Why the BJP isn’t Indira’s Congress

Akash Barua

Political enthusiasts habitually out of their historical intuition correlate Narendra Modi’s 2.0 regime with Indira Gandhi’s second tenure, some indeed forecasting an equivalent electoral repercussion of 1977, for the forthcoming 2024 General Elections. Nonetheless, what Indians today are perceiving is a comprehensively distinctive anomaly. There is no apprehension about the fact that Indira Gandhi’s popularity peaked much higher than any other national leader during the 1970’s. Opposition leaders like Vajpayee even had gone to the extent of calling her ‘Maa Durga’ after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. However the ball soon rolled over with the declaration of National Emergency in 1975, the Congress lost its authority, and the Janata Party was elected  to power in 1977 General Elections.

Political scientists frequently hunt for historical contexts to anticipate subsequent electoral outcomes. Many theorists today compare Modi’s persona with Indira, as the two share a fairly identical electoral approach, but with different ideological inclinations. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s or the ‘Sangh Parivar's’ ambitions are not just confined to electoral supremacy, as was with Indira’s Congress. The former has mastered the art of electoral as well as societal dominance. To make sense of what the future of India’s political culture behold under BJP’s regime, it is essential to comparatively scrutinize the contemporary to its somewhat similar past.

Indira Gandhi largely banked on the state machinery to occupy power, her command over the Congress party led to its split in 1969, when the Congress (Indira) faction de-facto became the inheritor of the grand old party. The new party relied on the political charisma of Indira, it wouldn't be wrong to say that Indira was the party. The old Congress was not just an electoral party, but a symbol of national movement, its organization was well rooted to the grassroot level politics. When Indira seized over the party, it was no more a democratic organization, but had become an electoral instrument, functioning just to legitimize Indira’s authority. The elected representatives of the organization were replaced by party officials, nominated by the new ‘high command’.

A comparable tendency was discerned, when Narendra Modi became the face for the BJP in the 2014 General Elections. The ‘Gujarat model’ along with the ‘brand Modi’ was advertised throughout the country to dislodge the UPA 2 establishment. Superficially it seemed that Modi’s authoritative charisma was the prime rationale for BJP’s ascent to power. However, it was definitely not so. Narendra Modi was adhered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mother organization of the BJP, as well as the decision making body of the party, led by Rajnath Singh during that period. It would be a mistake to claim, unlike with Indira’s Congress, that Modi was the party. Modi’s weltanschauung had the endorsement of an extensive clan of institutions that had already contrived its habitation throughout the country, much before taking over the ‘state’.

The RSS seemed to have learned from the blunders of Indira Gandhi. The party at no time became weaker even after Modi’s surge to power, in fact it has grown stronger. It has successfully co-opted all the Machiavellian electoral tactics. Modi’s charismatic oratory has exhilarated the party, and empowered it to venture into uncharted territories of the north eastern and southern parts of the country. BJP though relies on the stature of Modi for electoral triumph, its objectives are largely guided by proficient electoral handlers, and its parent body, that makes sures that the party persists with their core values. Such an unobstructed electoral machinery can generate severe consequences in a third world democracy, where democratic institutions aren't substantial enough to counteract the power equations. Though it seems regional parties wield some form of influence electorally, at the structural level, the ‘Parivar’ seems impregnable.

The intentions of Indira’s Congress and the BJP’s are hugely contrasting. Indira’s Congress though had the electoral pre-eminence over the state apparatus, it lacked the ideological engagement, unlike the latter. The party’s electoral ascendancy was the by-product of Indira’s statesmanship and fragmented ineffectual opposition, that hadn't had the taste of state power yet. The ideals of the party advocated the already accustomed values of the freedom movement; socialism, plurality, etc. Its clout was limited to electoral performance and over the state machinery, while the sphere of civil society was mostly autonomous, welcoming varied public opinions. Indira’s legitimacy came from state power, which had the monopoly over all its institutional arms. Electorally it was either pro or anti-Indira.

However, BJP’s expansionism is not just limited to electoral supremacy, but it also aspires for cultural hegemony, through its parent organization. The ideals of Hindutva not only communalize’s politics but also the civil society. Since the ideals are appropriated from Hindu values, the political modus operandi is circumstantial, based on the otherization of communities. The inspiration emanates from Savarkar’s clarion call to ‘Hinduize all politics’. Such a model of politics to command the principles of the republic as well as the civil society is an European thought process, ironically, quite contrary to the Hindu philosophy which promotes pluralism as its essential core. Attempts to emulate the already discarded European value can have grievous consequences upon a vast pluralistic society.  

The character of opposition that rose during Indira’s second tenure fought to save democratic practices. The 1975 emergency had demonstrated what an unchecked jurisdiction sensed like. Since the civil society was relatively a free space, while the state machinery was monopolized, resistance arose to restore the democratic ethos. People were able to mobilize and deliberate upon the repercussions of a totalitarian rule. Though the state functioned arbitrarily, since the ideological space was left vacuum, thought processes could flourish and actualize itself in the form of genuine people’s protest. Demonstration of ideas and democratic movements dislodged Indira’s regime, and brought the Janata party to power. Indira’s defeat exhibited the strength of civil society to challenge the might of state power.

The BJP yet doesn't seem to be convinced with electoral monopoly. It regards state power as a means and not as an end. It wholly utilizes institutional machinery over the cultural sphere. This was evident with the abrogation of Article 370, the approach the government was able to find, through loopholes in the constitution, to accomplish its agenda. In its pursuit to mould society, it has fought opposing ideologies through institutional intimidations. Since coming to power, it has incarcerated many left-wing intellectuals and radicals, who have been critical of the ruling dispensation. It has been able to infiltrate deep within the civil society; its branch organizations have gained influence over different spheres. From student bodies to think tanks, it has engulfed different stratas of society.

Its hold over the ‘culture’ has fatigued the opposition parties as well. Though they contest elections, they are not able to oppose in the ideological sphere. From issues such as the Ram Mandir shilanyas, to the abrogation of Article 370, the opposition seems to have lost the war of ‘narrative’. The opposition ruled states operate more like subunits of the central power, with lighter shades of saffron. Regionalism, though prevails in some parts of the country, is soon succumbing to the communal politics being employed for electoral edge.

The ramifications are severe if left unfuted. Electoral politics is not all that is. Currently the incumbent party seems to have subsumed the ideals of republicanism. It has been able to associate citizens with the state through communalization. Hindutva has not only assisted the BJP to gain electorally, but also catalyze large mobs through its diverse agencies. The state’s political intent has grown to consolidate the desires of people, and reconstruct them into a force; an impulse sometimes referred to as ‘cultural-nationalism'. A large community has emerged to become foot soldiers, an extension of the state, associating people with its institutionalized ideology. The battle needs to be fought over the ‘narrative’, with ethics that are antithetical to the current disposition. It needs to found, if not found, it needs to be formulated.

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Feb 17, 2021

Akash Barua

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