BJP’s hegemony and party structure spark concerns. But its power is fragile
Two weeks ago, with Home Minister Amit Shah in front of him, corporate leader Rahul Bajaj spoke of an environment of fear gripping the country. While Shah addressed the concern in his response, government ministers and government-aligned public voices were quick to attack Bajaj — thereby validating Bajaj’s concerns.
At its core, Bajaj was expressing a concern about the hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule at the Centre, and how it silences the criticism required for effective policy. The logic that undergirds this concern is straightforward. Political parties are highly susceptible to “group think,” as the careers of those in a party organisation are often linked to affirming the views of its leader. The leader’s hold over the party is linked to the relative absence of criticism. This generates incentives for those in the party to withhold even legitimate criticisms, or contradictory evidence, to the party leadership, as well as for the party leadership to stifle dissenting or critical views.
All this is well known, but the hegemony of rule by a single party (in this case, the BJP) takes this logic one step further. Fundamentally, when a party is hegemonic, the chief aim of policy is to bolster its own organisation and entrench it in society. The logic that stifles criticism within a party must then be extended to the population as a whole. From this perspective, the characterisation of what is national interest or anti-national or what is an assertion of Hindu identity or anti-Hindu is not a matter of discernible ideology. It is curated by the political party in power and generates narratives that strengthens the party vis-à-vis its opponents. While there may be legitimate, even widely held, criticisms of the BJP government’s economic or agricultural policy, citizens are likely to withhold public criticism or face intimidation from government supporters when they do so. The problem is that when criticisms from the ground cannot easily reach those in power, then the government cannot efficiently correct flaws in its policies — as it is surrounded by yes men.
In order to grapple with what we see today, one needs more institutional context. Unlike previous iterations of the BJP, the party seems to be more centralised than ever. In the recent negotiations over state formation in Haryana and Maharashtra, there was no doubt that parties and politicians were negotiating with BJP at the Centre, not the party’s state units. This is a testament to the popularity of Narendra Modi and juggernaut that Amit Shah has help to build. But this hollowing out of state units to strengthen the party at the Centre, also generates incentives for the central party to use its institutional heft to bully its rivals at the state level.
Scholars of India’s political history will see strong similarities between the position of the BJP today and the Congress of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, while Indira Gandhi remained by far the most popular national leader, her Congress faced serious factional splits. These breakaway factions suddenly made state politics far more electorally competitive for the Congress. As political scientist Steven Wilkinson chronicles, this competition made state elections a big money game. Gandhi sought to choke the funding for rival political parties by banning corporate donations, and she sought to bypass the electoral appeal of various state leaders by announcing a series of centrally sponsored schemes to generate a connection between herself and the voter. (The parallels to the sanctioning of electoral bonds, which have disproportionately benefited the BJP, and the myriad schemes announced under the Modi government are striking.) Many commentators have claimed that competitive state elections have shown that the BJP is not as hegemonic as many claim. Whereas the above logic now shows that the BJP is hegemonic in nature precisely because of it.
But there are differences today too. Simply put, the technology around building a narrative and stifling the criticisms of others has changed. As we have witnessed in Kashmir, with the Internet shutdown, shutting of mobile networks, and curfews, the government can effectively stymie the ability of many citizens to express themselves. Furthermore, the speed at which the political party in power — with a somewhat sympathetic media — can build a narrative has grown significantly. (This is to say nothing of the efficiency with which social media can be used to intimidate or harass political opponents — with or without the assent of the political party.)
The BJP looks like it will be in control for the foreseeable future. But politics can change at a moment’s notice. Whether it be the decline of the Congress after the late 1980s or the decimation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal after 2007, one rarely sees it coming. The catalyst can be anything from a policy mistake to an economic crisis. For when people are angry and frustrated enough, no amount of social control can hem them in.