The reportage of the BJP’s membership drive on November 1 focused principally on the party’s technological adroitness and its use of modern communication tools for political mobilisation. This is doubtless interesting. However, more significant was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the occasion.
According to the Hindustan Times report, Modi suggested, “BJP should also come across as a diverse party. People from all strata of society should feel that we have a representative in this vase of flowers.” The geographical spread of the BJP, he felt, should be complemented by a vertical expansion to include all social and economic groups.
This is not the first occasion a top BJP leader has implored the party to look beyond the faithful. Shortly after the NDA came to power in 1998, LK Advani proffered the idea of a “New BJP” — taking his cue from Tony Blair’s success with New Labour — at a BJP national executive meet. Advani’s prescription stemmed from a belief that as a party grows it must blend core beliefs with ideological aggregation. He often said that the BJP must incorporate elements of the “idealism” that defined other political traditions. After all, the BJP was forged in 1980 as a more cohesive version of the Janata Party and not merely as a resurrection of the Jan Sangh.
This experiment faltered on two counts. First, the relationship between those who saw the BJP as an ideological pole and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government suffered from a variety of strains. There were occasions when the disagreements went far beyond routine friendly fire that governments face. Second, the unexpected NDA defeat in 2004 was attributed to the detachment of BJP karyakartas from the government. Fearing growing incoherence, the RSS — at the request of many in the BJP — had to step in after Advani’s contentious utterances in Pakistan in 2005 to exercise its moral authority and steady the ship. Political experimentation was put in deep freeze.
The challenge of attracting an incremental vote was met in 2014 by Modi transforming the general election into a presidential contest. The BJP’s 12% increase in the popular vote and the absolute majority it secured in the Lok Sabha was a consequence of the party out-performing the Congress among all communities (barring Muslims) and classes. The BJP achieved an above-average support from upper castes, backward castes and Scheduled Tribes. Although it out-polled the Congress among Dalits, the extent of support was below its national average. Going by the CSDS-Lokniti survey findings, there was also a positive correlation between levels of economic prosperity and support for the BJP. Finally, there was a direct link between age and support for the BJP: the younger the voter the greater the support for Modi.
The disaggregated data from the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are still awaited. However, preliminary and anecdotal evidence suggested that the broad voting pattern of the Lok Sabha election persisted. Particularly interesting was the ability of the BJP to overcome its local shortcomings and win a clear majority in Haryana. The party complemented its traditional support along the GT Road with categorical endorsements from non-Jat communities and — much to the surprise of the commentariat — Dalits.
Empirical evidence would certainly suggest that the perception of the BJP as a party of the rich, the Hindi speakers, the upper castes and the traders is now an invalid stereotype.
The Jan Sangh started life from a narrow base but socially and geographically the Modi-led BJP has evolved into a truly representative national party.
Yet, there was an over-reliance on Modi for the assembly election. Banking on the prime minister’s intact popularity, the BJP was spectacularly successful in equating a vote for the BJP in the Vidhan Sabhas with a vote for Modi. This approach may mark the party’s forthcoming campaigns in Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi — a pointer to both its strength and weakness.
The decline of the Congress has presented the BJP with an opportunity to fill a void and consolidate groups that voted to make Modi prime minister. As of now, the support is still fledgling and vulnerable to the arithmetic of a possible anti-BJP combination. The conversion of the 2014 support into a vote bank is still a work in progress.
It is interesting that in bolstering its pan-Indian credentials, the BJP leadership appears to be avoiding the ideological route. The Modi government is rooted in the Sangh philosophy but it does not wear ideology on its sleeve. Rather than take the doctrinaire route to growth, its outreach appears to be centred on governance initiatives.
The aggregation strategy of Vajpayee and Advani between 1998 and 2004 implied a bid to occupy the conventional Centre-Right ground and steer away from the assertive Hindu nationalism of 1988-94. The Modi-Amit Shah strategy involves rigorous consultations with the parivar and exercising caution in pursuing the radical economic agenda of the ‘globalised’ Right. However, this is coupled with an autonomy of approach as far as party building is concerned.
To some, this may appear the Congress-isation of the BJP. It could also be read as ideological politics by other means.
Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal