Since all of us like to commemorate happy occasions – birthdays, weddings, victories – we can hardly begrudge the Bharatiya Janata Party its over-the-top celebration of the Narendra Modi government’s fourth anniversary.
Despite the shadow of the Karnataka setback, the BJP leadership and particularly the party president, Amit Shah, have been on a publicity overdrive these past few days. Narendra Modi assumed power on May 26, 2014, and every year, the date – and indeed several days preceding and following it – has been marked by a massive publicity blitzkrieg highlighting the “unprecedented” achievements of his government.
This year the celebrations have been even louder. Apart from full page advertisements in newspapers and adulatory programmes on television, Amit Shah has presided over several interactions with the media. Although it is the government that has completed four years in power, senior ministers have taken the back seat or, at best, have been part of the supporting cast. It is Amit Shah who has presided over the grand shows – complete with PowerPoint presentations and accompanying commentary from the defence minister, no less – aimed at hammering down just one message: India has never had it so good, no government since Independence has done so much in so little time for so many people. It is a message that Modi himself never tires of telling; an indefatigable salesman who has such great conviction in his own spiel that he cannot countenance any view to the contrary.
Amit Shah has taken it upon himself to amplify that overweening confidence. At the press conferences he has been addressing frequently of late, Shah dismisses questions regarding the BJP’s possible vulnerabilities with utter contempt. The party’s defeat in a spate of by-elections, the inability to form the government in Karnataka, the prospect of facing a united Opposition in 2019 are of no concern. The new BJP fashioned by him and Modi is an unstoppable force; there is no time to look back and ponder.
But outside the small circle hovering around Shah and Modi, there are others in the BJP who are not quite so sanguine, who are a little more aware of the complexities of Indian politics, of the limits of arrogance and the cult of personality.
And for them, the events of the last few days have reignited memories of another anniversary that also falls in the last week of May, but an anniversary far less joyous than the one the party is now celebrating.
It was on May 29, 1996, that the first BJP government fell even before facing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. The general elections that summer had once again thrown up a fractured verdict but the BJP, for the first time, had emerged as the single largest party with 161 seats. When the president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, invited it to form the government, the BJP accepted the offer with alacrity. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the prime minister on May 16 and given two weeks time to prove his majority.
The BJP back then had only three allies – the Samata Party, the Shiv Sena, and the Haryana Vikas Party. Despite every effort to get new allies, not a single party was ready to come on board. Vajpayee’s “moderate” image and affable personality were not enough to offset the BJP’s aggressive reputation after its leadership had presided over the demolition of the Babri Masjid three-and-a half years ago. The BJP had cast itself as a champion of Hindutva since the late 1980s and tasted heady success as a result: increasing its seats from two in 1984 to 85 in 1989, 120 in 1991 and reaching the single largest status with 161 in 1996.
That was it. The party’s aggressive Hindutva politics may have brought it much gain – but it also put a bar on its further growth. Realizing that getting a majority would be impossible, Vajpayee decided to resign a couple of days before his deadline. He made a gracious farewell speech in the Lok Sabha and promised he would return.
He did. Less than two years later, on March 19, 1998, Vajpayee was sworn in as prime minister again. This time, his government lasted 13 months instead of 13 days. And then he came back a third time, in October 1999, and led a government for a full term, before losing the 2004 elections.
But what is forgotten today are the lessons the BJP learnt from the 1996 defeat. The BJP leadership realized that while its “distinctive ideology” appealed to its core constituency, it also made it a political untouchable to many political parties who were committed to – for reasons both ideological and electoral – a more secular and inclusive vision of India.
In 1998, the BJP won just 21 more seats than in 1996. Yet, with 182 seats, it was able to lead a coalition government. The coalition, which was named National Democratic Alliance, came about only after the BJP decided to “set aside” some of its core issues that rendered it “distinctive”. These included the building of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, the abrogation of Article 370, and the adoption of a uniform civil code.
This ideological retreat from an explicit Hindutva agenda, coupled with the BJP leadership’s assiduous efforts to woo and nurture regional allies paid rich dividends. In the 1999 general elections, the BJP did not gain any seats but it secured many more allies. That the Congress was then seen to be in terminal decline helped. But so did the BJP’s more benign avatar. There was a time when the Vajpayee-led coalition comprised over 20 parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the National Conference, the Biju Janata Dal and the Trinamul Congress. The party had ceased to be a political untouchable except in the eyes of the Congress, the Left and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.
With the BJP sweeping to a spectacular victory with a majority of its own in 2014, Narendra Modi had every reason to think that the party had vanquished the ghost of the 1990s. The BJP no longer needed any allies, even though it decided to accommodate its pre-existing NDA partners in government. With Amit Shah crafting victory after victory in several states, and then managing to form governments even when numbers fell short, the BJP was increasingly sure of achieving not just its goal of a “Congress- mukt Bharat” but also of an “Opposition-free” India.
But electoral success has also brought about a return of the BJP’s “distinctive” ideology, with far more virulence and far greater spread than during the strife-torn days of the Ayodhya movement. Modi won the 2014 election on the “development” plank, never once making any direct reference to the party’s divisive ideology. Modi continues to speak of development, but, at the same time, has unleashed forces that are almost daily assaulting India’s secular and diverse fabric, intimidating the weak and the vulnerable, undermining institutions, stifling dissent and keeping the nation in a permanent state of indignation and anxiety.
Leave alone reaching out to the Opposition or nurturing existing allies, the Modi-Shah combine has little time or respect for senior colleagues in their own party.
That is why many BJP veterans view the Karnataka setback – coming in the wake of the Uttar Pradesh by-election results – with a little more consternation than they will publicly admit. If UP saw the coming together of two sworn enemies, Karnataka showed that ideology -even if merely paying lip service to it – can provide the glue to stick together an unlikely coalition in order to keep out the BJP.
Narendra Modi, to be sure, is still the most dominant figure in Indian politics today. Amit Shah is not alone in believing that Modi has the “magic” to win another majority government for the party next year. But there is also a growing number of skeptics within the saffron fold who think the party has become diminished under Modi, more embattled and isolated, despite its electoral successes.
They are not quite so ready to dismiss the coming together of a wide assortment of Opposition leaders at H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in last week as just a photo opportunity. The spectre of political untouchability, which had brought down their first government exactly 22 years ago, has come to haunt them once more.