Is BJP the new Congress?

This article has been co-authored by Suryakiran Tiwari and Subhash Chandra.

 |  Breaking views  |   Long-form |   12-01-2016
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BJP leader and former Union finance minister Arun Shourie had recently termed the new BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi as "Congress plus cow".

Is BJP similar to Congress?

This question has many connotations. Similar in what sense? In terms of policies (especially economic and foreign policy), or in terms of structure and behaviour? In this column we focus on the latter: The BJP's growing similarity with the Congress, in the manner in which the party machinery functions and is controlled, raising eyebrows even among a section of its staunchest supporters. In the follow-up of this piece we will explore if indeed the BJP is UPA-3 in the making when it comes to policies.

Factors pointing to Congressisation of BJP:

1. Modification of the party is similar to Gandhification

The announcement of Modi's name as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in September 2013 was resisted by many in the party, especially the old guard such as LK Advani and MM Joshi. After a massive win in the Lok Sabha elections, Modi cemented his position in the party and silenced his critics. After all, the BJP won the Lok Sabha polls because of Modi. He was far ahead in leadership ratings for the prime minister's post at 36 per cent against 14 per cent for Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.

A clear lead of 20 per cent was maintained throughout the campaign. A fourth of the BJP voters in CSDS-Lokniti post poll survey said they wouldn't have voted for the BJP if Modi was not its prime ministerial candidate. "Vote for Modi" instead of "Vote for BJP" was the slogan.

In the Assembly elections which followed, in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Jharkhand - no chief ministerial candidates were announced and Modi was the face of the BJP campaign. The party won all these elections (except J&K where it finished second and formed a coalition with the PDP) and Modi's stature further enhanced.

2. Concentration of power in the hands of a few (Trimurti)

After Modi became the prime minister, he inducted Rajnath Singh in his cabinet as the home minister, and had his right-hand man and protégé Amit Shah elected as the BJP president. Shah's elevation (a relative junior in the party) was criticised by anti-Modi groups.

With this master stroke, Modi ensured full control over the party and the government. He also formed an informal group comprising Arun Jaitley, Shah and himself which is known as "Trimurti" in BJP and media circles. This group calls the shots within the party and government.

Jaitley is the firefighting man and we see him representing the party not only on questions of finance and information and broadcasting (for which he is responsible as a minister) but also law, terror attacks, election results and everything else under the sun.

The most interesting part is how Jaitley, who has never won an election himself, has become a key election strategist in the BJP. He couldn't strategise correctly which seat he should fight from in Lok Sabha and lost despite a massive Modi wave but is now a state elections expert. 

The recent performance of the BJP in the Gujarat local polls is an example of how a party could get into trouble if there is too much reliance on the charisma of a few people.

3. Edging out serious competition in party (Margdarshak Mandal) - high command culture

Modi edged out all competition in the party with the exclusion of senior leaders such as Advani, Joshi, Shourie and Yashwant Sinha from plum government as well as party posts using the age criteria (75-plus). To soothe these elders a "Margdarshak Mandal" has been formed comprising former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani, Joshi, Modi and Rajnath to guide the party. However, according to my knowledge, no meeting of this group has ever taken place.

The seniors are constantly at loggerheads with the Trimurti, from fixing responsibility for the Bihar loss to the suspension of party MP Kirti Azad. They have been reduced to mere figureheads with no role, responsibility and say in party matters.

Modi seems to have learnt a few tricks from the life of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. This is exactly the way she sidelined the old guard such as Morarji Desai and the same syndicate which helped her to be installed as the prime minister. A parallel can be drawn here - it was Advani who was instrumental in getting Modi the chair of the Gujarat chief minister and saved him from being fired after riots in the state in 2002.

Modi has managed to sideline his critics and opponents in the party as the Nehru-Gandhis have over the years in the Congress. However, there have been no big exits from the BJP unlike the Congress. The old guard is itching to hit back and future poll reverses would provide them with ample ammunition.

When Indira was at the helm from 1966-1984, many disgruntled leaders across several states left the Congress on their own or were forced to leave. Essentially, whoever questioned her supremacy or was talented enough was cut to size.

4. Non-projection of state leaders in ensuing elections

The BJP didn't project any state leaders in four state elections held in 2014. In fact, in no state was there clarity on who will become the chief minister. The BJP fought elections with Modi as the face, telling voters that Modi will choose his messenger who will work in coordination with the Centre. And it paid off. In Haryana, ML Khattar, who was eventually made the chief minister, was never in contention.

However, massive losses in Delhi and Bihar where Modi was the face of the BJP's campaign has turned the heat on the Modi-Shah jodi and exposed the limitations of this strategy (Modification) of the BJP. In Bihar, Sushil Modi, despite being a former deputy chief minister, was not projected as the chief ministerial candidate.

The "Baahari versus Bihari" discourse proved to be a major point in the Bihar elections which was exploited by the BJP's opponents. Similarly in Delhi, Union science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan was ignored ostensibly to prevent infighting amongst other chief ministerial aspirants.

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5. Credit for win to Modi, loss a shared responsibility

This has been a typical Congress policy for years. Whenever the party wins an election, the standard tagline is that the party won as a result of "Rahul ka netritava" (Rahul Gandhi's leadership). Whenever it loses any election, the standard reason is "Kamzor Sangathan" (weak organisation). The BJP has got affected by a similar bug.

The credit for the BJP's Assembly wins in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls) was attributed to Modi. Even if Modi wouldn't have been declared a prime ministerial candidate, the BJP would have won these states. Perhaps, it may have won a few seats less.

Credit for state election wins in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand were again attributed to the Modi factor. Victories in Maharashtra and Haryana were expected as the Congress governments in these two states were facing huge anti-incumbency being in power for 15 and ten years respectively. In all these states, Modi did provide an edge though.

With the party sensing defeat in Delhi, it brought forward Kiran Bedi two weeks before the elections as its chief ministerial candidate and made her the scapegoat for the defeat. In Bihar, where Modi held the highest number of rallies, the loss was attributed to the party's failure in gauging the effectiveness of the mahagathbandhan and the defeat was termed as "collective responsibility".

6. Recruitment of non-BJP leaders

At the height of its power, the Congress was willing to offer tickets to anybody who had money and fitted easily into local caste equations. This served the party when the going was good but when the going got tough, many of these "leaders" were found wanting as they did not have the ground experience of rebuilding a party and mounting a strong but responsible opposition. As electoral success becomes increasingly more important than ideology, the BJP is increasingly recruiting lifetime members of other parties.

In Assam, an ambitious Congressman, Himant Biswa Sarma, was recently welcomed to the BJP from the Congress. In Jharkhand, six JVM (P) MLAs joined the BJP earlier this year. Just before the Lok Sabha elections, a galaxy of Congress "leaders" moved to the BJP - Satpal Maharaj, Purandeswari, Rajen Chavda and Chaudhary Birendra Singh. Many others joined the BJP later.

The major difference between the BJP and Congress has been the significant presence of RSS folks in the BJP. The training in the RSS is on a purpose larger than the self. The Congress was perhaps the same in the first 30 years when a large proportion of its workers were from the freedom movement.

However, over time, the sourcing in the Congress changed from freedom fighters to power seekers which in turn led to severe dissidence and power struggles. When the party lost power, the internal decay completely destroyed the party in many states preventing it from ever returning to power there. With increasing recruitment from parties with such cultures, the BJP is causing a long-term damage that may not be apparent today when the party is on a high.

7. Funding and RTI

The BJP and the Congress share almost an identical position on corporate funding for elections and RTI for political parties. The BJP has now replaced the Congress as the favourite among corporate houses. Excessive dependence on corporate houses for funding would invariably create conflict of interest when it comes to policymaking.

Congressisation may finish BJP sooner rather than later

The year 2015 wasn't great for the BJP which lost Delhi and Bihar elections by a huge margin. The Congress was also able to make inroads in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh in municipal elections. Very recently, the BJP faced a drubbing in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh panchayat elections.

Apart from Assam, the party is not in contention in any state which goes to polls in 2016 (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal). In 2017, it faces the most-awaited Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat polls. In 2018, it will be fighting to save its citadels in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

The central elections were undoubtedly won in Modi's name. But Modification of the BJP is dangerous for a party which claims to be democratic with a strong grassroot cadre. General elections in India are in many ways an aggregation of elections in various states.

While the BJP did win riding on Modi's popularity in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it also did well in the states because of strong local leadership provided by the likes of Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh), Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan), Manohar Parrikar (Goa), Yeddyurappa (Karnataka), Sushil Modi (Bihar) and Modi himself who had been the chief minister of Gujarat before becoming the prime minister.

Modi was a state level leader who rose up the ranks. The inability to nurture and promote local leadership in key states, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, could cost the party dear in future. Modi may achieve supremacy but the party's fortunes would suffer. For a party like the BJP which is still young and does not have a decent presence in many states, it needs to work towards building many "mini Modis".

Modi could lend strategic support from the Centre but the local leaders need to be in charge of state elections as they know the situation on the ground better. The issue with Modification is what happens after Modi. The Congress had faced a similar situation after Indira's death in 1984.

Now, even after three decades, the party is struggling to regain its old glory. Promotion of state leaders has an advantage, because if Modi's popularity wanes, it could act as a cushion and still help the party win a few seats owing to the goodwill earned by the local leaders.

Modi shouldn't fear competition within the party. By building strong leaders across the states, he will actually be strengthening his hand rather than weakening his supremacy over the party. The sooner Modi and the BJP realise that Congressisation is dangerous and take corrective actions, the better it will be for longevity of the BJP.

While Modi may be successful in bringing about a Congress Mukt Bharat, Congressisation will take a long time to leave our shores, if the BJP continues to adopt the approach it has been adopting.

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