BJP in Quest of Political Legitimacy

BJP’s journey has been marked by strategic adaptations, from seeking coalition partners, to winning a majority on its own. Unlike the Congress which hates alliances, the BJP has been a natural party of alliances and coalition governments, but its core ideology makes striking alliances difficult

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr 
  • BJP has nothing to fear from opposition parties, who are trying to come together, but BJP is hard at work to keep as many parties out of the opposition alliance
  • The Modi government would want to push through the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) legislation before its term ends in 2024
  • BJP’s attempt to form the government on its own in 1996 as it was the single largest government was logical, no one was willing to support except Shiv Sena and Akali Dal
  • In 1998, the BJP had to reach out to ideologically opposed parties like the DMK, and sometimes the AIADMK, but the alliance was a marriage of convenience

IN the ever-evolving landscape of Indian politics, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has had its fair share of coalition dynamics and independent rule. Over the years, the party’s stance towards alliances has shifted, leading to intriguing insights into its approach to governance and ideological positioning. 

In 1998 and in 1999, BJP was compelled to seek allies to form a coalition government. In 2014 and in 2019, BJP had numbers to stand on its own, and it did not need allies. But the party continued to keep the allies and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) alive. The reason for keeping with the allies was that the BJP believes in working with others, and it is not a domineering party like the Congress. It is partially true that the BJP is more accommodating than the Congress. If Congress had the same numbers that the BJP has, then it would not have bothered to seek out allies or even honour alliance commitments. The difference in attitude towards alliances between these two parties is partly historical.  

COALITION COMPULSIONS IN PAST

Congress chafed at alliances even before Independence. In the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru rejected to have an alliance with Muslim League in the United Provinces – the present-day Uttar Pradesh – and it is felt that had Nehru shown some leniency, things would have been different. The Congress-League coalition government of 1946 was short-lived, prickly, and Congress did not want it. In 1991, Congress had 232 seats but the party did not look for allies. Then Congress President and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao broke other parties like Lok Dal and Telugu Desam Party to rustle up the numbers. The BJP, including in its previous avatar as Bhartiya Jan Sangh (BJS), had always functioned as part of alliances. It was an alliance partner in the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) state governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar after the 1967 elections. Though Jan Sangh, Swatantra Party, Congress (Organisation) had merged to form the Janata Party in 1977, the separate identities of the parties continued. When the Jan Sangh members walked out of the Janata Party, and the BJP was formed in 1980, the party was in wilderness in the 1984 election and it had just 85 seats in the 1989 elections. It could have joined the National Front government but it chose to keep out and offered outside support to the VP Singh government when Singh sought its support.

If Congress had the same numbers that the BJP has, then it would not have bothered to seek out allies or even honour alliance commitments. The difference in attitude towards alliances between these two parties is partly historical

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF BJP’S ALLIANCES

The BJP’s attempt to form the government on its own in 1996 because it was the single largest government was logical, but no one was willing to support it except the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal. The BJP had 161 seats with a vote share of 20.29 per cent. The Shiv-Sena-BJP alliance was already in place in Maharashtra, which was arranged by the Late Pramod Mahajan, where the BJP agreed to be a junior partner though the Sena was a state party and the BJP a national party.  So working as part of political alliances and coalition governments is not alien to the BJP. Shiv Sena politics laid emphasis on Marathi pride, and it makes BJP with its ambition to include the whole of India in its Hindu politics quite embarrassing.  

The fact that it has stuck to the NDA formation after the 2014 and 2019 elections when the party had a safe majority might seem an act of magnanimity, something that the CPI-M displayed through the long period of Left Front governments in West Bengal when the alliance of CPI-M, CPI, Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Forward Bloc (FB) continued. There is however a difference between the CPI-M’s policy and that of the BJP. The Left Front was a cohesive alliance of ideologically like minded parties. But BJP had to reach out to allies who did not agree with its core ideology of Hindutva. Akali Dal’s ideology of Sikh-oriented politics – though the Akali Dal has used the Punjabi language card to stake its claim for a separate Punjabi Suba – does not agree with the Hindu-Hindi-oriented BJP ideology. Of course, BJP tries to identify its Hindu-oriented politics with Indian nationalism. 

In 1998, the BJP had to reach out to ideologically opposed parties like the DMK, and sometimes the AIADMK, but the alliance was a marriage of convenience. The DMK walked out of the National Democratic Alliance in 2004. 

BJP is looking for allies in spite of its programmatic and ideological triumphs in its second term in office. It is looking to mend its fences with Akali Dal, it is wooing DMK in Tamil Nadu which is in power in the state though it is officially aligned to AIADMK

The DMK’s Dravidian politics with its anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin/Hindu sentiment made it difficult for the southern parties to combine with the BJP. Similarly, the BJP-Janata Dal alliance remains an anomalous though many believe that there was much in common between the socialists of north India and the Jana Sangh/BJP from the 1950s through the 1990s. It is the case that the SVD government of Charan Singh had trouble with the then Jan Sangh and its connection with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Jan Sangh/BJP. It was again the issue of dual membership of the Jan Sangh members in the RSS that caused the Janata Party to break in 1979. The BJP had an uneasy alliance with National Conference (NC) of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and with All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC). 

A basic condition of the NDA was that the BJP would set aside its core agenda – the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, the abolition of Article 370 in the Constitution granting special status to Jammu and Kashmir and Uniform Civil Code (UCC) – until it gets a majority on its own. It remains unclear whether the BJP’s allies like the Janata Dal (United), the Akali Dal, would have concurred with BJP’s core agenda if it had a majority. The BJP had an alliance with Mufti Mohammed Sayeeds’ Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2014 Jammu and Kashmir state assembly election because the BJP had won in Jammu and the PDP in the Kashmir Valley. 

INCREASING ELECTORAL PERFORMANCE 

In 2014 and in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had secured a majority on its own. In 2014, it had 282 seats with a vote share of 31.34 percent and was in a comfortable position, but it entered the 2014 election as part of the NDA, and it could not have broken with its political allies after the election. And in many ways, the BJP was testing the waters as it were. It had gained a simple majority on its own, and it would not have been sufficient to push its core agenda, which many of its allies found unacceptable.

After winning the 2019 election with its own numbers rising to 303, the party seems to have decided to press with its core agenda. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not harp much on the core agenda but there was little doubt that he was committed to it as a member of the BJP, and he was also the face of hardline Hindutva in contrast to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s accommodative Hindutva. But the Modi government struck a blow for its core agenda in the first six months of forming the second government after winning the 2019 election. In August 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah introduced bills in Rajya Sabha, removing the special status for Jammu and Kashmir, breaking the state into Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as separate entities, and reducing their constitutional status to that of Union Territories (UTs).

The issue of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya was more complicated. The Supreme Court’s decision in November, 2019 awarding the masjid site to the Hindu party has helped the BJP. The party had been claiming that the party is not involved in the dispute, and that it would go by the court verdict. The BJP could not rightly claim victory in the Ayodhya dispute because the BJP did not have to do anything about it. Officially, it was the cheerleader of the Hindu side in the Ayodhya Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhumi dispute.  The party and the Modi government could have claimed credit if they had to pass a legislation in Parliament that would have enabled the Hindu-ideology party in the dispute to build the temple. But there were two difficulties in that kind of a situation. 

The Hindu society is notoriously split vertically along caste lines. The BJP and its mentor the RSS have been trying hard to woo the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and political experts believe that the BJP’s share of the OBC and Dalit vote has increased, but it does not seem to be enough

The BJP tries to avoid being seen as a Hindu partisan because it claims that it is a nationalist party which is something more than Hinduism. The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Ayodhya dispute had saved the BJP its blushes. But not to be edged out of the picture, the Modi government has managed through behind-the-scenes manipulations to form a trust for construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, and a former bureaucrat of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a close aide of Narendra Modi, Nripendra Mishra, was made the head of the trust. Though Prime Minister Modi has participated in the foundation-laying ceremony of the temple, and he would also be part of the opening of the temple ceremonies, the BJP cannot claim that it has fulfilled a part of its core agenda. It cannot claim that it has influenced the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgement though rumours are loud that the Modi government had arm-twisted the court to give a favourable decision. Even if it did influence the Supreme Court, the BJP cannot proclaim that it had done it, and former Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, cannot say that he gave the judgement at the behest of the Modi government. But Gogoi was nominated as a member of Rajya Sabha after his retirement. 

It seems to be the case that the Modi government would want to push through the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) legislation before its term ends in 2024 so that it can claim that it has fulfilled its three-point core agenda. 

THE BALANCING ACT

It should be surprising then that the BJP is looking for allies in spite of its programmatic and ideological triumphs in its second term in office. It is looking to mend its fences with Akali Dal, it is wooing DMK in Tamil Nadu which is in power in the state though it is officially aligned to AIADMK. And, it is in talks with Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. And it does not want a hostile Chief Minister Y S Jaganmohan Reddy of Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh and a hostile K Chandrasekhar Rao of Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) in Telangana, and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. The BJP has nothing to fear from the opposition parties, which are trying to come together, but the BJP is hard at work to keep as many parties as it can out of the opposition alliance. And it has succeeded in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha. And it is keen to keep small parties like Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in the fold as well.

It is good politics on the part of the BJP to not let the opposition gain strength in spite of the fact that it remains the dominant party in parliament. But there is also deep anxiety behind this ruthless politicking of the Machiavellian kind. (The BJP ideologues would prefer to be compared to Kautilya of the Arhashastra fame!) There is the gnawing awareness that a large part of the electorate does not accept either the BJP or Modi. Some might even argue that Modi is acceptable but not the BJP because people see the BJP as a political party not very different from other political parties in the country. It is interesting that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the talk was Vajpayee was preferable and not the BJP. But the reasons offered then were different. There was the perception that Vajpayee was a liberal politician, but the BJP was a narrow-minded organisation of fanatical Hindu politicians. But this hair-splitting would become insignificant in the face of electoral challenges.  There can be no leader without a political party. Vajpayee did not stand much of a chance of being the Prime Minister if he was not with the BJP, and the same is true of Narendra Modi. Vajpayee and Modi would remain politically insignificant if they did not belong to the BJP.

But there is also a revealing statistical figure to show that victorious BJP is on shaky ground. In 2014, the BJP won 282 seats, and its vote share was 31.34 per cent. In 2019, the party increased its tally to 303 but its vote share fell to 25.11 per cent. That is not a pleasant picture for the electoral strategists in the BJP, mainly spearheaded by Union Minister Amit Shah. This is not a mystery because it just means that the BJP won more seats from a smaller number of states, and it also won with smaller vote margins. A similar pattern can be seen in the vote share of the Congress party as well. The Congress won 44 seats in the 2014 election with a vote share of 19.52 per cent, and in the 2019 election it improved its tally marginally to 53 but its vote share fell to 13.10 per cent. Parties can win more seats in smaller areas, and without a national footprint. 

This phenomenon was witnessed in the case of the CPI-M and CPI in the 1990s when they used to win more than 40 seats, mainly from West Bengal and from Kerala, but their vote shares would hover around 8 per cent. It is possible that the BJP wants to widen its national footprint to be the legitimate national party. In many ways, Congress with its diminished numbers still retains a relatively larger footprint because it is present in more parts of the country, even while it ends up losing most seats.

The Left Front was a cohesive alliance of ideologically like minded parties. But BJP had to reach out to allies who did not agree with its core ideology of Hindutva. Akali Dal’s ideology of Sikh-oriented politics – though the Akali Dal has used the Punjabi language card to stake its claim for a separate Punjabi Suba – does not agree with the Hindu-Hindi-oriented BJP ideology

The reason that BJP wants to aggressively poach other parties, and in the process break them as it has done in the case of Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Ajit Pawar is this gnawing anxiety that it is able to reach out wider sections of society in the country. The BJP must be quite disappointed that in a Hindu majority country, the ostensibly Hindu party is not able to maximise its Hindu vote. The Hindu society is notoriously split vertically along caste lines. The BJP and its mentor the RSS have been trying hard to woo the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and political experts believe that the BJP’s share of the OBC and Dalit vote has increased, but it does not seem to be enough. There are OBCs among the OBCs and Dalits among Dalits, forcing experts to coin terms like Most Backward Classes and Maha-Dalit.  This is only part of the problem, though a large part of the problem. 

The BJP is keen to get at least a bit of the non-Hindi, non-Hindu vote as well so it can claim to be a truly pan-Indian party. It is for this reason that for the last few days, Prime Minister Modi has been praising Tamil as the oldest language in India, both at home and abroad. This may not be music to the ears of the BJP voter in the Hindi heartland, or the ideologues of the party who have been making claims for Sanskrit as the greatest language. Even if all the Hindus in the electorate were to vote for the BJP, it would lack political legitimacy because it would be reduced to the status of a Hindu party. The BJP and Modi want to overcome the legitimacy hurdle.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who's worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian.

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