BJP’s 4 Decades of Gaining Electoral Strength: What About Values?

Sudheendra Kulkarni
·10-min read

The Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has become a colossus in India’s political establishment. A major reason for their success is that the relations between the BJP and its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and also with other organisations in the Sangh Parivar, have never been more intimate and harmonious in the party’s 41-year-old history than now. But it wasn’t always like this.

BJP’s Defeat in 2005

I recall an incident on 6 April, 2005. The BJP was having a function at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi to mark the silver jubilee of its founding. The party was born on this very day in 1980, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Janata Party government in 1979.

However, the mood among the participants was not quite celebratory. The reason was obvious. The BJP, against its own expectations, had been defeated by a Congress-led alliance in the 2004 parliamentary elections. The disappointment caused by the loss of power at the Centre, especially since the party was hoping the people would give another term to popular Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was palpably in the air.

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Analysing the causes for the defeat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, and other organisations in the Sangh Parivar, notably the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had concluded that Hindu voters had rejected the saffron party because it had no longer remained saffron.

According to them, the BJP in its bid to become “secular” had abandoned its Hindutva ideology and paid the price. The defeat had forced M Venkaiah Naidu to step down as president of the party. In the absence of consensus over any name from its second generation of leaders, the BJP had given its reins back to party veteran Lal Krishna Advani.

BJP’s Uneasy Stretch with RSS After 2005

Although Advani was once a favorite of the Sangh Parivar because of his role in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, he, like Vajpayee, had fallen out of favour of many powerful leaders in the saffron family. Some of them had even hinted that the Sangh Parivar should consider forming a new party fully committed to the Hindutva ideology if the BJP was unwilling to shun its experiments with secularism.

The BJP at the time was in a dilemma. It did not want, nor could it afford, to cut its ties with the RSS. At the same time, many senior leaders in the party were feeling uneasy with the growing control of the RSS over the organizational matters of the party.

Since I was working for the BJP those days as a close aide of both Vajpayee and Advani, I, too, was attending the silver jubilee event. During lunch-break, I was standing in a corner with a small group of leaders that included Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar (all three are now no more) and another senior functionary I cannot name.

Mahajan, a powerful general secretary, a captivating orator and someone many thought had a bright future in national politics in the post-Vajpayee era, was angry over what he termed as the excessive powers the party’s organisational secretary at the national level and organising secretaries in state units had begun to exercise lately.

‘Organising Secretary’ in the BJP is always a pracharak nominated by the RSS.

“What’s happening in our party these days? How can the party’s organising secretary in Maharashtra (Mahajan’s home state) convene meetings of office bearers without the knowledge of the state party president and report directly to the national organisation secretary? Even I am kept in the dark about the meetings in my own state. This kind of RSS control is not good for the BJP.”

File photo of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.
File photo of late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.

Advani, too, had similar concerns. In his last speech as party president at its national executive meeting in Chennai in September 2005, he said the RSS should act as a moral guide to the BJP but not “micro-manage” its affairs. He resigned from his post, and was replaced by Rajnath Singh.

RSS-BJP Ties have Now Become Tighter than Ever

A brief recalling of this incident is useful to understand how much the internal dynamics of BJP-RSS have changed from the time of Vajpayee’s premiership (1998-2004) to Modi’s. During the six-year rule of the National Democratic Alliance (in which the BJP had partnered with many non-Congress and non-Communist parties to form a coalition government at the Centre), the party had managed to maintain a certain distance, both ideological and organisational, from the RSS.

But since 2014, when Modi led the BJP to national power with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, and with an even bigger majority in 2019, the BJP-RSS ties have been the closest ever.

Modi, unlike Vajpayee, has fully and unhesitatingly embraced the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology.

The parivar’s politics of communal polarisation, though toxic for the health of Indian society, has so far yielded rich electoral dividends to the BJP.

In organisational matters, too, both Modi and Amit Shah—who served as party president from 2014-2020 and continues to be its second most important leader even though JP Nadda has nominally succeeded him—have allowed the RSS to greatly expand its space and increase its control.

Indeed, the RSS has now deployed many more pracharaks (well-trained functionaries who devote their entire life to work for the Sangh) in the BJP with key organisational responsibilities at the national, state and even lower levels.

Besides Modi’s own widespread popularity, this complete ideological-organisational melding of the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar has immensely helped the party achieve unprecedented electoral success.

Vajpayee too was a popular leader. Indeed, his popularity, unlike Modi’s, transcended religious, regional and political boundaries. Yet, he failed to win a renewed mandate in 2004. Why? A major reason was the relative lack of enthusiasm in the ideological-organisational base of the Sangh Parivar. This base was even less motivated to work for the success of the BJP in the 2009 parliamentary elections, in which Advani was the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Thus, the BJP suffered two consecutive poll debacles in 2004 and 2009. All this changed in 2014 and 2019.

A portrait of former Prime Minister the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee that was unveiled by President Ram Nath Kovind on the occasion of his second death anniversary, on Sunday, 16 August 2020. The portrait was prepared by renowned artist Vasudeo Kamath for ICCR.
A portrait of former Prime Minister the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee that was unveiled by President Ram Nath Kovind on the occasion of his second death anniversary, on Sunday, 16 August 2020. The portrait was prepared by renowned artist Vasudeo Kamath for ICCR.

BJP’s Own Values Becoming Hollow

Yes, the BJP has become far stronger electorally than ever before in its history, or in the history of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—its earlier avatar—which was formed in 1951.

But has the BJP also become weaker in some crucial aspects of its own ideology, political philosophy and value system? Ask old-timers steeped in the foundational traditions of the RSS, BJP and the Jana Sangh, and they will admit privately that today’s BJP is unrecognisable from what it was in the Vajpayee-Advani era — and even more so from the era of the Jana Sangh under Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya.

The BJP regards Upadhyaya (1916-1968) as its ideological guru. But it follows its guru’s ideals and principles more in breach than in practice.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Deen Dayal Upadhyaya during his time with the Jana Sangh.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Deen Dayal Upadhyaya during his time with the Jana Sangh.

Throughout its existence of three and a half decades (1951-1977), the Jana Sangh was never a major political party in India in electoral terms. It won only three seats in the Lok Sabha in the first general elections in 1952. In the five general elections it contested, its highest tally was in 1967 — 35 MPs. This tally dipped to 22 in 1971. However, its national reputation, in terms of the admiration and respect it enjoyed both in society and across the political spectrum, was quite disproportionate to its parliamentary strength.

The Jana Sangh was known as a party with highly disciplined leaders and cadres, who lived simple lives, and were incorruptible. They were seen as standard bearers of morality in public life.

Upadhyaya himself embodied these qualities, because of which he was respected even by his ideological adversaries.

Are Today’s BJP Leaders Incorruptible Like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya?

Upadhyaya was a mentor to both Vajpayee and Advani. Therefore, it was not surprising that Vajpayee, in his maiden presidential speech at the BJP’s first plenary session in Bombay in 1980, remarked that the greatest crisis of India was “the moral bankruptcy in politics”. He told party workers that the BJP’s mission was not just to gain political power, but to transform Indian society on the basis of ethical values such as tolerance, simplicity and fraternity.

Have Modi and Shah ever reiterated this exhortation by their party’s founder-president? Have they even once uttered the words “morality in politics”?

In his memoirs ‘My Country My Life’, Advani has explained why the BJP chose the ‘Lotus’ as his party’s symbol. Lotus symbolises purity. Even when it grows in dirty water, it remains spotlessly clean. Similarly, he would repeatedly tell his party workers, the BJP must remain pure and clean even though it perforce had to function within a system corrupted by the Congress. This, according to him, would make the BJP a “party with a difference”.

PM Narendra Modi and LK Advani in an old photograph.
PM Narendra Modi and LK Advani in an old photograph.

Is the Lotus Spotless? No.

Here is another contrast between the BJP of today and yesteryears. Both the Jana Sangh and the BJP in its initial decades were at the forefront of demanding reforms in India’s electoral system to rid it of the corrupting impact of illicit money power.

Have Modi and Shah made electoral reforms and transparency in poll funding their priority?
No.

On the contrary, the BJP today has become the richest party in India, with zero transparency and accountability in how it collects and spends its resources. It is all too well known that at least some of these funds are spent on buying MLAs and toppling governments in opposition-ruled states. Ironically, this corrupt practice has come to be known as ‘Operation Kamal’.

There are many more ways in which today’s BJP has jettisoned the ideals it once held in high esteem. Its leaders once took pride in fighting for the restoration of democracy after it was eclipsed during the Emergency. Today the same party’s government is curtailing people’s democratic rights and undermining the independence of India’s democratic institutions.

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BJP Needs to Go Back to Founding Principles

Traditionally, the RSS, Jana Sangh and the BJP in the Vajpayee-Advani era never encouraged personality cult and sycophancy. Today, the cult of Modi has become ubiquitous. Internal democracy was once the hallmark of the BJP. It has now evaporated, because none can question anything Modi and Shah say, do or decide.

The cumulative effect of all this is not yet fully obvious. The party is currently riding high because of its unassailable parliamentary strength and its electoral success in several states. But it is also becoming increasingly weak within.

No organisation retains its vitality once it begins to be careless about its own stated values and principles. How and when this contradiction in today’s BJP will manifest itself in a major setback or a crisis cannot be foretold. But one thing is certain. The post-Modi BJP will suffer the consequences of all the ways in which it has arrogantly jettisoned its own lofty foundational ethics and ideals.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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