by Aakar Patel Jun 30, 2013 10:01 IST
The elevation of Narendra Modi through popular demand has democratized the Bharatiya Janata Party.
From a patriarchal system where the elders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and of the party decided things, Modi has forcibly brought in elements of an open system where merit and democratic appeal inside the party will determine its direction.
Such a takeover of a major political party by an individual purely on his credentials and popularity has no precedent in India.
In the two decades from the formation of the party to the time that it took power in the late 1990s, the BJP was controlled by only two very competent presidents - Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani (with one short term for Murli Manohar Joshi).
When the party formed the government in Delhi and both Vajpayee and Advani held ministerial responsibility, the party presidency was finally let go of by them.
In this period, to communicate the idea of an open democratic system that was unlike the closed dynastic system of the Congress, BJP presidents continued to be elected.
But because the rivalry was strong between Vajpayee and Advani, this president was a safe person, meaning someone neutral, and with no base of his own.
And so the BJP had presidents like Kushabhau Thakre, Jana Krishnamurthy, Bangaru Laxman and Venkaiah Naidu. They were picked through consensus between the rivals, not through competitive elections, meaning the system was actually closed and not open. The cadre did not have a say in the choice of their leader.
These men did not make any changes or define a new direction for the party, and they were not supposed to. They were placeholders, and held office till the big boys came back to play.
The important aspect is that because the system was closed, no new leadership actually emerged in the BJP through the popular route.
The disappearance from public life of Vajpayee after his defeat in 2004 and the eclipse of Advani within the party (about which more later) after his defeat in 2009 exposed this vacuum and opened up the space for someone to take the national leadership.
It was assumed that this would be someone from inside the closed system. The BJP had some leaders who were "national", like Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, groomed for bigger things, and some who were "regional" like Modi and other state chief ministers.
This division did not indicate true levels of power. Jaitley for instance has never contested an election and has no popular appeal.
Advani's visit to Pakistan in 2005 and his concession to Jinnah put off a cadre that craved someone who would take them back to first principles, meaning the muscular Hindutva that had propelled it to power.
This is when Modi emerged as his own man. A confluence of things - first, the killings of 2002 and the proven involvement of his ministers (one of who has been convicted), second, his no-nonsense image and refusal to play by the rules of inclusive secularism, such as wearing skull-caps and hosting iftaars, and third, his competent managing of Gujarat's economy and the praise of corporate leaders – has made him a national figure.
He attracted the core BJP worker and voter because of the first two things, and also large parts of the middle class.
The media, which is usually wary of communal politics, has been neutralised through the third aspect, corporate endorsement of Modi.
The selection/election of Modi as the head of the party’s campaign for 2014 has actually made him more powerful within the party than its president, Rajnath Singh, because it reveals him as the popular choice within the party.
Modi gives the lower rungs of the BJP and the RSS what they want, a full-throated and uncompromisingly Hindu nationalist leadership which radiates strength and power.
Even if Modi performs poorly in the election of 2014, he will retain control of the BJP. This is because his power comes directly from the cadre of both the BJP and the RSS, and the groundswell has opened up the closed system.
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