Opinion| In its hegemonic moment, the challenges for BJP
India remains a vibrant democracy. Indian society remains remarkably diverse. India also has an assertive electorate, which can be politically mobilised on a range of reasons. And that is why while the BJP may appear completely invincible at the moment, one can expect — in due course — challenges that will emerge.Updated: Jul 20, 2019 20:37 IST
There is an emerging consensus among Indian political scientists that the Bharatiya Janata Party is not just dominant in the political system, but is the hegemonic force. There is adequate evidence to substantiate this. It has won two consecutive national elections, breaking decades-old patterns, and getting a bigger majority this time around. It has increased its strength in the Rajya Sabha, both due to its success in state assembly polls and recent defections. It is in power, on its own or in an alliance, in 15 states, and is inching towards its 16th state government in Karnataka. It is setting the ideological agenda. It has built a robust organisation. And there is no challenger in sight.
India remains a vibrant democracy. Indian society remains remarkably diverse. India also has an assertive electorate, which can be politically mobilised on a range of reasons. And that is why while the BJP may appear completely invincible at the moment, one can expect — in due course — challenges that will emerge. Ironically, its very success has seeds of possible vulnerabilities, unless the party is able to manage contradictions.
There are three specific sources of weaknesses.
The BJP has crafted one of the most remarkable multi-class alliances ever in Indian electoral history. Large sections of the super-rich voted for the BJP; a majority of the upper middle class voted for BJP; the party drew in substantial elements of both the professional middle class and lower middle class across age groups; and more than ever before, it won the support of segments of the poor and the marginalised. Narendra Modi’s leadership was the glue that held together these disparate classes and brought them under an umbrella BJP formation.
But one does not have to be a Marxist to know that class conflict is inevitable in society. Governments make policies. Policies benefit some groups more than others. Those who feel they have got a raw deal begin feeling resentful. They look for alternatives. The budget is instructive in this regard. India’s tiny elite — which may be politically insignificant because of its low numbers but is influential — feels let down because of the surcharge on high incomes. The middle class, which did get concessions in the interim budget, is unhappy that it has to pay more for fuel. While young people across groups have waited patiently for growth to pick up, and translate into jobs, they are not quite sure if the budget will indeed translate into investment and opportunities that they need. Farmers will continue to receive income support, but they do not quite know if their produce will fetch higher dividends.
This is not to suggest that one, or any, of these groups is rebelling or deserting the BJP. It is merely to point out that governments exercise difficult choices in a society like India where both growth and equity are priorities. You focus relentlessly on growth and encouraging capital, and you run the risk of alienating the marginalised. You focus merely on welfare without productivity, and you run the risk of running the economy to the ground. Sustaining a multi-class coalition requires a fine balancing act. The BJP’s first challenge will be in doing so.
Second, the BJP has also constructed a multi-caste alliance of impressive proportions. It is rare, in states like Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, for any party to be able to win the support of upper castes, and within upper castes, all the major specific sub-castes; large elements of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), barring the most dominant of them (the Yadavs); and also win the support of many Dalit subcastes. In UP, in particular, the BJP has done so in three elections now: the 2014 general elections, the 2017 assembly polls, and the 2019 general elections.
But even a cursory understanding of Indian social dynamics is enough to know that caste conflict is inevitable. There is intense competition on the ground for resources, for power, and this intensified when conflicts on the caste axis — an incident of atrocity, an inter-caste clash — take place. Look back at the past year. Dalits were angry at the Supreme Court order diluting the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The government stepped in to restore the original provisions. This alienated the upper castes. The government then neutralised it by bringing in an additional 10% reservation for economically weaker sections among them. One can expect such issues will keep cropping up. Within the party itself, there will be rifts between social groups on distribution of power.
Once again, the point is not that this broad alliance is destined to crumble. It is to suggest that this requires a very careful balancing act. The BJP has been able to do so because of strong leadership. But it is still a work in progress, and remains fragile.
The final source of vulnerability comes from the BJP’s quest for power at all costs. This has meant inducting leaders from a range of opposition parties. Recent events in the Rajya Sabha, and the Goa and Karnataka episodes, are examples. This adds to power in the short term, but erodes moral authority in the long term. In Goa, in particular, those who have been loyalists of the party for long are particularly angry at the entry of leaders with a tainted past. The BJP believes that its ideological core is so strong that new entrants will adapt themselves to the party’s political culture; but the dominance of the pragmatic streak could lead to resentment.
At the moment, there is no opposition force in the political theatre which appears to be in a position to capitalise on these contradictions if they become acute. Politics, however, abhors a vacuum.
Old style narrow caste politics based on one or two groups may not work, but a wider social alliance of disgruntled social groups will. Old rhetoric about merely removing poverty or giving jobs by parties with a dismal track record will not work, but a credible platform with a workable plan to improve lives could. Jaded leaders who have enjoyed the perks of power for decades will not inspire, but newer leaders, with energy, ground connect, and charisma, who can both give hope and tap into residual anger, will have bright prospects. For the opposition, ironically, the opportunity rests in the BJP’s current success and the vulnerabilities that lie beneath it.
First Published: Jul 20, 2019 20:37 IST