The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a well-oiled and lethal electoral campaign machine, on the job around the clock. It has fundamentally redefined the art of campaigning, not leaving anything to chance when it comes to electioneering.
Known for its espousal of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, the BJP and its earlier avatar, the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, founded by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, have always championed ethno-cultural nationalism and used the identity issues of Hindu society in India’s electoral arena.
Of late, however, the BJP is no longer just playing the Hindu nationalist card. Instead, it is using a combination of strategies to moblise the electorate – the agenda of ‘good governance’ foremost among them.
This comes as a surprise to observers who wonder why the party needs to showcase its track record on governance when its time-tested Hindutva playbook is available to upstage any political adversaries.
The BJP was the chief architect of the Ramjanmabhumi Andolan (Agitation for Lord Rama’s Birthplace) in the 1980s. The party made this its main political plank, along with abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the demand for a Uniform Civil Code. Both actions effectively targeted Muslims – one the Muslim-majority state of J&K, the other the Muslim Personal law (relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance). These policies were deftly aligned to the BJP’s stated ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism.
These tactics paid rich dividends electorally, as the party gradually moved from the sidelines of Indian politics to the centre. Today, it is a major political force both at the centre and in the states of India. Such is its overwhelming presence that political scientists have started calling the new party system in India the ‘BJP system’, following on the erstwhile ‘Congress system’ – a term coined by Indian political scientist Rajni Kothari to explain the salience of the Congress party and its consensual politics in 1950s and 60s.
There are several reasons for this strategic shift.
First, overuse of the Hindutva card seems to have diminished its value. The aspirational classes constitute a sizable section of the voters, and for them, the appeal of identity politics is limited. They seem instead to prioritise issues of employment, education, better civic amenities and social security over religion and identity.
Second, Hindutva is not a cure for all maladies. The unseating of the BJP government in some states in the post–Babri Masjid demolition period and the subsequent state assembly elections of 1993 make a case in point. When Hindutva must contend with the social-justice politics of the caste-based regional parties, its limitations in mobilising the Hindu voters have been apparent.
Clearly, the stratification of Hindu society along caste lines represents a more potent division in the minds of the electorate. Hence the adoption of the governance agenda to catch the imagination of all – it is a caste- and religion-neutral strategy.
Despite the recent ‘subalternisation’ of the party organisation – promoting the backward and lower castes by diluting the party’s traditional image of a Brahman-Bania upper caste political formation – the BJP appears reluctant to confront caste politics in north Indian states purely through its politics of Hindutva. Hence governance and development are brought in to present it as a party with a difference.
Third, since the BJP is pitted against the Congress and the regional parties, which have a poor track record of governance, it hopes that showcasing good governance can expose the weakness of its adversaries. ‘Good governance’ is intended to mean efficient delivery of services, along with ensuring a corruption-free administration – with the BJP as the embodiment of political virtue on both counts.
Fourth, after the rise of Narendra Modi as the new face of the BJP, with the so-called Gujarat model of development and nine years of good governance at the Centre to showcase, the party believes the opposition parties simply cannot match it on the governance plank. Modi has tried to redefine the discourse of governance in recent years with his oft-repeated distinction between niti (policy) and niyat (intention) to justify unpopular and hasty policy initiatives.
The financial inclusion through ‘Jan Dhan Yojana’ (small savings scheme for the poor), empowerment discourse through ‘Ujjwala Yojana’ (free/subsidised LNG for cooking for the poor) and healthcare promotion like ‘Ayushman Bharat’ (Healthy India) are all feathers in his cap. The phenomenal recovery of the economy in the post-COVID-19 period – in spite of earlier shocks due to demonetisation and hasty implementation of the GST – has emboldened the BJP to go to the electorate with this ‘good governance’ agenda.
The hysteria of nationalism and communal conflagration are effective political weapons to whip up majoritarian sentiments during the elections. But they cannot be made a recurrent phenomenon. In comparison, development and governance are more dependable electoral strategies. Modi’s portrayal as Vikas Purush (Man of Development), with catchy slogans like “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka viswas” (development for all with the cooperation and confidence of all), have a dual purpose: They are meant to blunt the edge of the caste divisions of the Hindu society that have been a perennial source of discomfort to Hindu nationalist politics; and they present Modi’s politics as inclusive and developmental, which projects a forward-looking and transformative image.
The conventional wisdom that when the chips are down and the electoral chances are bleak, the leadership should be kept out of campaigning is not the approach of Modi’s BJP. It has shown on many occasions that the leadership will not shy away from campaigning even when the electoral winds are unfavourable. This was demonstrated in the 2015 state election in Bihar and the 2019 election in Delhi. The party marshalled all its troops to the battleground, even though an adverse outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Even on the issue of governance, Modi has radically altered the terms of discourse from the creation of public goods to one of individual benefits, or the ‘labharthi’ (beneficiary) discourse. His ‘new welfarism of the right’ is geared towards reaching out to individual beneficiaries much more efficiently than the earlier strategies of creating common public assets, community and group welfare and rights-based entitlements with long growth periods with uncertain political gains.
Some of the policies of the Modi government verge on freebies and cannot be categorised as welfare measures. However, due to Modi’s media makeover as ‘Man of Development’, these freebies are passed off as great measures of empowerment – in stark contrast to the condemnation of the opposition parties for similar schemes.
Only in the case of the former are they criticised as election gimmicks to cover up for their poor governance.