The BJP and Its Prospects – A Turning Point in Indian Politics?

If the general elections of 2014 constitute a ‘turning point’ in Indian politics, as is sometimes suggested, it must be either because of Arvind Kejriwal or because of Narendra Modi. After all, these two figures are the only ‘new’ elements at the national level of Indian politics of any significance, provided that we do not interpret an imminent succession in the Gandhi family as a significant novelty. Between the two, Kejriwal has the greater novelty factor, and he has certainly proven his ability to enthuse people. However, the turning point argument was around before his ascent into the hearts and minds of published and public opinion, and his potential impact on the coming general elections was perceived to be limited even by his most ardent admirers until very recently. Modi, too, has proven his ability to enthuse people. He also imparts an element of angst into an electoral process that would otherwise be exciting for the unpredictability of its results rather than its impact on the direction of Indian policy.

The fear Modi imparts (and some enthusiasm at least in a small but still sizable part of the Indian population) is related to the Gujarat pogrom, reinforced last autumn by the outbreak of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, despite the fact that Uttar Pradesh witnessed a series of communal riots since 2012 that can hardly be attributed to Modi’s rise within the BJP. Modi was likened to Hitler, though this use of analogies with German history was subsequently toned down to some extent. “Few people would have expected Hitler to become the monster that he was in 1932” and “Hitler did not need an absolute majority to turn the Weimar Republic into Nazi Germany” I was told last September by an economist friend who is everything but prone to exaggeration or emotional analyses.

And it is more than communal violence that causes this angst: Modi is so much more than the alleged ‘butcher of Gujarat’. It has often been argued that there are two faces of Modi, his hindutva (hindu nationalist) and his development avatars: Modi as Hindu Pride and Tata Nano Hero. Yet, to many people who are afraid of renewed communal rioting, Modi’s second face would not be much prettier. His developmental record in Gujarat cannot be doubted in terms of simple measures such as GDP growth, even though this may not be such a singular achievement compared to some other Indian states. But his policies on this account easily reflect concerns on crony capitalism while his perceived authoritarian streak raises fears on the stability of India’s political institutions.

If 2014 will be a turning point in Indian politics and Modi’s ascendance the underlying reason, the Nazi analogy may still be far-fetched. But would it not be conceivable that 2014 – in hindsight – would appear as another turning point in Indian politics, like 1971, only this time with its economic policy effect reversed? If Arvind Rajagopal, professor at New York University, is correct and the Emergency constituted the pre-history of the new middle classes, would the turning point 2014 not signify their coming of age?

The presidential delusion

The BJP has long prided itself on its leadership quality, supposedly traceable to the senior leaders Vajpayee and Advani as well as to its ‘second generation’ leadership (which, ironically, Modi needed to supplant in order to emerge as the party’s prime ministerial candidate). In line with this self-depiction, the party has a track record of pushing for a presidential political system. It did so openly during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when it advocated constitutional reforms, though it subsequently had to withdraw the issue. Nevertheless, its discourse has for several years been shaped by a longing for presidential-style political contests. It has been seeking to streamline the disorderly appearance of the Indian political mainstream into a competition between two leaders, the personalities of whom would come to symbolize the issues at stake. It has been trying to pitch various attributions to the ‘entrenched’ system represented by the Congress and the smaller, regional parties against its self-attributions as decisive, reformist and governance-oriented. While the BJP has had only limited success in this so far, the yearning for a simplified, streamlined, and possibly presidential political system is shared by a sizable section of an increasingly ‘Americanized’ public opinion as represented by major newspapers and news channels.

This yearning for a simplified political choice in the face of an apparently (though superficially observed) chaotic political contest is what links Modi and Kejriwal. Until recently it also formed part of the script to which the Congress tried to showcase Rahul Gandhi, contrasting him as a ‘youth icon’ with the established politicians. Novelty thus reflects a change of political style rather than content. It relates to a mostly middle class-based discourse which emphasizes swift political decision-making – typically described as governance by observers who seem tired of the actual nitty-gritty of governing – over the centrist and often consensual mode of functioning of the Indian state. Governance in this perception equals a kind of leadership which is capable of overriding the obstacles posed by the need for consensus creation rather than being capable of taking along diverse interests in the ‘old-fashioned’ Nehruvian way. It does not necessarily reflect a full-fledged desire for authoritarian leadership, but it does reflect an authoritarian impulse as long as the leader is capable of dominating the electoral process.

While the presidential system which underlies this authoritarian impulse has come to dictate the published discourse, it nevertheless does not take into account the manifold other voices in Indian politics: Both major national parties have lost a significant amount of acceptability as coalition partners since they began to turn towards presidential discourses. The alliance systems centering on the Congress and the BJP have disintegrated in political practice. Lacking an adequate focus point, the myriad possibilities of Third Front alliances have failed to materialize, but their prospective protagonists still control a sizable vote share. In fact, the disintegration of established patterns of party competition in many of the larger Indian states is one of the hallmarks of the last years of UPA rule, with West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar joining the ranks of states with multi-polar electoral contests. As the longstanding example of Uttar Pradesh indicates, very small differences in vote shares can lead to major swings in seat numbers and can durably limit the predictability of electoral outcomes.

The presidential delusion of the BJP as well as a major part of public opinion appears all the more glaring when confronted with the ground facts of the electoral processes in states which together comprise about half the seats in the Lok Sabha. The Congress can fall back upon being the ‘default option’ in Indian politics as noted by Rahul Gandhi, at least when it comes to coalition-building. The BJP, however, does not face any easy options in this regard. Barring Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalitha who might be aiming for the prime minister’s post herself rather than helping Modi, few among the stronger regional parties have good reasons to side with the BJP. Realistically, even including prospective partners after it might have emerged as the single largest party, the BJP would have to come close to its best performance ever, if it wanted to form the next government without a major post-poll realignment of forces which would go contrary to the stated policies of a number of regional parties.

Where would all the seats come from?

Given that the party needs about 180 seats in order to be able to form the next government, where would these be coming from? The BJP might be able to repeat its electoral successes in the last state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi which would probably translate into about 55-60 seats. It can hope to do very well in Gujarat and Punjab and might gain some seats in Haryana, Jharkhand and the hill states, but (not counting its NDA allies) it cannot expect more than 35 seats from these states. Even with Yediyurappa’s return to the party in Karnataka, it appears unlikely that the BJP could cross 15 seats in the southern states. Recent elections in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam indicate that it does not have a major role to play in the eastern states either. In Maharashtra the party would need a fulminant performance to cross 12 seats. Barring UP and Bihar, the very best the BJP can hope for from the major states are about 120 seats.

Accordingly, it would need to win about half of the seats in these two states to reach the parliamentary strength where it could attract further allies on the basis of its electoral performance. In Bihar the impact of the split between the BJP and the JDU creates uncertainty. In a largely tri-polar contest with more or less equally popular contenders, the elections are likely to be decided by very small margins. A similar situation has prevailed in UP, by far the most important state for the BJP in the coming elections, for the last two decades: At present, many observers perceive a decline of the Samajwadi Party there, based on the present government’s unpopularity. Whether or not the popularity of the Akhilesh Yadav government is really declining, however, what many observers of UP politics tend to forget is that it is long since there was a government in the state which was ‘popular’ in the sense that it was appreciated by an absolute majority of the voters. The ruling party gained an absolute majority of seats on a vote share of less than 30 per cent. Swing votes towards a possibly expanding BJP would hurt all other major players in a similar way, thus bringing down the required benchmarks for electoral success even further. While this diminishes the predictability of electoral results, it still does not seem very probable that the BJP would be able to make sufficient gains in UP and Bihar to offset its weaknesses in the south and east.

If the chances for government formation still appear bleak, how then can we explain Modi’s reasoning in running as prime ministerial candidate? Why did a sizable section of the BJP leadership fall in line with this? And, crucially, why did the RSS  lend its full-scale support to an enterprise that seems so unlikely to succeed at this stage?

Short- and long-term aims: A postponement of the turning point in Indian politics?

Admittedly, it might just be very simple; Modi may actually have believed his own personal appeal would be sufficient to win the coming elections in a ‘presidential’ contest, even considering the relatively weak starting position of the BJP. And, for that matter, he might still be proven correct. Modi has been known to take calculated risks before, both in intra-party conflicts and, notably, in the case of the Gujarat pogrom where his own position as chief minister was far from secure for a while. And Modi’s ascent has certainly helped to energize the party, while the RSS has been able to use his candidacy as a means to galvanize support from the larger Sangh Parivar.

Yet Modi’s rise to the top of the party includes a strong element of risk: He has taken a gamble by staking his relatively secure position in Gujarat against his chances to maintain his pre-eminent position at the national level of the party if the electoral success he needs fails to materialize. Similarly, by its unqualified support to Modi in the run-up to his candidacy, the RSS is not only risking the future career of possibly the most popular political leader in the Hindu nationalist spectrum, it even takes a calculated risk in handing the reins of the party to a person on whom it only has a very tenuous hold. Its spokespersons have gone on record stating that the RSS leadership fears for its very existence in case the Congress returns to power, though it seems unlikely that a probably significantly weakened Congress heading a shaky coalition government would be in any position to pose a lethal threat to the RSS. George Tsebelis, professor at the University of Michigan, has remarked that if the behavior of activists appeared to be strange, this would be because one normally assumed that their behavior should make sense. Neither Modi nor the RSS are in the habit of taking long-term risks for short-term gains but, rather, the reverse. In this respect, what would be the long-term aims of the major protagonists of last summer’s developments in the BJP that would offset the respective short-term risks?

For Modi, the summer of 2013 formed an opportunity to reach a pre-eminent position in the party in concert with the RSS, despite their previously strained relations, and before the possible emergence of other rivals like Shivraj Singh Chauhan, at the apex of his popularity in Gujarat and with the BJP cadres. To speculate on another chance in a few years, after the demise of a possibly short-lived government, would have meant letting go of an opportunity to strike a deal with the RSS as well as risking a confrontation with a renewed ‘collective’ leadership which would have been the preferred choice of the RSS, had it been a viable option without including Advani.

For the future of the BJP it will be the exact number of seats they are able to win which will decide its future course, much more so than under ‘normal’ circumstances. Since post-poll alliance formation is likely to remain difficult, Modi needs a number of seats which sets him apart from other contenders to remain more than – at best – primus inter pares. At the same time, being able to push Modi back into this position in which his dominance can be held in check by more publically acceptable leaders, excepting the older generation, may very well be what other BJP leaders and the RSS have been aiming at all along. If the BJP performs reasonably but not outstandingly well, the ‘turning point’ of Indian politics may be postponed for some more time.

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