While Narendra Modi seems to be grabbing most of the attention in the run up to the elections, fundamental changes within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are getting less noticed. Opinion might be divided on what Modi stands for and what his possible ascendance to the Prime Minister's chair means, but one thing is clear: the BJP itself is undergoing a transformation.
The first, and most significant, change is what might be called the Indira Gandhi moment for the BJP. As is now well known when Indira took over as the leader of the Congress she not only took on the old guard — or the Syndicate — but also changed the structure of the grand old party. The Congress was systematically deinstitutionalised, many of its regional leaders marginalised and centralisation became the order of the day. In short, Indira became larger than the party, in a way even Jawaharlal Nehru was not. That's why a sycophantic Congress president in the 1970s coined the catchy slogan: "Indira is India, India is Indira.
"There are similarities with what is happening in the BJP now. Modi has become the mascot for the BJP, and in a short span of time, in a way no other leader has. Unlike the Congress, which in its pre-1970s avatar, was aptly described by political scientist Myron Weiner as a party of bosses and multiple power centres, the BJP from its inception was highly centralised. But nobody in the party had quite the stature that Modi enjoys now. The only other leaders who came anywhere close were AB Vajpayee and LK Advani. But arguably even they did not inspire such enthusiasm either among the party's rank and file or from people who were not committed BJP supporters.
Like in the Congress under Indira, any hint of dissent within the BJP is being promptly nipped in the bud. The case of Jaswant Singh, who was bypassed for the Barmer Lok Sabha seat and subsequently expelled, has garnered much publicity. It is an open secret that Advani and some of his followers, such as Sushma Swaraj, are in a sulk. Not surprisingly, it's those party notables without a mass base who have been the most enthusiastic backers of Modi. They include the BJP president Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley. Just as the coterie around Indira became all powerful within the Congress, so also it's Modi's inner circle that is calling the shots. Like the old Congress, however, the BJP does have strong regional leaders in Shivraj Chouhan, Raman Singh and Manohar Parrikar among others. Whether they will flourish in the Modi regime only time will tell.
The second aspect of the change within the BJP is its relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The relationship has had its ups and downs but there is little doubt that the RSS has always played a critical role in the BJP's ideological orientation. Importantly, during election time the RSS's disciplined cadre is an asset for the BJP. Arguably, in the last two general elections, the RSS only gave lukewarm support to the BJP's campaign. But this time around the RSS cadre seems to be working overtime to get the BJP back to power. The RSS sarsanghchalak had, however, recently clarified that the RSS's job is not to chant "Namo, Namo" but to get people out to vote. There are two schools of thought on the future of the relationship under Modi's dispensation. One is that Modi, a former RSS pracharak, won't do anything to loosen the bonds between the two organisations. Indeed, the RSS could well demand its pound of flesh for backing the BJP campaign under Modi. Besides placing RSS men in key positions this could mean bringing back core Hindutva-related issues, which have been put on the back-burner during the election campaign. These issues figure in the BJP's manifesto, though not as prominently as before.
Furthermore, the RSS could also influence the BJP's economics which, from Vajpayee's time, has deviated significantly from the RSS's protectionist and inward looking policies.There is another school which believes that Modi might marginalise the RSS. This belief is based on the experience in Gujarat where Modi and the RSS had not seen eye to eye. Many feel that Modi's larger than life image had antagonised the RSS which is against a personality cult of the sort that has grown around Modi. But that seems to have changed in the run up to the elections. By all accounts, without the RSS's backing Modi would not have been named the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. It is thus a moot point if Modi will be able to distance himself and his party from the RSS.Third, the relationship between big capital and the BJP has also changed. In terms of class composition, the BJP was once a party of small traders.
However, Modi has assiduously wooed captains of industry during his term in Gujarat and they, in turn, have vigorously backed him, sometimes triggering accusations of crony capitalism. Corporate backing is evident from the kind of funds that the BJP has been able to raise and spend on its campaign. Like the RSS, the corporates will expect returns for their support. The real impact of this backing, and what strings are attached to it, will be understood once the elections are over. It will also be interesting to see if the agenda of the corporates is at variance with the expectations of small traders and businessmen. In deference to its traditional constituency, the BJP's manifesto has said that it won't allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.Finally, the BJP was once seen as a party with a difference, particularly in relation to the Congress.
That image had been tarnished somewhat in its stint in government from 1999-2004; in the run up to the elections it has taken a further beating. The induction of several election candidates who have crossed over from rival parties, some with corruption charges against them, has given an impression that ideology or commitment to the party is beholden to winning at all costs. Whether the voters give the BJP and Modi a mandate or not in the coming election, the reshaping of the party will have significant ramifications in the long run.
The writer is senior research fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore