The roots of the BJP’s unilateralism
With farm unions refusing to engage with the committee set up by the Supreme Court to examine farm laws, rejecting the government’s offer to suspend laws for 18 months and engage in talks, and holding a parallel tractor rally which turned violent on Republic Day, the standoff between the Centre and farm groups has intensified. Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the farm laws, there is an emerging consensus that the Centre did not engage in enough consultation with states and farm groups, underestimated the mobilisational capacity of these unions, and adopted a unilateral approach. It was this unilateral approach and the accompanying communication gap that has resulted in the prevailing precarious situation, in which both sides believe that blinking first is a costly strategy.
This is part of a recurring pattern, in which the Narendra Modi government finds itself on a collision course with various interest groups. For instance, trading classes were alienated by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax; students protested in many parts of the country after Rohith Vemula died by suicide; Dalit groups mobilised against the dilution of the legislative framework against atrocities; labour unions began a movement against changes in labour laws; and religious minorities stood up against the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. While the government backtracked on some occasions after vehement opposition, it doubled down on its stand at other moments.
What explains the increasing number of standoffs of various interest groups with the Centre in recent years? The government’s unilateral approach is the primary reason for growing disquiet. And this unilateralism is a result of the hard-nosed political approach and cold-minded electoral calculations of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014. The party under the leadership of Modi and Amit Shah has acquired a distinct style of dealing with friends and foes alike — what some would describe as the Modi-Shah doctrine — to negotiate from a position of strength.
One part of this unilateralism comes from the political socialisation of the BJP’s new leadership. The key difference between the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-LK Advani era and the Modi-Shah moment in Indian politics is that the top BJP leaders in the past were creatures of the Central Hall of the Parliament. They could reach out across the aisle. The new BJP leadership is not deeply embedded in the Central Hall culture, and there is an acute trust deficit between the government and the Opposition.
The BJP in the Modi-Shah era is also missing interlocutors. After the demise of Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, there are hardly any leaders, except Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, who can play the role of conciliators. There are a handful of Opposition leaders who could warm up to Modi and Shah. All of this has compounded the BJP’s inability to hear the other side.
But the root cause of its unilateralism is more likely shaped by political events and experiences of the BJP leadership in power. My conversations with several BJP leaders and sympathisers suggest that the Modi-Shah doctrine, for right or wrong reasons, is rooted in the belief that opposition to their regime is not based on principled positions.
The vehement opposition the party faced inside the Parliament and on the streets between 2014 and 2016 — remember the protests against the amendment to the land acquisition legislation, the award wapsi marches, electoral losses in Delhi and Bihar, the suit-bootki sarkar jibe, among others — led them to conclude that despite the party’s historic win, there is an obstructionist cabal that thinks that the BJP has no right to govern India.
The BJP believes that there is a network of academics, activists, journalists and few Opposition leaders (the Khan Market gang in its lingo) that keeps scheming to delegitimise the Modi government in the public eye. It is because of this intractable nature of the Opposition, the party suspects, that the protests against government policies are not restricted to a specific clause or point, but often seek a complete reversal of the government’s position or a reversion to the status quo.
And, therefore, in order to neutralise this cabal, the BJP is also pushed to assume a maximalist position to mirror and counter the maximalist position of the Opposition. In its calculation, this ensures that even a mid-point reached through negotiations changes the equilibrium in the BJP’s favour.
Many have argued that given the weakness of Opposition parties, especially the Congress, the BJP does not have to fear any political backlash. The BJP, however, will do well to realise that it is increasingly becoming a prisoner of its own propaganda. Once the die is cast, even the most sophisticated players cannot control all the pieces in the game. Similarly, electoral dominance leads to hubris, and it is easy to lose sight of the plot.
This unilateralism has already marred the BJP’s relations with its allies, including long-standing partners such as the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, to the point that there now remains only one non-BJP minister at the Centre. The BJP doesn’t invest enough in wooing them because it considers these allies as electoral deadweight riding the coattails of Modi’s popularity.
While this uncompromising approach may not lead to an outright defeat at the polls, there is an electoral cost associated with bypassing major social forces in any political set up. It erodes the political legitimacy of the governing regime, which can then begin to have electoral implications. The BJP must start building bridges across the political divide and minimise the backlash if it wishes to sustain its dominance over Indian politics for a long period.
Rahul Verma is a fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal