In a world eager to take note of statistical landmarks, both important and trivial, this week witnesses an interesting milestone in the journey of Indian democracy. It marks the longest term of a non-Congress government at the Centre.
Sworn in on May 26, 2014 and emphatically retaining power for a second term in May last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, headed by Narendra Modi, this week equals and surpasses the previous record of six years, two months and three days in office. The previous record was held by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government from March 19, 1998 to May 2004.
The Vajpayee government’s tenure was punctuated by the 1999 mid-term polls, a period that saw Vajpayee continuing as a caretaker prime minister. The relevant frame here is the uninterrupted run, which is why the Vajpayee government’s 13-day inconsequential tenure in 1996, before failing to prove majority, is besides the point.
This is also the longest period that the Congress has been out of power at the Centre. While previous spells of hiatus saw the grand old party finding ways back to power sooner rather than later, it will now have to work a lot harder, and wait a lot longer, for a favourable political opportunity to arrive.
However, seen through the prism of the BJP’s evolution as a political party, this is a remarkable feat. For a political entity that was once seen as a pariah in Indian politics, its democratic journey to Delhi’s corridors of power is one of the key signs of the changing political landscape in India.
Almost 53 years ago, in a 1967 party plenary meeting at Calicut, Deendayal Upadhyay, the leader of the BJP’s predecessor, the Jan Sangh, talked about the political untouchability practised against the party. In the next five decades, the party not only became a key player in the country’s politics but the 60-odd years have witnessed it becoming the pivot of power arrangements in large parts of the country.
In this process, the last six years of the party’s stretch in power have been significantly different from its earlier time in power. Apart from being strongly placed to extend its stint and comfortably complete its second term, there are a few points of departure visible in the last six years of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. In terms of political discourse as well as the practice of power politics, some of these points of departure are as much from earlier regimes as they are from the Vajpayee-led BJP government of the past.
First, perhaps because of perceptions about prime minister Modi’s more obvious alignment with the ideological causes of the right-of-centre stream of Indian politics, the BJP’s decisive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll was seen in a very different light. Such views about the paradigm shift often stretched some overlap between right-wing and conservative perspectives, to the extent that both were presented as being coterminous with each other. Such a conflation is conceptually contested. Nevertheless, the impact of the win was interpreted in seminal ways.
Despite different factors being responsible for it, just as they are in any Indian electoral result, there was a tendency among historians to see Modi’s 2014 win as a definite announcement of conservative politics arriving on the Indian political stage. For instance, a month after Narendra Modi became prime minister, Cambridge historian Shruti Kapila :
“Modi’s victory has declared the arrival of a distinctive brand of conservatism as the mandated political language to direct India’s future...In India today, conservatism has acquired a kind of revolutionary import, in that it is the byword of change. Overwhelmingly, the Modi mandate is certainly not about protecting old privilege. Quite the opposite. It is all about validating the new.”
Second, the focus on the charisma and branding of personality of the leader — something that thinker Max Weber once identified as one of the three sources of authority — was far more evident than the relatively sedate years of the Vajpayee era. That was conspicuous, for instance, in the way the Modi government retained power more emphatically for its second term last year.
In making the polls personality-centric, the prime minister put the BJP’s bid to power on a stronger wicket. The landslide mandate of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll shows that the idea of Narendra Modi is now bigger than the man himself. That was the key to, and the most important achievement of, this emphatic win.
In outgrowing a vulnerable political creature and shattering some assumptions in the process, the idea of Modi powered the win and ensured that Modi — the one under attack by the Opposition — emerged unhurt. A very decisive number of voters in the country thought that he was the most valuable political resource to be used in running the country. In this regard, Modi is by far the most successful Indian politician of our times, only exceeded by the success of the idea of Modi — something that won him the 2019 polls.
It wasn’t that the revival of the pull of personality in national politics was entirely unanticipated. As early as 2007, with the BJP nowhere within striking distance of a return to power, and Modi still running for his third term as Gujarat chief minister, political commentator Swapan Dasgupta was prescient in spotting the larger-than-life ascent of Modi as a phenomenon in national politics. In a , Dasgupta wrote:
“Modi is not just another politician; he is a phenomenon. The editorial classes, like the symbols of old money in Ahmedabad, may nurture an aesthetic dislike of his brashness and his refusal to genuflect before the holy cows of society, but they will no longer be able to ignore him. Moditva is certain to alter India’s landscape.”
Despite spawning its influence in different parts of the country and consolidating its core support base in the Hindi heartland, there are certain continuities of the Congress system, to borrow political scientist Rajni Kothari’s phrase, that the BJP persists with. Like the absorptive capacity of the Congress to assimilate diverse interests and identities, the BJP realises it needs to weave a large social coalition even with its key premises of cultural nationalism. The broader social base of economic groups, caste groups and ethic groups is what it has been working on as a support system as well as an electoral strategy in different parts of the country.
As scholar Zoya Hasan had pointed out in her essay (Oxford Companion to Politics in India, 2010), the heterogeneity of a support base is intrinsic to parties vying for a larger role in national politics. That’s one of the reasons why typical theories and templates of European and American party systems are often not useful in understanding Indian political parties.
To add to its approach to party organisation, there is one more continuity that the Congress had set as a precedent in its one-party dominance of decades in power. The expedient Congress rulebook of the first three decades of its dominance in Indian politics seems to be the template for a dominant BJP now. It includes the ruthless consolidation and pursuit of power, encouraging defections in the opposition camp, and exercising control by keeping ambitious regional leaders in check and preferring pliant chief ministers.
Six years ago, while writing a short chronicle of the BJP’s ascent to power (Saffron Tide: The Rise of BJP, Rupa, 2014), journalist Kingshuk Nag had remarked that the Republic crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s will now give way to a new Republic and paradigm under the Modi-led BJP. That could be a case of overreach in making a sense of history. One can wait for the cold reasoning of historical distance to see how seminal the impact of the most durable non-Congress political regime at the centre has been on our times. Till then, it would be safe to say that the longer the tenure it ensures for itself, the more points of departure from the past the BJP can hope to make.
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