Every time the BJP comes to power in New Delhi, there is a battle for the heart and soul of the party all across India. It happened when AB Vajpayee was prime minister. And it is happening now that Narendra Modi heads the government. The best way to understand the recent by-election results is to view them from the perspective of the battle within the party.
This battle follows a pattern that is now familiar to us. A BJP prime minister takes office. The liberal establishment warns that his government will fundamentally transform the secular character of India. But the prime minister himself says or does very little that could be construed as anti-liberal or anti-secular. Instead, he sets himself up as a statesman eager to restore India’s standing in the rest of the world and holds summit meetings with foreign leaders. He focuses on the economy and tells Indians that we must learn to work as one. If you did not know his political background, you would think that the new prime minister was a mainstream political figure, seeking not to advance any ideological cause but to act in the best interests of India.
But while the prime minister is talking about lofty national objectives, party workers begin to get increasingly restive. They talk about the hard work they put into the campaign and about how the BJP would never have been elected but for their efforts. They point out that theirs is a party with an ideological centre. So, where is the Hindutva agenda? Why are Muslims not being recognised as the threat they are to Hindu society? Why has Article 370 not been removed? Why is there no common civil code? What about the Ram temple in Ayodhya? Why is nothing being done to protect Hindus from the evil machinations of Muslims? Why are Muslims being allowed to seduce Hindu girls at garba functions? Why is the government blind to the implications of love jihad? And so on.
The prime minister can never respond by simply shutting these people up because in one sense, at least, they are right. The BJP is the party of Hindutva. And these party workers did campaign extensively to ensure that the BJP came to power. So, most prime ministers deliver gentle taps on the knuckles in private but avoid making any public comments about this Hindutva agenda or the demands of their hardcore followers.
Throughout the life of any BJP government, the battle seesaws between the prime minister and his ideologically driven party workers. In Vajpayee’s time, his critics complained that he did nothing to restrain rabid BJP cadre in Orissa, Gujarat and many other states. And over the last few months, Narendra Modi has come under increasing attack for his refusal to at least distance himself from the more outrageous statements made by BJP and Sangh parivar activists.
The results make sense when you see them through this prism. The general election was fought on Modi’s agenda: Development and governance. These by-elections were fought on the issues that so obsess the party’s cadre: Hindutva, love jihad, and the so-called threat to Indian society from Muslims. The men chosen to lead the campaigns — people like Yogi Adityanath — came from the hardest core of the BJP. These were people who believed that Modi’s victory was the victory of Hindutva and that it was their duty to now push the Hindutva agenda to the next level. This was not just an ideological imperative. They genuinely believed that voters wanted more Hindutva and that a communal polarisation would lead to a further consolidation of the Hindu vote and, therefore, to massive majorities.
Well, we now have proof that they were completely wrong. In every single state, the BJP vote share has actually come down compared to what it was during the general election a few months ago. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has lost nearly 10% of its votes. In Rajasthan, it has lost around 11%. In Modi’s own Gujarat, it has lost 11.5%. In Assam, its share is down by 4.5% and even in West Bengal, which is being claimed as the party’s sole victory, the truth is that the BJP vote share has actually gone down compared to the parliamentary election by 0.6%.
Most political analysts have treated the by-elections as a battle between the BJP and other parties. But what if we look at it differently? This was also a war between Narendra Modi and the hardcore wing of the BJP. What these results suggest is that Modi has won and that the party’s more rabid members have been convincingly defeated.
How else can you explain why the same voters who supported the BJP so overwhelmingly and enthusiastically in the parliamentary elections have now voted against the BJP in every single state? The only difference between the BJP’s appeal a few months ago and its platform now is the nature of the agenda. The parliamentary election was fought on the development platform. The by-elections were fought on the basis of hardcore Hindutva and an anti-Muslim agenda. As these results show, development has won. The voters have convincingly rejected the communal platform.
In the months ahead, once the pundits have stopped pontificating about the end of the Modi wave, we will see how these results have actually strengthened Modi’s hand. Till the by-elections, he was still vulnerable to pressure from the hardcore that accused him of selling out to the mainstream and forgetting the Hindutva agenda that put him in Race Course Road.
But now, Modi has a perfect answer. He chooses the middle of the road not just because the Prime Minister of India cannot be a narrow sectarian but because this is what the country wants. It’s not just right: It is also electorally expedient. As for his party’s hardcore, they are still licking their wounds and whimpering. India has shown them that it wants progress, not hatred.
Views expressed by the author are personal