How the BJP Cemented its Presence & Influenced India Over 40 Years

BJP’s supremacy is not just confined to votes, but more significantly, it is the mind space that the party occupies.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

It is tough to believe that forty years ago a group of genial political leaders assembled in the Indian capital to establish a new political party without the courage to own their political clan and core belief.

It is still difficult to accept that descendants of the same motley crowd of politicians now have the chutzpah to make the most provocative assertions without even batting an eyelid.

The change in the fundamental character of the party in these forty years, since 6 April 1980 when the Bharatiya Janata Party was constituted, is not the most important matter to be noted on this important anniversary which has passed almost unnoticed because of the preoccupation with COVID-19.

More crucial is the transformation it has catalysed in India's soul and spirit. Although a peripheral political force, pariah or political untouchable for close to a decade, the party gradually established hegemony over all of India and now is the most dominant political force.

Importantly, BJP’s supremacy is not merely restricted to the electoral arena, but more significantly, it is the mind space that the party occupies and moulds.

‘Take it or Leave it’

Gone is the consensus of India being a land of multiple diversities where forging unity was the political normal.

This has been replaced by 'take it or leave it' attitude where it is incumbent for social groups on the margins to create room for themselves and merge into the wider national stream. Geniality is no longer a part of the average Indian's characteristic.

When India Gandhi triumphantly returned to power in January 1980 on the twin slogans of ‘vote for a government that works’ and ‘elect those who can run a government’, it was evident that further convulsions could not be prevented within the Janata Party.

Previously in August 1979, Charan Singh walked out with his band and became the prime minister with the Congress’ backing. All that remained was the original Congress (O) faction, the Jana Sangh group, and a few others from different backgrounds.

One of the two big groups had to leave the other with the task of holding on to the rump. It was the latter that decided to find its own path in the last week of March and called for a 'convention' of loyalists.

Collapse of Janata Party

Besides personality clashes, the Janata Party collapsed on the 'dual membership' issue. Given that considerable fog has settled on large parts of contemporary political history, it is opportune to recall the past.

The bone of contention was whether some members of the Janata Party could continue having links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (it does not have formal membership).

The former Jana Sangh members saw no problem with this because they claimed the RSS was ‘non-political’ (undoubtedly self-contradictory an argument), while others wanted them to sever ties with the Hindu nationalistic outfit.

Peculiarly, none of the "quit RSS" proponents realised that they could possibly force their party colleagues to shed old clothes, but not alter their political genealogy.

The irony, however, was that when the Jana Sangh group finally began deliberations on 5 April, most suggested that the new party should shed its Jana Sangh legacy, have no formal ties with the RSS and should instead model itself as inheritors of Jayaprakash Nayaran's mantle.

It was not without resistance that Messrs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani could eventually adopt the indefinable term – Gandhian Socialism – as the new credo of the party and stop all formal interaction with RSS.

"We will just be a pale copy of the Congress," bewailed Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia. That is what the BJP was mostly over the next four odd years.

RSS, Congress and Indira Gandhi’s Assassination

Consequently, the RSS cadre responded in the 1984 Lok Sabha election by backing Congress candidates at most constituencies because Indira Gandhi's assassination, as a consequence of increasing Sikh alienation, provided ground for Hindu consolidation.

The narrative of a besieged majority under threat in 'their own' land had already got a push in the aftermath of mass conversions in Meenakshipuram. The prime minister's killing deepened insecurity further.

A committee was established to study and recommend a plan to put the party on rails after its humiliating performance (just two Lok Sabha seats and defeat of Vajpayee). Most recommendations were left unsaid but it became apparent soon what was decided.

In a series of manoeuvres, Advani replaced Vajpayee at the helm and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s construct ‘Integral Humanism’, an equally dense political theory, was declared the party’s official philosophy.

But more importantly, the BJP and the RSS restarted regular sessions of samanvaya samiti or Coordination Committee in which party leaders discussed political issues with those from the ideological fountainhead.

Pracharaks Including Modi Shifted to BJP in 1987

Another significant facet of their relationship which was restarted was regular deputation of RSS pracharaks to the BJP. The system that was started way back in 1951 with the Jana Sangh when Upadhayaya was 'loaned' to the party after it was established but discontinued once BJP was established.

The first lot of pracharaks shifted to the BJP in early 1987 included the man who eventually led the party to its overarching dominance: Narendra Modi.

Although the BJP made much of its stride from a marginal force to being what Advani said in 1991, "government in waiting", party leaders realised India was not yet ready to enter the political citadel from the right wing.

Several months before the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, Advani made way for Vajpayee in the hope that his centrist-position would be more acceptable to people and more importantly to other non-Congress parties.

The second half of 1990s was chiefly the story of BJP's rise as the principal party of governance. Yet, its three 'contentious issues' were still in the backseat and not part of the National Democratic Alliance's agenda.

On Ram Mandir, Vajpayee did not allow the VHP to go the whole hog. But there was evidence that the sangh parivar sensed increased support for its arguments of an enfeebled Hindu who required to be more assertive.

As a result, after prolonged deliberations, the prime minister agreed to allow Modi to continue as chief minister even after his much touted message to follow Raj Dharma.

Doubts Over Success of Hardline Hindutva

But the defeat in 2004 revived doubts in the minds of BJP leaders if hardline Hindutva would work or not. In his final bid to become prime minister, Advani, too moderated his image by finding virtues in Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Even Modi was not certain if his Hindu Hriday Samrat persona would take him beyond Gujarat and thereby configured the Vikas Purush image.

But, it was the sangh parivar which realised that India was ready for the politics that Modi represented and chose him over other claimants in the party to be the prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

The campaign in that election was fronted by development issues, but Hindutva always lurked in the background. Modi was applauded by large sections of Indians for declaring he was a Hindu nationalist displaying none of the diffidence of his elders in revealing true colours.

In Modi, the 1989 slogan had the first practitioner at the helm: garv se kaho hum Hindu hain (say with pride we are Hindus)

Modi and Majoritarian Politics

It did not take weeks after assuming office for Modi to demonstrate intent to promote majoritarian politics. From the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the coordinator for a couple of bye elections in the autumn of 2014, he steadily pursued the politics of muscular nationalism steeped in Hindutva.

Much of the hypothesis postulated by Hindu nationalists from the time VD Savarkar wrote his treatise on Hindutva, the effort has been to get targeted Indians to suspend all rational reasoning and assessment.

How else could they have actually come to believe that Hindus will become a minority in India eventually? Or many other similar arguments all aimed at heightening insecurity.

Much of the Ram Mandir agitation was built around such tactics by the crafty Ashok Singhal and his associates from RSS who sensed an untapped dislike for Muslims among sections of Hindus.

Advani gave this sentiment intellectual articulation and tried to reason with people in his heydays.

As a mass leader, Advani had limitations while Vajpayee had an inbuilt check mechanism, stemming from the belief that the Nehruvian consensus was deeply entrenched and it was not time to try uprooting it. Modi’s BJP was never handicapped by such misgivings.

Modi's vocabulary was not laced in geniality from the time he hit the road to Delhi with the 2002 riots. He sensed people were angry and saw an opportunity to harness the political Hindu. In each of his messages or engagement with people directly, be it COVID-19, Balakot, or even demonetisation, there is always a cultural (read religious) nationalist message delivered subliminally.

Forty years ago when BJP was established, its leaders at the helm aimed at rationally securing space and acceptance for the party. In today's India, party leaders are not interested in tailoring their politics to meet people's expectations.

Instead, BJP's leaders led by Modi are tailoring for the people an India that is envisioned by all within the sangh parivar and getting people to gleefully accept it.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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