Making Sense Of The Real BJP Beyond The Rhetoric
On its foundation day, Asiaville tells you all you need to know about the BJP and its governments.
Two days back, LK Advani wrote a blog post purportedly to explain what the BJP as a party stood for.
He said he was doing so just before the party’s foundation day on April 6. The blog post was interpreted as an attack on the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, with Advani saying that the BJP had never looked at its political rivals as enemies or “anti-nationals”. He added that the party believed in the freedom of expression and the sanctity of democratic institutions.
The veteran’s words seemed to obliquely hit out at the party leadership for labeling the opposition as “pro-Pakistan” post-Balakot, an internal Othering that was also seen when Jawaharlal Nehru University students had sedition cases slapped on them in 2016 for purportedly raising “anti-national” slogans.
So, is the BJP what Advani says? Or it is what the present regime does?
The party – which was born on this date 39 years back – has had a distinctive ideological colour and a political trajectory worth recalling.
It has been in power for 11 years since independence and tasted power after merging into the Janata Party for a brief period from 1977.
However, it has emphasised its difference from the Congress and made no secret of its dislike for the left.
It has made ideological adjustments sometimes, but has been identified for its long-term focus on three issues: the demand for a Ram temple at Ayodhya, for abrogating Article 370 of the constitution giving special status to Kashmir, and for a Uniform Civil Code for all Indians, irrespective of religion.
Even before the BJP was born on April 4, 1980, its ideological predecessor Bharatiya Jana Sangh considered such themes as important.
These things, in fact, became the BJP’s distinctive political markers, making it different from most political parties.
Timeline of the BJP.
The Muslim Other
The three themes are different but interconnected at the core. The connection is singular: there is a subtext of a Muslim threat or Muslim retrogression running through each of them.
So, the Ram temple is very crucial not just because at stake is Lord Ram’s ‘birthplace’, but because there is a belief that Mir Baqi, a general of the first Mughal emperor Babur, destroyed an existing Ram temple at Ayodhya, replacing it with the Babri mosque.
The destruction of the mosque on December 6, 1992, was projected by extreme rightwing opinion as the obliteration of the blot of past slavery.
A popular slogan in 1990 in north India put it in these words: “Daastaa ka kalank mitaayenge; mandir waheen banaayenge.” (We shall obliterate the blot of slavery and build a Ram temple there).
Ironically, it was LK Advani who shot to fame with the Ram temple Rath Yatra in those polarised times. Two days back, however, it is he who has obliquely advised his one-time protégé Narendra Modi not to reduce national discourse to an us-vs-them political slugfest between “nationalists” and “anti-nationals”.
To be fair to him, however, while the content of Advani’s politics in the 1990s was hardline, he was always known to be accommodative, in a formal sense, where his political articulations were concerned.
Let’s look at the next theme: demand for the abrogation of Article 370. If the Ram temple movement was a concrete expression of the belief that medieval India constituted past slavery, the demand for full integration of Kashmir cautions the country that a Muslim majority breaks India. Another slogan of the 1990s said: “Hindu ghataa, desh bataa” (If Hindu population falls, the country disintegrates).
Hinduism, thus, becomes synonymous with national identity and decennial census numbers become crucial. In fact, this centrality of census figures to identity politics – Hindu or Muslim – was noticed every since the colonial state began to count communities from the late 19th century. A clear exposition of this theme was a 1908 pamphlet of a person called Col UN Mookerjee: ‘Hindus: A Dying Race’. He had claimed that Hindus would become extinct from the planet in a few centuries. Related to this is the theme that Muslims continue to expand in numbers while Hindu apparently don’t, something that feeds into the discourses of the Muslim threat as also Muslim ‘backwardness’.
The third favourite theme of the BJP – Uniform Civil Code – is directly related to “Muslim backwardness” as an idea. The Modi government brought in a Bill to make instant triple talaq – outlawed by the Supreme Court in response to a bunch of petitions by Muslim women – a criminal offence. Many critics questioned this, saying that the intended law criminalised a civil wrong, also wondering how a man in jail would pay maintenance. However, Modi associated it with the need to offer “justice” to “Muslim sisters”.
In other words, the three key themes the BJP has repeatedly talked about in the past few decades have a Muslim Other, who is threatening and also backward.
What drives this tacitly anti-Muslim politics? To understand the motivations of this politics – something that the articulations of several BJP leaders concealed in the past – we have to step back to explore the BJP’s ideological moorings.
Hindu nationalism is a phenomenon that is more than a century old. It emerged alongside secular, Indian, nationalism, but as its ideological opposite.
If secular nationalism – celebrating what it saw as India’s composite culture – sought to bring communities closer, Hindu nationalism saw Hindus as the core of Indian nationalism and attempted to exacerbate community differences. It bought the colonial idea that Hindus and Muslims were two, warring, nations – even the Muslim-centrism of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Iqbal and the Syed Ahmad Khan in their later phases did the same – fully and sought to base its politics on it.
Few realise that, say, VD Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were philosophically closer to each other than is discernible in their mutual condemnations. One supported Hindus and the other claimed to be the spokesperson of Muslims, but both agreed that Hindus and Muslims were irreconcilable foes. One wanted a Hindu Rashtra within an undivided India; the other wanted a separate Muslim nation by the 1940s to prevent Muslims from being “swamped” by a Hindu majority.
The opposite of this identitarian politics was the politics of a galaxy of nationalists calling for unity, be it Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or Bhagat Singh.
The Congress emerged as the key vehicle of this accommodative Indian nationalism, which got enshrined in the Indian constitution.
The Hindu Mahasabha came up – beginning with the Hindu Sabhas founded in Punjab by 1907 – as the political expression of Hindu nationalism. It also believed in electoral politics, though it had many Congressmen within its ranks who dissuaded it from purely Hindu politics. These individuals – like Lala Lajpat Rai – wanted the Mahasabha to be just a platform for voicing Hindu grievances rather than being a national counterweight to the Congress.
However, there was a radically Hindutva side of the Mahasabha, represented by Bhai Parmanand – who had demanded Partition along community lines as early as 1907 – and VD Savarkar, who wrote the pamphlet Hindutva in 1923, defining a Hindu as someone who saw India as both his “fatherland” and “holy land”. Muslims and Christians were definitionally excluded from this Hindu-ness, made synonymous with “Indian-ness”. Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism, but is often mistaken to be so.
Parallel to the Hindu Mahasabha emerged the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded in 1925 by KB Hedgewar, a former Congressman, at Nagpur.
The RSS shunned active politics but sought to infuse Hindu nationalism in the minds of Hindu youth through daily Shakhas (branches), where people would congregate, perform some physical exercises, play games and listen to ideological discourses (bauddhik).
The idea: the Sangh, an expression of Hindu nationalism, should be not just an organisation in society but the organisation of society. In other words, the Sangh should percolate society and infuse it with ideals of the Sangh, meaning Hindu unity vis-a-vis the “minority threat”.
The RSS’ second Sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar is a core ideologue of Hindu nationalism. In the text 'Bunch of Thoughts', attributed to him, a section lists ‘Muslims, Christians and Communists’ as ‘Internal Threats’.
In a recent three-day public address in Delhi, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat insisted that the RSS had moved beyond this and wished to accommodate Muslims. However, despite this assertion – which comes at a time when there have been reports of the lynching of Muslims on suspicion of cow slaughter – he said the word Hindu is applicable to all Indians and is synonymous with Bharatiya or Indian.
Soon after its birth, the RSS began to reach out to segments of society in order to expand its reach. The result: many RSS-affiliated organisations came up.
In 1936, Lakshmibai Kelkar founded the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti to train women on RSS grounds. In 1948, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was founded by Balraj Madhok, an RSS pracharak, to counter communist influence on campuses.
In 1952, Nanaji Deshmukh, another RSS pracharak, started the Saraswati Shishu Mandir initiative to inculcate Sangh values in young minds. The umbrella organisation over these called Vidya Bharti came up in 1977. In 1964, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad came up as an RSS affiliate. Other prominent RSS affiliates include the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram – a tribe-centric body against Christian influence among tribals – and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, a large workers’ organization.
Christophe Jaffrelot traces the birth of these affiliates in his book ‘Sangh Parivar: A Reader”.
The Jana Sangh
Jaffrelot cites evidence to argue that after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, when Sardar Patel banned the Sangh, the RSS felt the need for a direct political affiliate.
In 1951, the RSS offered the services of its young leaders to help found the Jana Sangh, set up by Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Advani was one of the co-founders of the Jana Sangh, apart from Vajpayee.
Deen Dayal Upadhyaya became a crucial leader of this organisation. He wrote a pamphlet Integral Humanism -- considered a core ideological text by the BJP -- which broadly lifts some Gandhian ideas, to which it introduces a vague concept of Chiti (the core consciousness) of the nation.
The Jana Sangh had a narrow, urban, upper caste, social base and was unable to match the Congress. The Gandhian legacy – which had denied Hindutva prominence even within frames of Hindu symbolism – and the popularity of the Mahatma’s decidedly secular successor Nehru ensured that the Jana Sangh remained a marginal force.
The Indian constitution also stood for secular and pluralistic values. The Nehru government steered clear of identity-centrism and instead pushed for a secular state with a mixed economy having a socialist slant.
Jana Sangh and alliance politics
By the 1960s, the Jana Sangh knew that there was just one way of challenging the Congress: making common cause with other parties seeking to dislodge the Congress.
The first success of this model came in 1967, when the Jana Sangh formed Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments in some north Indian states as post-poll legislative arrangements. The Congress lost its primacy for the first time since independence.
In UP, MP, Haryana and Bihar, Congress governments were formed but toppled through desertions within the assembly. Sanyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments were formed but proved short-lasting. The Jana Sangh, socialists, Swatantra Party and Congress defectors were the force behind the SVD governments.
Just a year before this, in 1966, the Jana Sangh had been part of a major anti-cow slaughter agitation.
The JP movement and mainstreaming
The Jana Sangh’s first clear tryst with power came, ironically, with its dissolution. In the early 1970s, student movements in Gujarat and Bihar against Congress governments saw freedom fighter and socialist Jaya Prakash Narayan coming out of his self-imposed political exile. He gave the call for ‘Total Revolution’ to topple the Indira Gandhi government amid high inflation, allegations of corruption, over-centralisation of power and manipulation of institutions.
The wave of anger followed Indira’s spectacular victory in 1971, when she had defeated a grand alliance of the Jana Sangh, socialists, Congress (O) and Swatantra Party.
Congress (O) of Morarji Desai was the outcome of a Congress split that had taken place before the 1971 polls, when Indira had taken on the Congress old guard – or the Syndicate – and been expelled from the party. She had then formed the Congress (Requisitionist), as opposed to Congress (Organisation) of the Syndicate. The majority of MPs sided with her and the Congress (O) lost heft.
However, tables turned as JP began to draw huge crowds. After the Allahabad High Court declared her election from Rae Bareli null and void because of “unfair practices” – the Supreme Court stayed it but said she could not vote in Parliament – the Prime Minister imposed the Emergency in 1975. The media were gagged and opposition leaders thrown in jail.
When elections were announced in 1977, a bunch of opposition parties merged into the Janata Party on the call of JP. The party won the 1977 elections and Desai became Prime Minister. Vajpayee and Advani became Union ministers for the first time. However, the Janata Party soon split under the weight of its ideological contradictions.
The BJP was formed on April 6, 1980, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as president. Known as a moderate RSS man with amiable ways, he sought to steer the party around JP’s legacy and the slogan of “Gandhian socialism”.
Vajpayee favoured anti-Congress alliances to match the grand old party’s firepower under Indira Gandhi. The BJP allied with the Lok Dal in Haryana in the 1982 state polls and almost defeated the Congress.
However, it faced reverses in Delhi (MCD and Metropolitan Council) in 1983 despite an alliance with the Bharatiya Lok Dal.
RSS hardliners like SS Bhandari, KR Malkani and JP Mathur were against dilution of ideology implicit in the coalition outreach the party president was steering.
The BJP tried a National Democratic Front alliance with Chaudhary Charan Singh for 1984 but this proved abortive.
In the Congress wave after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the BJP was decimated. All it got was two seats. Vajpayee himself lost to Madhav Rao Scindia from Gwalior.
The rise of Advani
The BJP went into introspection mode after the debacle. In 1985, the Krishna Lal Sharma committee of the party saw the wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination rather than Vajpayee’s leadership as a prime cause of the defeat, but added that the BJP should retain its ideological distinctiveness.
In 1986, Advani became party chief. The BJP shifted towards hardline Hindutva in the years to come. It emphasized on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s legacy, playing down “Gandhian socialism”.
Meanwhile, the Shah Bano controversy – the Rajiv Gandhi government had overturned through legislation a Supreme Court ruling that the 62-year-old Shah Bano be given maintenance after divorce – and the opening of the gates of the Babri mosque also polarised Hindu-Muslim relations.
The Bofors gun deal made Rajiv Gandhi unpopular, taking the sheen off a young Prime Minister who was called “Mr. Clean” in the mid-80s.
In 1988, VP Singh won a poll from Allahabad. The former Defence Minister had exposed the Bofors scam. It seemed that the tide was turning in favour of the opposition.
In 1988, NT Rama Rao created a National Front of seven anti-Congress parties. Meanwhile, the BLD, Janata Party and Jan Morcha in the north merged into Janata Dal, with VP Singh and Devi Lal as its leaders.
The BJP made electoral adjustments with the Janata Dal. In 1989, the saffron party reaped rich dividends, winning 86 Lok Sabha seats. VP Singh formed the government with outside support from the BJP and the Left parties.
When VP Singh announced the introduction of OBC quotas to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations, the BJP launched the Ram temple movement as an antidote to the division of Hindus as a political constituency in the making.
When Lalu Prasad as Chief Minister of Bihar got Advani – who was leading a Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya for a Ram temple at Ayodhya – arrested at Samastipur in Bihar, the BJP withdrew support to the VP Singh government.
In the 1991 elections, the polarisation because of the Ram temple movement helped the BJP win 120 seats. Its vote shared doubled from the 11 per cent votes it secured in 1989.
But the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi while the elections were on gave the Congress a slight advantage in the last phase. PV Narasimha Rao formed a minority government in 1991.
Advani as Leader of Opposition supported Rao in the introduction of the new economic policy in 1991, when the Janata Dal and the Left opposed it. But the BJP-Congress differences came to the fore soon on the question of secularism.
With Murli Manohar Joshi as BJP president and Advani as leader of opposition, the BJP in 1992 demanded a Ram temple at Ayodhya immediately, saying this was a matter of faith and not law. The matter was already sub judice.
On December 6, 1992, Kar Sevaks demolished the mosque, as Advani, Joshi, and Uma Bharti stood watching. Advani resigned from the Lok Sabha, saying he couldn’t control the passionate mob.
BJP governments in Rajasthan, MP, UP and Himachal Pradesh were dismissed. The RSS and VHP were banned.
Vajpayee’s second coming
Riding on the wave of Hindutva, the BJP soon had to project a moderate phase to attract allies. It had grown enough to become the fulcrum of a non-Congress government but not enough to reach the majority mark.
In 1996, the BJP won 160 seats and became the single-largest party. It was invited to the form the government. The moderate Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister but even he could not garner support and the government fell in 13 days.
Now began the second rise of Vajpayee, the outstanding orator, the poet and a favourite among moderates across India. No Congress leader matched up to his stature in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1998, the BJP won 182 seats and Vajpayee was able to bring some allies on board to form a government for 13 months. By this time, Nitish Kumar, the Shiv Sena and the Shirmoni Akali Dal were already with the BJP.
But Vajpayee was unable to survive a trust vote, losing by one vote because of a last-minute volte-face by Mayawati.
During this abortive term, however, the Vajpayee government had conducted the Pokharan-II nuclear tests, which had whipped up nationalist sentiments. In 1999, Vajpayee could cobble up a large NDA of 20-plus parties and the NDA formed a stable government for five years, with the BJP alone having 182 Lok Sabha MPs.
The Vajpayee government had a free market policy and it put in place a ministry of disinvestment. It tried to make peace with Pakistan but the Kargil war broke out after massive infiltration in the sector. Vajpayee also launched schemes like the Golden Quadrilateral highway project and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana to build village roads.
However, Tehelka broke a story relating to defence scams that was an embarrassment to the government. Joshi as Minister of Human Resource Development was accused of trying to saffronise education.
The hijack of an aircraft – IC 814 – to Kandahar in Afghanistan under Taliban rule generated controversy. To save the lives of Indian passengers aboard, the government freed three terrorists, including Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad.
In 2002, the Gujarat riot broke out after the Godhra train tragedy, in which a train compartment carrying Ram Sevaks was gutted. Pressure mounted on Vajpayee to sack the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. He tried but the party stood by Modi, which many say was at the behest of Advani. Ram Vilas Paswan left the NDA.
Vajpayee bows out
In 2004, Pramod Mahajan launched a high-profile India Shining Campaign. However, the NDA dramatically lost.
A major cause was the debacle faced by Chandrababu Naidu, the NDA’s development poster boy, in Andhra Pradesh. Some critics also attributed the defeat to the Gujarat riots.
The BJP went into a dilemma about ideology and leadership after Vajpayee’s bowing out. Advani tried to cultivate a moderate image in 2005 by praising Jinnah in Pakistan, which backfired. Advani’s decline set in and the BJP lost badly in 2009, with him as its Prime Ministerial candidate. The Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) and farm loan waivers helped the Congress increase its tally to 206. Even big urban centres swung the Congress’ way in this election.
The ideological dilemma
On the decline, the BJP faced an ideological dilemma. The party was split between the need to project a moderate face acceptable to allies and trying to rebuild the organization on the strength of its core ideology, Hindutva.
The power centre within the BJP began shifting to states, with Modi emerging as the shining star and poster boy as he won the 2002, 2007 and 2012 Gujarat assembly elections.
Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s Delhi leaders, lacked the mass appeal that Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan or Raman Singh possessed. Shivraj was a possible counter to Modi but lacked Modi’s instant connect with people.
The national party stayed alive in the states and not in Delhi in these transitional years. Sonia Gandhi became a bigger leader than any central BJP leader.
The rise of Modi
From the Hindutva poster boy of 2002, Modi metamorphosed into a “pro-business” leader by 2007-08. The Gujarat government hired the global PR giant APCO Worldwide to project a new image for him: the only leader who could magically transform India into a developed nation.
Big industrial houses gradually began to shift towards Modi when he successfully brought the Tata Nano plant to Gujarat, after it had to withdraw from Bengal, which was facing farm unrest. Added to Modi’s Hindutva charm now was endorsement by big capital and a formidable PR machinery. He could now appeal both to the traditional Hindutva constituency and an aspirational middle and even lower middle class, apart from globe-trotting Indians.
During my field visit to Bihar as late as the last assembly election there – where the caste combine of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar trumped the BJP – I met village youths who had been migrants to big cities talk about Gujarat in glowing terms. It was in opportunities that Bihar had failed, they said. Modi had successfully appropriated Gujarat’s traditional edge in enterprise as his exclusive achievement.
And just as he now says his government has been better than any in the last 70 years – thus by implication including Vajpayee – Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister also talked about a “transformation since 2001”, thus almost ignoring past BJP stints in power there.
A new personality cult had begun to permeate the BJP, a cadre-based party that had earlier valued organization more than personalities.
The RSS helped make Nitin Gadkari BJP president in 2010 to enhance its grip over a declining BJP. A newcomer on the national stage, Gadkari employed a managerial language in politics. Many said he tried to run the party like an NGO.
Allegations regarding the working of the Purti group – with which he was associated – blocked his second term, with Advani making it an issue at a time the BJP was accusing the Congress of being involved in 2 G spectrum and coal block allocation improprieties.
On the evening before the announcement of his second term as BJP chief, Gadkari was hurriedly replaced by Rajnath Singh, who had headed the party earlier too.
Modi takes over
The RSS and Rajnath Singh veered around to the view that only Modi could stem the BJP’s electoral tide and began projecting him as the next leader. However, Advani and Sushma Swaraj believed that Modi would alienate allies. The old debate – whether to embrace moderation for alliances or hard Hindutva to appeal to the core constituency -- was back.
Ignoring Advani, the party named Modi its campaign chief and then Prime Ministerial candidate. The supporters of the move argued that allies come to the BJP for power and not for secularism.
They were eventually proved right, as Ram Vilas Paswan -- who had quit the NDA in 2002 after the Gujarat riots -- and N Chandrababu Naidu joined the NDA.
The BJP’s Modi phase
With the Congress facing unprecedented anti-incumbency due to the 2 G spectrum and coal block allegations – with televised street protests over the Lokpal adding to its unpopularity – Modi stormed to power with the promise of transforming India.
It was a vote for hope. Hindutva hopes of Hindu primacy got wedded to development aspirations. For once, majoritarian identity politics and material concerns converged like never before.
Governance by spectacle
Governance is supposed to be more about consistent processes than a string of unrelated events. However, the government followed an approach Modi had made his trademark political style: politics should be a spectacular show of highly-publicised events. The process of governance was not as important as the spectacle. Each spectacle generated a thrill. And many waited for the next big spectacle. Ardent admirers called these high-profile events “masterstrokes”.
It could be yoga day on June 21 – marketing yoga, with all ministers performing yoga postures, often as amateurs, in different cities -- or constitution day on November 26. The constitution day was observed with a debate in Parliament only once, in 2015, however. There was no such debate the next year.
US President Barack Obama was invited for the Republic Day parade with great fanfare in 2015. Before leaving, he delivered a speech reminding India that the path of Mahatma Gandhi was the path to carry the country to greatness. During this trip, Modi did something unprecedented: referring to Obama repeatedly by his first name. This was a tacit message that Indian politics was becoming “cool” and confident.
Recently, present US president Donald Trump reportedly turned down an invitation to visit India on Republic Day.
The Modi government also celebrated Vajpayee’s birthday as Good Governance Day in 2014. Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya – the founder of Banaras Hindu University – were conferred with the Bharat Ratna. Schools were controversially asked to have Good Governance Day events on December 25, which was Vajpayee’s birthday but also Christmas. Later, it was clarified that no such event was mandatory.
However, the Good Governance Day took a back seat from the next year, as new events replaced it.
Modi also started addressing school children on Teachers’ Day in 2014, something many felt was not a good practice. However, this practice, too, lost its spectacular look soon. Past the halfway mark of the government, it was replaced by Modi addressing students on how to cope with examination stress, having authored a book 'Exam Warriors'. Eventually, it turned out that the Central Board of Secondary Education under the HRD ministry would have done better with some sage advice, as exam papers were reportedly leaked last year.
Modi also began the practice of addressing NRIs and PIOs in countries he visited, each such address being telecast live. In 2018, there were news reports that the Indian Embassy in Oman wrote to companies to spare their Indian workers to listen to his address. Be that as it may, people down to the villages feel Modi has somehow made India proud and brought it into global centre-stage. The sentiment exists from Bihar to Rajasthan.
A surgical strike along the Line of Control by Indian Army in June, 2016, to avenge the Uri terror attack was also announced with fanfare. Later, The Hindu published a story that this wasn’t unprecedented. Even in 2012, a covert surgical strike was executed. The Congress in a press conference listed many surgical strikes that had been conducted in a covert manner.
However, the government also celebrated Surgical Strike Day in educational institutions.
The latest surgical strike at Balakot – which was questioned by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after many global news reports claimed there were hardly any casualties in it – came just before elections and may influence them to an extent. The provocation this time was the deadly Pulwama terror attack that killed about 40 CRPF jawans, in what seemed to be an intelligence failure.
The focus on events rather than processes acquired a new dimension on November 8, 2016, as Modi addressed the nation at 8 pm, dramatically announcing that Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight.
At one go, 86 per cent of the cash in circulation was sucked out. The Opposition and top economists panned the move. The government initially called it a war against black money, saying a part of the extinguished currency would never return, providing fiscal space for more welfare spending.
The new notes came too late, and the delay was exacerbated by the need to recalibrate ATMs. Businesses slumped. Later, it turned out that more than 99 per cent of the demonetized currency returned to banks in small chunks.
The government changed goal posts to argue that this was a move towards Digital India, but recent reports show that cash in circulation now is greater than that before demonetization.
However, the spectacle worked politically. The BJP swept UP after demonetisation, with many among the poor thinking that the rich had been hit by it. A recent unemployment report of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) – leaked to Business Standard and disowned by the government – however shows that unemployment is at a 45-year high.
The reason is not just demonetisation but the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax -- which the BJP had opposed in UPA days -- soon after demonetization, not allowing the economy to recover from the shock. Even GST implementation came as a midnight spectacle in Parliament, mimicking the moment of independence in 1947.
However, many people I met in various election visits did agree that Jan Dhan accounts had been opened by the Modi government at remarkable speed, leading to financial inclusion.
The consistent process of Othering
However, the Modi government has been in power in the country at a time of a consistent process of internal Othering and cultural polarization.
Global media brought up instances of lynching of Muslims on suspicion of cow slaughter or beef storage, a process that first came to light after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh.
This apart, a new wave of hyper-nationalism has also sought enemies within, sometimes with direct government support. Jawaharlal Nehru University was in the eye of storm in 2016, after allegations that “anti-national” slogans were raised during an event commemorating Afzal Guru, who was executed for the Parliament attack. Sedition cases were slapped on some students, including the then JUNSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, who said he had not raised any such slogans. Some videos played by mainstream TV channels showing such slogans were also found to be doctored.
Before key elections, Modi and BJP president Amit Shah accused the opposition of treason. Modi claimed before the Gujarat elections that a conspiracy to defeat the BJP was hatched at a dinner thrown by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, in which former PM Manmohan Singh and some top officials were present, apart from former Pakistani diplomats. Later, the government told Parliament there was no attempt to accuse Dr. Singh of any such activity.
Earlier, before the Bihar polls, BJP chief Amit Shah said crackers would go off in Pakistan if the BJP lost in the state.
Post-Balakot, the PM and Shah have accused the opposition, particularly the Congress, of speaking the language of Pakistan and supporting terrorists.
Union minister Arun Jaitley has also said that parts of the Congress manifesto – like its call to have a relook at the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – were drafted by Rahul Gandhi’s friends of the ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’.
Taking potshots at Rahul for deciding to contest from Wayanad, Modi also said that he was contesting from a constituency where minorities – Muslims and Christians – are in a majority.
Advani’s tacit advice to the BJP leadership may be timely. And it is true that veterans like Advani, Joshi and Yashwant Sinha have been among the few who have questioned the new personality cult in the BJP, if one discounts Shatrughan Sinha.
Yet, it is true that Advani’s explanation of what the BJP stands for obfuscates its core politics of Hindutva.