Throughout the last century, post-independent India witnessed what were popularly called anti-Congress fronts of various hues. Sometimes those who left the Congress formed their own parties (at various points, GK Moopanar, Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar and AK Antony did that); at other times, they also joined different anti-Congress formations. In the late sixties, one even saw the bizarre spectacle of both the CPI and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS, the precursor to the BJP) on the same side of the anti-Congress front in Madhya Pradesh. In 1989, we saw both the BJP and the Left supporting VP Singh’s minority government from the outside.
All these permutations and combinations had a one-point objective: defeat of the Congress. Sometimes they succeeded, as in Tamil Nadu, UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The BJP and its earlier avatar, the BJS, played an important role in these anti-Congress fronts.
However, the relationship between anti-Congress parties and the BJP /BJS was always ambivalent and cautious because of the BJP’s ability to eliminate or absorb them – as was the case in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. There was a time when Socialist parties in various guises were very popular in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, but the BJP slowly replaced them in all these states and a two-party system emerged. Karnataka may be poised to become like that with the Janata Dal (Secular) getting increasingly marginalised in the state.
The late Socialist, Madhu Limaye, understood the ability of the BJP to marginalise other non-Congress parties. This is why he wrecked the post-emergency Janata Party government under Morarji Desai by raising the issue of “dual membership” – where some Janata members were also simultaneously members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.
But history is not linear. With the growth of the BJP and its spectacular performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, we have an interesting situation where it has become the new pole instead of the Congress.
In this context, anti-Congress rhetoric has lost much of its value as the latter has being wiped out from vast swathes of the Indian landscape, and particularly in the big states of UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and, now, in Maharashtra. From that angle, the coming together of the erstwhile Janata Parivar (minus the BJP) under a new party banner is an important development. The Samajwadi s Janata Dal, which is Janata 2.0, is likely to have a more friendly relationship with the Congress. The Communists will be more than eager to join such a front to maintain some relevance.
Given this reality, the BJP and the RSS have to figure out how they will grow in this position of isolated power.
The religious demographic composition of the country – Census 2011 has not released the latest data - suggests that in at least 120-150 Lok Sabha constituencies, an anti-BJP front will be in a good position due to the presence of a substantial number of the minority voters, especially Muslims, in the range of 10-30 percent of the population.
So the BJP has to decide if it wants to be a centrist party like, say, the Christian Democrats in Germany, which has allies to the right (like the Christian Social Union), or remain as it is (a centre-right party with religious affiliations). The BJP could occupy the centre and ally with right-wing parties such as the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal – as it does now. However, given the nature of the BJP’s association with the RSS, one wonders if the BJP itself can be all things to all people like the Congress was. It may not be possible for even a modern BJP to occupy the same slot the Congress did in the last century after 1947.
In its declining years, the Congress used the lure of power and perquisites to keep everybody happy, from 2G Raja to “Adarsh” Chavan. The BJP cannot become the next Congress as long as it has stern puritans from Nagpur looking over its shoulders. Moreover, it is more than likely that the BJP will be the target of NGOs and the Left who will fully support a Congress-plus front to rake up issues such as modern slavery, LGBT rights, child labour, etc. This is already happening, even though they existed under Congress rule too.
If the BJP seeks the middle ground to bring in more centrist and non-ideological voters into its fold, the RSS could also think of floating another political party that is to the right of the BJP – especially religious right. This will help it garner a larger pool of voters who can then pressure the BJP and also ally with it when the need arises. But it is not clear if this idea will gain traction, especially since currently right-wing elements like the Shiv Sena seem more enamoured of gaining power than sticking to any ideology.
Another issue is whether a right-wing party can succeed without the religious icing on the cake. The experience of the Swatantra Party of C Rajagopalachari shows that it may not be sustainable. Religion/spirituality is part of the Indian DNA, however much the Left-liberal elite may disagree with this idea. So, it is unlikely that the BJP will ever abandon the flavour of its religious-appeal just to court the centrist vote.
To get over the perceptional handicap of being a right-wing party, the BJP might have to differentiate itself by going after the UPA scamsters and bring them to book. This would shift the political discourse from Hindutva to clean political life – which can be connected to their ideology. In any case, the RSS and the BJP have to figure out how they are going to overcome the new anti-BJP front that is emerging before them.
The author is Professor, IIM Bangalore, These views are personal
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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2014 14:32:48 IST