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BJP and Congress: Different mandates, similar challenges

The task facing the BJP is the same as that confronting the Congress after the polls: to rebuild their respective parties.

ht view Updated: Jun 02, 2014 14:50 IST

Having initiated the era of coalition governments in 1999, the BJP brought it to a close after fifteen tumultuous years last week. The two great coalitions that governed India during this period were known for financial corruption and political paralysis, which go hand in hand with the horse-trading characteristic of such governments. But on occasion they also delivered strong economic growth, while at the same time demonstrating the remarkable resilience of the Indian republic. For to make these enormous coalitions work was an achievement unimagined in the history and practice of democracy. What then does their demise tell us about India's political future?

Making room for the nation

While they are often seen as manifestations of political weakness, coalition governments in India emerged from the deepening reality of federalism there, and so by the effective devolution of wealth and power to regional states. The fact that Narendra Modi will have become prime minister without holding any national position in his party is surely a demonstration of this fact. But the coalitions which his election have put to an end also harked back to an older political form, one exemplified by Congress in the days before Indira Gandhi turned it into a top-down command structure.

The big tent approach, which had characterised Congress since colonial times, made for a politics that was pragmatic rather than ideological, reducing nationality to an uneasy conglomeration of disparate interests. It is easy to see why an anti-colonial movement without state power might best be represented by a conglomerate of interests, as well as why such a form should be inappropriate for an independent country. After all, the "pragmatic" reduction of politics to pure instrumentality can make for violence as much as compromise, and it is this kind of pragmatism that Indian parties all seem to have inherited from the colonial past.

Yet by putting an end to coalition governments, Mr Modi will not be returning to Mrs. Gandhi's model of party rule, not least because his victory has divided provincial from national politics, rather than replacing one by the other. Far from destroying the "identity politics" of caste, language or religion, these elections appear to have reserved them for increasingly important regional arenas, while making for a newly-constituted and more limited national one, in which the much-invoked "idea of India" might be rediscovered by those who wish to do so. This seems to have been the great correction effected through the ballot box in 2014.

The paradox of party politics

The demise of coalition government, however, goes beyond the external relations of India's parties to affect their internal structures as well. Over the past fifteen years, after all, neither Congress nor the BJP was defined by a hierarchical command structure, each described instead by shifting arrangements of power. With the former it was the relationship between the party's president and prime minister that was crucial, and with the latter that between the party and other members of the Sangh Parivar. Mr Modi's triumph has destroyed both these forms of constantly negotiated authority. He is no longer beholden to the Sangh, just as Congress may no longer be to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Their sometimes anxious collegiality apart, these internal arrangements of power had possessed a mixed blessing, that of being able to outsource violence. Along with other countries in the region, Indian governments have relied upon extra-state forces to do their dirty work, though such operations are largely confined to border problems and marginal groups. While making for plausible deniability, such outsourcing at the same time prevented the creation of a large-scale police state, of which we only caught a glimpse during the Emergency. The rationalization of political structures in the new dispensation, then, may disallow such outsourced violence, but at the same time make the state more responsible for it. This is its promise and its risk.

In some ways the BJP's victory was as much a product of the party's weakness as its strength. Remarkable about Mr. Modi's much commented-upon destruction of its national leadership, in order to come to power, was the fact that he was able to do so with such apparent ease. After two successive defeats, the BJP had been weakened internally and was desperate to be in government again, thus making for the kind of messianic expectation that allowed another "outsider", Barrack Obama, to take leadership of the Democratic Party, and with it the presidency of the United States. While the two men might not otherwise be comparable, the fervent and faith-based mobilization that brought them both to power is strikingly similar.

Curiously the task facing the BJP is the same as that confronting the Congress, to rebuild a party that has been destroyed by victory in one case and defeat in the other. Only such a rebuilding will allow either to resist the temptation of populism on the one hand and caste or religious polarization on the other, to say nothing about that represented by corporate capital. These are the forms of temptation to which Indian parties have routinely succumbed, and they indicate political weakness not strength. Will Mr. Modi use the popular mandate given him to build a party that is capable of surviving the force of his own personality? If he means to institutionalize the new arena of national politics that has opened up before him, India's new prime minister is bound to do so.

Dr. Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford.