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Why the BJP will continue its confrontational politics after the reshuffle

The BJP’s cultivation of Narendra Modi as a larger-than-life figure makes the party averse to losses even in small states. There is now a structural necessity to pursue aggressive politics.

analysis Updated: Jul 07, 2016 15:04 IST
Sushil Aaron
The BJP now holds centre stage in Indian politics and its fortunes are inextricably linked to perceptions of Narendra Modi’s authority
The BJP now holds centre stage in Indian politics and its fortunes are inextricably linked to perceptions of Narendra Modi’s authority (Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters)

The BJP’s cultivation of Narendra Modi as a larger-than-life figure makes the party averse to losses even in small states. There is now a structural necessity for the party to pursue aggressive politics.

The Union Cabinet reshuffle this week generates expectations that the focus of the Narendra Modi government will now be solely on governance, that the BJP’s mode of politics may change and that the party may explore a less confrontational approach in national politics.

This impression has much to do with the sudden exit of Smriti Irani from the HRD ministry and her shift to the ministry of textiles. Her combative style of politics was perhaps one of the reasons why she was moved from the high-profile ministry. She had weak credentials for the complicated education ministry to begin with – and the extended controversies at JNU and the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), where she was markedly unapologetic about the government’s approach, made her an easy target for the liberal intelligentsia.

Prakash Javadekar’s elevation as HRD minister is an inspired choice from the vantage of eliminating avoidable theatre in a charged field like education. An affable figure who is popular with journalists, Javadekar comes into the job fully aware of the need to defuse the situation. His early messaging that he himself is a product of student agitations and that dialogue can curb student unrest reflects the government’s intention to tone down tempers.

But does this necessarily mean that the BJP will change tack and pursue a less aggressive approach to politics?

There are three reasons why this is unlikely to happen.

First, the saffronisation agenda in education is unlikely to be abandoned. Javadekar himself is from the RSS and will not privately disavow the former HRD minister of state Ram Shankar Katheria’s assertion last month that “there will be saffronisation of education and the country”. What is likely to change is the ministry’s public representation where technocratic elements of the new education policy will be talked up while patronage to Hindutva institutions will be more discreet. In any case, Irani has made it easy for Javadekar by setting in train pathways to privatisation and saffronisation that the BJP is keen on. She provided the artillery to shift education policy to the Right, it is now time for subtler implementation to follow (which will, in turn, prompt heated debates periodically).

Read | PM Modi’s new cabinet has strong RSS imprint

Second, the BJP’s agenda of a Congress-mukt Bharat and Modi’s larger-than-life image in Indian politics that has been carefully cultivated makes it difficult for the party to countenance a loss even in small states.

The BJP now holds centre stage in Indian politics but its fortunes are inextricably linked to perceptions of Modi’s authority. To capitalise on his personality the BJP is attempting to presidentialise politics in a federated structure and thus (naturally) prefers simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls to contest elections centred on personality. To be sure the party does need powerful state-level and regional politicians but the latter need to wed their local clout to Modi’s visibility to attain the requisite political cache. That at least is the presumptive theory – and since party fortunes are intertwined with Modi’s authority, elections wins and losses end up being reckoned as referendums on his rule. In other words, the more the BJP depends on the PM, the more liable he is for the party’s electoral failures – and any single failure creates a cascading impact, at least insofar as BJP’s confidence levels go.

This is why the BJP cannot afford to lose in Punjab, Goa and Gujarat where the Aam Aadmi Party is fancying its chances, hoping to either win or at least make a significant dent. And to counteract the AAP’s lead in opinion polls in Punjab the BJP is adopting a confrontational approach. The Delhi Police arrested AAP MLA Dinesh Mohaniya in June while he was addressing a press conference; the CBI arrested Arvind Kejriwal’s principal secretary Rajendra Kumar on July 4 in a corruption case after raiding his office in December and a case was registered in Amritsar against Ashish Khetan for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. The Centre returned all 14 bills passed by the Delhi Assembly last month citing procedural lapses and it also transferred 11 officers of the Delhi government prompting accusations by AAP that the Modi government was paralysing the state government.

All these are arguably a piece of a political strategy aimed to putting pressure on the AAP’s party machinery with a view to scare off potential recruits even as Kejriwal plans on extending his party’s national footprint.

Read | Reshuffle exposes BJP’s lack of bench strength

UP is the third reason why BJP’s aggressive tactics will continue. The euphoria of the 2014 Lok Sabha victory has waned and so the BJP will likely rely on caste arithmetic and anti-Muslim posturing to rally the Hindu vote in elections next year. BJP MP Hukum Singh recently alleged that threats and extortion by a “particularly community” led to the exodus of 346 Hindus from Kairana. An inflammatory anti-Muslim tweet attributed to Anupriya Patel, a BJP ally from Mirzapur in UP and new minister of state for health and family welfare, has emerged. She denies tweeting that and has filed a case maintaining that it is a fake Twitter handle.

Even so, the BJP will struggle to sustain a rhetoric focused on governance, particularly since a hardliner like Yogi Adityanath is keen on being projected as a chief ministerial candidate. The party leadership cannot pick him for presentational reasons, but being a regional warlord he is unlikely to take to the slight kindly and can embarrass the central leadership at opportune moments, as will others during the campaign. Political discourse in India is unlikely to take a congenial turn anytime soon.

The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron

Read | Irani swapped for Javadekar, but JNU students claim change is ‘cosmetic’