi, apart from being fairly safe for the BJP, is replete with Hindu symbolism, something that Modi would want. And Jaswant Singh, who unlike Advani and Joshi, has no mass support of his own, found he would be left ticketless and his place taken by, of all people, a Congress defector, Col Sonaram Choudhary, who is 71 years old. So much for the generational shift.
In several other constituencies completely new faces are coming in. Kirron Kher and Paresh Rawal are relatively recent entrants into the BJP and have no record of fighting elections. But both have been valiant supporters of Modi, on television and in electoral campaigns. Both have been rewarded with seats at the cost of local leaders who have been serving the party for years. Not surprisingly Kher’s entry as a candidate in Chandigarh was greeted with loud protests by activists who were appalled at the parachuting of a rank outsider at the cost of worthier local politicians. Their sole qualification seems to be total loyalty to Modi.
It is not just in candidate selection that the Modi effect is visible. The entire publicity campaign provides an insight into the creation of the larger-than-life myth. The slogan of Har Har Namo Ghar Ghar Namo — now apparently dropped by the party — is a clever way to raise him to the level of divinity. BJP leaders are bending over backwards to provide explanations about how this was a local initiative, totally unknown to the party bosses, but then which local unit would have got scores of vans with the slogans painted all over them? RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had let it be known that he was not in favour of such blatant equating of a political leader with the Gods — Har Har Mahadev is after all an ancient Hindu chant — but when the Shankaracharya objected the party had no alternative but to jettison it.
How ruthless this image-building exercise is would have come home to BJP president Rajnath Singh when he tweeted on Monday afternoon, “Abki Baar, Bhajapa Sarkar” (Time for change, time for BJP.) The social media universe was quick to pounce on the slogan, analysing and dissecting it to examine if this indicated a subtle shift in the party’s line. As Singh was merely calling for the people to vote in a BJP government, but the banner in the tweet was without Modi’s image or his name. Half an hour later, a second tweet went out with Modi very much present; the message was crystal clear.
Dravidian politics is full of blind hero worship of leaders. Devoted followers do not just believe in a leader but venerate him/her. The mega cutouts, the temples, the almost tribal rituals create a larger than life personality which then dwarfs everyone and everything around it. A signal from the Supreme Being can send the hordes into a tizzy. In the eyes of the disciple, the leader can do no wrong — if the circumstances conspire against him, the follower is ready to even lay down his life.
Such a cult has now emerged at the national level. The publicity blitz, the hero worship of millions of fans, the constant chants of Modi, Modi and the dwarfing of the party are unprecedented. If ever Modi walked out of the BJP, they would follow him willingly. For a party that has always claimed to be cadre- and ideology-based rather than personality-driven, this cannot but be a source of worry. But neither the BJP nor its mentor, the RSS, has any choice — they created him, and now they have to keep silent and watch him grow and grow beyond their influence. The Modi cult threatens to swamp not just the opposition, but even his own organisation.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal