BJP Foundation Day: How Loyalty to Modi Became Bigger Than the Party

Authoritarian leaders do party organisations no good for they replace foundational principles with personal loyalty.

6 min read
BJP Foundation Day: How Loyalty to Modi Became Bigger Than the Party

For a party that has come to its present state of political domination in India by monetising its version of history, it is ironic that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is exceptionally selective when it comes to its own past.

When harping on events and developments that are part of the party’s own legacy, BJP leaders tend to be choosy because some incidents in the past are a tad embarrassing today. Though the BJP accuses the ‘left-liberals’, ‘sickularists’, ‘dynasts’ of ‘distorting’ history while sidestepping its own past, it's still not considered two-faced.


'History is Written By the Victors'

It is worthwhile to recall the old adage that is often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill: ‘history is written by the victors’. In the case of the BJP, the winners are unambiguously the present leadership, comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and whoever else has his confidence at a given moment.

For any ascendant political party, its Foundation Day is an occasion for the renewal of faith and for basking in the glory of overcoming past setbacks. Unsurprisingly, the BJP has planned a bouquet of activities starting with Modi’s speech, which will be telecast in every nook and corner of the nation.

Significantly, the celebrations are to conclude on 14 April, the birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar. This underscores the party’s appropriation of one of the greatest national icons with whom the Sangh Parivar leaders of that era had multiple divergences.

Significantly, on the same day, Modi is to inaugurate the refashioned Teen Murti complex, which will no longer remain synonymous with just Jawaharlal Nehru. Instead, the museum will now be known as 'Pradhanmantri Sanghralaya' (or Prime Ministers’ Museum), a new construction integrated with the old building that was Nehru’s residence till his death. It will bring the first premier’s legacy a notch down – from one among equals to one of the 14 former Prime Ministers so far.

Looking beyond this attempt at re-purposing Nehru’s legacy and/or his role in India’s history synchronously with the BJP's Foundation Day, it is worth recalling a few events in the party's own past that are discomforting for the present crop of leaders.

LK Advani's Crucial Blogpost on Diversity, Freedom

To begin with, in 2019, barely a month and a half before Modi secured his renewed and enhanced mandate nationally, former party president and Deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani, on the eve of the party’s 39th Foundation Day, made the following points in a blog-post:

  • For the BJP, adversaries are not “enemies or anti-national”

  • The BJP always adhered to the idea that “diversity and freedom of expression” were the “essence” of democracy in the country

  • The party was principally committed to the “independence, integrity, fairness, and robustness” of state institutions.

  • For the party, the order of precedence was always “nation first, party second, and self, last”.

He highlighted these points due to their absence from the party’s official credo. Couple this blog with the joint statement that Advani and three other BJP veterans signed in the aftermath of the Bihar assembly election in 2015. For a party that valued itself for a ‘collegiate’ style of functioning, those who gave shape to the organisational structure had pointed out that the BJP was now being “forced to kowtow to a handful”.

However, neither that blog nor the statement will find any mention in the speeches or documents that will do the rounds during the "Samajik Nyay Pakhwada" (social justice weeks) starting 7 April.

All government handouts or party statements today have the ring of Doordarshan bulletins of the olden days, where the broadcast started with ‘Pradhan Mantri Shri’ ... and ended on the same note.

How can Advani’s blog or the joint statement be revived and acknowledged as part of the party’s history? Did the four old hands not ask for a “review” and claim that the party had been “emasculated”? Today, dissent is a crime in the BJP vocabulary, be it inside the party or against the government.


The BJP Was Not Always So Confident

It is not that Modi began his reign within the BJP without murmurs against him. There was opposition to his anointment in 2013 even within the Nagpur-headquartered Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead. But his success in alchemising the winning formula is what has ensured the authoritarian turn within the party and his ascendency to a stage where even the President of India seconds the Prime Minister.

But the BJP had not always been so confident. Leaders who founded the party 42 years ago – they did not include any of the present crop of leaders except those who are part of the notional Margdarshak Mandal – had emerged battered by the Janata Party experience. Their diffidence was such that they did not have the courage to uphold their own political clan and its core belief – that which was represented by the Jana Sangh legacy.

Instead of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s fuzzy doctrine, Integral Humanism, the BJP put its faith in Gandhian Socialism despite it having zero resonance. Operationally, too, the new BJP of 1980 had no formal ties with the RSS, a development that was tough to digest for many purists. One of them, the revered Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, bemoaned in the first plenary in Bombay (as it was then) in December 1980 that at this rate “we [the BJP] will just be a pale copy of the Congress”.

Modi Believed In No Pretence

Much of this was rolled back in the first spell of Advani years starting 1986, when the party felt that its humiliating decimation in the 1984 Lok Sabha election was due to severing its umbilical relationship with the RSS. But after the post-Babri demolition plateau of the 1990s, the party again became convinced of its 1980 view, that entry into the Indian political arena cannot be made from the position of a publicly affirmed firm commitment to Hindutva. Consequently, following the 2004 defeat, even the once-strongman Advani sought reinvention by looking for secular virtues in MA Jinnah.

But Modi believed none of that. He was certain that the BJP could become a political player via the right flank, too. The only concession – or pretence – he was willing to make was to veil the real face of the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (Hindu leader) with that of the 'Vikas Purush' (Development Man). KN Govindacharya may be asked if his ‘mask’ or mukhota analogy would have been also, if not better, suited for Modi the ‘Development Man’ in the run-up the 2014 campaign.

An unsigned document is being circulated by party insiders on the occasion of Foundation Day. It is packed with a ‘sanitised’ historical account, selectively highlighting watershed events and certain ‘datasets’ that one has seen previously in the report released last year by the Pew Research Center surveying nearly 30,000 Indian adults.

For the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, almost 49% of Hindu voters nationwide backed the BJP, the single most important factor behind the party’s increased tally. The major share of Hindu support for the BJP came from the northern (68%) and central (65%) regions of the country. In eastern India, support for the BJP among Hindus fell to 46%, while in south India, it was just 19%.


What Will the BJP Do Once the Appeal Plateaus?

The BJP may be confident that this overwhelming support from numerically dominant states (regions where the BJP has a significant presence and is backed by Hindus account for almost 400 Lok Sabha seats) would ensure a permanent majority for it as this support comes on the back of prejudice against Muslims and Christians. But while this may provide a stable legislative majority, it will not necessarily ensure social stability.

History shows that strife-ridden regions have lagged behind in terms of growth, development and investment. Eventually, state governments, such as the one in Uttar Pradesh, will face the challenge of going beyond a plateau.

How the Sangh Parivar Will Eventually Become Redundant

Strong-willed and domineering leaders do party organisations no good for they corrode foundational structures and replace them with personal loyalty.

Friedrich Engels coined the Marxian concept of ‘withering away of the state’, arguing that after a socialistic stage was reached, the social institution of a state will become obsolete and disappear as society will become self-governing.

The RSS, and it follows that Modi, too, believes that the Sangh Parivar shall become eventually redundant because the ultimate objective is to convert the samaj (society) into the Sangh. The pitfall, however, is that the society that Engels knew was not divided on the basis of social or religious identities and the stage of growth he referred to was not to be reached by pitting one community against the other.

French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot’s latest book on India is titled Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy. If India, the BJP and the RSS begin to evolve into the RSS’s vision – that of people becoming ‘swayamsevaks’ – it would be prudent for Jaffrelot to start planning the title of a sequel. his next book, or the one(s) after that. (Let’s delete this bit in green) ‘Modi’s Indians’ would be apt.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India'. His other books include 'The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right' and 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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