The essential aspect is the orientation of the BJP as a party in government at the Centre
For historians in the future, 2020 will always be marked as the year of the Great Pandemic, a year when the whole world took refuge behind masks and economies took a spectacular beating. Since last March, normal life as we have known it either came to a halt or was spectacularly redefined. In time to come, the story of the recent past will be divided by pre-Covid and post-Covid.
Yet, an aggregate view that highlights change and transformation often obfuscates the deep continuities between two otherwise distinct chapters. This came to the fore during the elections to the Bihar assembly two months ago. The fear that traditional campaign methods would become irrelevant in the face of a fear of the pandemic and that turnout of voters would see a sharp decline turned out to be unfounded. All the preparations for a virtual campaign conducted through smart phones and tablets came to nought as campaigners and voters indicated their clear preference for politics as usual, including mass rallies where social distancing was illusory. Covid should have been the Great Fear, but the political world chose to confront it fearlessly.
The year of the pandemic began with a flurry of excitement over the repeal of Article 370 and the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that fast-tracked Indian citizenship for those who fled religious persecution from neighbouring countries. It has ended with well-off farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh trying to overturn a range of agricultural reforms. Both movements witnessed a significant mobilisation of sectional interests and both were romanticised by the Opposition parties that had emerged from the 2019 general election battered and bruised. Naturally their target was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose lotus was in full bloom after outright victories in successive general elections.
How the BJP has conducted itself in the past year, even as it faced sustained challenges from disparate movements is worth a serious look.
The most important aspect is the orientation of the BJP as a party in government at the Centre. The period after 2014 is not the first occasion the BJP has been in power with a charismatic leader at the helm. It was in power between 1998 and 2004, although never with an outright parliamentary majority. On both occasions, the Prime Minister of the day had maintained aloofness from day-to-day politics. Atal Bihari Vajpayee liked to project himself as the great consensus builder, balancing between different pulls and pressures and on a number of occasions taking positions that offended the BJP rank-and-file and the leadership of the RSS. Although Vajpayee was routinely wheeled out during elections, his enduring popularity in the Indian Establishment lay in the belief that he was ‘the right man in the wrong party.’
An unintended consequence of Vajpayee’s projection as a non-partisan leader was the party’s loss of focus. With no real experience of the art of combining its responsibility in government with its role as a political party, the BJP emulated the Congress experience of subordinating the party to the government. Consequently, party units were often reduced to the role of patronage facilitators, resulting in the creation of a large body of disappointed BJP workers. The sangh parivar in turn was miffed that the Vajpayee government left many of its core concerns unaddressed. These were factors behind the listlessness of BJP units during the 2004 election campaign and the consequent defeat.
It is to the credit of Narendra Modi that he imbibed the lessons of the 1998-2004 experience and sought to inject the party with a new sense of purpose even while wielding power at the Centre.
First, there was a conscious attempt to draw in the party units in the initiatives of the Modi government. During the lockdown and beyond, the entire party was mobilised to disburse relief to the vulnerable sections and even facilitate the evacuation of migrant workers to their home states. This may explain why, despite the magnitude of economic dislocation in the wake of the lockdown and after, the BJP wasn’t a victim of any backlash during the Bihar elections.
Secondly, in addressing some of the party’s core concerns such as the repeal of Article 370 and the enactment of CAA, the Modi government was able to establish a very strong emotional connect with the larger saffron parivar. This has ensured that predictable disappointments over patronage have not translated into bitterness against the Centre. Unlike the Vajpayee government which—despite the personal respect the Prime Minister commanded—was viewed with a tinge of detachment, the BJP units all over India view the Modi government as their very own. This profound sense of ownership has contributed to energetic political activity, even during non-election seasons. It is highly significant that Modi’s innings hasn’t recorded any serious spat between the RSS and the government. This was a recurrent feature of Vajpayee’s term.