Of course, the BJP’s challenge may not all be Nadda’s to address.
The BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, has been extensively re-made. The large mandates that swept it to power in 2014, and again in 2019, flag its transformation into a party that looks both more determined to win, and more winnable. Between 2014 and 2019, it steadily expanded its electoral footprint to areas where it was not a major player, and entrenched its domination where it was already strong. Since 2019, the script has been turning. Electorally, it is beginning to appear that its strength at the Centre is not matched by its appeal in the states. Most recently, it lost its governments in two of the three states that went to the polls — posting an underwhelming performance in Maharashtra where it also lost its oldest ally, barely managing to remain in the saddle with a post-poll coalition in Haryana, and being overtaken by an alliance of its political opponents in Jharkhand. At the same time, ideologically, the BJP is acquiring a new, or renewed thrust — the Modi government has criminalised triple talaq, toughened the UAPA and stripped J&K of its special status. It enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act, which, for the first time, makes religion a criterion of citizenship, and in tandem with a possible nation-wide NRC, sharpens the insecurities and anxieties of the Muslim community.
JP Nadda becomes BJP president amid protests against the CAA which have seen students and the young, Muslims and women, take the lead in campuses and cities. The ruling party has labelled the protests as the backlash of losers, or it has dismissed them as purely Muslim-driven, lacking a wider social base. Yet, Nadda’s party will not be able to take its eye off the push-back — it has already made the Modi government backpedal on the NRC and compelled the BJP to launch mass contact programmes on the CAA. Neither can it afford to overlook the setting — with the economy sputtering, inflation returning and investment drying up, India’s growth and its famed demographic dividend seem imperilled. Meanwhile, the Opposition, as overtaken by the so-far leaderless eruptions as the government, is sensing an opening.
Of course, the BJP’s challenge may not all be Nadda’s to address. It is no secret that his elevation is unlikely to change the reality that the BJP is now Amit Shah’s party. It could even be said that Nadda is being elevated to the post precisely because he ticks the boxes without posing a threat of another power centre. In a long career that began in student politics in the ABVP followed by the BJYM, through elections to the Himachal state assembly, ministership in the state and Union governments and membership of the Rajya Sabha, while discharging key organisational responsibilities, as in UP for the 2019 polls, Nadda has remained low key and uncontroversial. Yet, as he takes charge as BJP president, he will be watched for the impression he makes on the polity and the party in what are testing times for both.