Despite the uncertainty about the political impact of note ban, the party holds an advantage for several reasons, including its strong track record of capitalising on crises within regional parties.
Despite the lingering uncertainty over the political impacts of demonetisation and the early enthusiasm in certain sections of the polity and media about the rise of Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s long-term strategists can afford to be optimistic about cementing their party’s nascent position as India’s natural party of governance.
Their optimism could stem from three reasons. One, the edge they hold over the Congress in states where the two parties are directly pitted against each other. There may be hiccups in one state or the other at some point, but a long BJP spell in the wilderness – a la the Congress in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh – doesn’t appear imminent in any of the predominantly ‘two-party states’. The BJP is deeply entrenched and the Congress is much too adrift for that.
Two, the BJP’s track record of capitalising on crises in regional parties. Most regional parties in India have flourished under strongmen who have exercised a vise-like grip on organisational affairs and promoted mostly in-family political heirs riding roughshod over considerations of merit and party colleagues’ sentiment.
As a result, crises have erupted once succession plans have been contested or whenever political heirs have struggled to match up to their forebears, such as the depleted political legacy of Bal Thackeray, Charan Singh and Chaudhary Devi Lal, the battles playing out in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Nationalist Congress Party and the tensions brewing within the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam post-J. Jayalalitha’s death.
Serious divisions within regional parties may, in theory, present opportunities for all rival parties but, if recent history is anything to go by, it is the BJP that has most consistently shown the political savvy needed to capitalise on such opportunities.
It is instructive here to look at the states where the BJP recently assumed power for the first time. BJP’s rise in Haryana – where it was an also-ran for years – is in a large part due to the anti-Congress space surrendered by late Lal’s insipid successors. Cousins squabbling over the legacy of late Thackeray have ended up ceding ground for the party in Maharashtra, the inability of Shibu Soren’s heirs to fill his shoes has helped the BJP to establish itself in Jharkhand and the Asom Gana Parishad’s progressive splintering has opened up political space in Assam.
In this context, the Samajwadi Party’s internal strife couldn’t have come at a better time for the BJP. Barely a week ago, with post-demonetisation woes continuing and Narendra Modi being on the back foot, perhaps for the first time since assuming the post of the prime minister, the idea of the BJP being bested in UP didn’t seem too far-fetched.
Now, with the Akhilesh and Mulayam camps engaged in an internecine battle, there’s a whiff of opportunity for the BJP. Even if there is a reconciliation between the father and son – nothing can be ruled out based on what has been witnessed in the last few days – some of the post-demonetisation loss of BJP’s political capital will be offset.
While, in the end, the BJP may not win UP in 2017, it will fancy its chances of weaning away a section of the Samajwadi Party’s vote bank in time.
Of course there are factors others than the crises in regional parties that have enabled the BJP’s growth in the ‘non-traditional’ states like the BJP and Sangh parivar’s systematic fanning of (faux) nationalist and majoritarian sentiment and the Congress’ infirmities as a party and its sins while in power.
Also, these crises haven’t been fomented by the BJP but by a lack of inner party democracy and investment in future leadership. However, that bodes worse for non-BJP parties from a medium to long-term perspective for it means that the BJP will persist with its corrosive yet potent (faux) nationalist and majoritarian pitch in state after state, marry it with a glitzy if hollow development narrative and wait for regional opponents to slip.
Parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress are yet to show their preparedness for a future without their respective supremos and it will be no surprise if they remain in the BJP’s crosshairs in the years to come. Additionally, it is no secret that the BJP sees an opportunity for carving an independent space for itself in post-Jayalalitha Tamil Nadu.
Three, the BJP, owing to its Sangh parivar connections, has shown the ability to maintain party morale, patiently cultivate arithmetically sound alliances and persistently chip away at others’ vote banks over long periods of electoral gloom. In contrast, the Congress has rarely been able to arrest the slide in any multi-party state after losing power.
Leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mayawati have some time left in politics and the expected gains in Tamil Nadu may not come immediately. The BJP, however, would hope its patience and perseverance will stand it in good stead. For inspiration, the party just has to look at its trajectory in Karnataka – once just a lab south of the Vindhyas and Kerala – where it has registered impressive improvements after protracted struggle and a string of embarrassing results. Hence, that’s how the BJP strategists would look at things.
However, what could halt the party’s march? For one, notebandi could prove as damaging as nasbandi once did for the Congress. The poor have been badly hit and sentiment among the generally BJP-friendly salaried classes and the trading and business community will turn if the economic downturn persists and apprehensions about harassment by tax authorities hold true.
More than that, there are inherent flaws in the BJP’s current methods. There are limits to empty sloganeering, nationalist chest thumping and crude strong-arm tactics against political opponents.
India’s poor have shown the ability to cut through the rhetoric and assess governments on actual delivery. The Congress has been punished on this count – the erosion of its Dalit and adivasi support base has been one of the principal reasons for the Congress’ decline – and there’s no reason to expect different treatment for a sarkar systematically and insensitively slashing welfare benefits. Nationalist muscle-flexing or Pakistan-bashing also doesn’t pay forever. Indira Gandhi was hemmed enough within the four years of the 1971 triumph to impose an Emergency and neither the nuclear tests nor the Kargil victory could fetch Atal Bihari Vajpayee a second consecutive term.
The blatant targeting of opponents – and overall concerns over the emergence of a political leviathan – are likely to redraw political battle lines. We have already seen one-time foes Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav successfully join hands; Arvind Kejriwal, Kumar and Banerjee bonding and Banerjee reaching out to the Left parties post demonetisation.
Not too long ago, some of these would have been unthinkable and the emergence of other understandings cannot be ruled out as the BJP’s expansionary agenda unfolds. We have already reached a point where the idea of the BSP doing business with the Samajwadi Party – especially one without Mulayam – in the event of the hung verdict in UP isn’t highly incredulous.
Finally, the BJP may be erring in assuming that its recent successes against imploding regional opponents (amidst Congress inertia) could always be replicated. The sheer multiplicity and diversity of voter constituencies in the country, their aspirations and the challenges of accommodating such aspirations in the power structures of national parties, means there will remain regional forces to contend with.
One can even argue that the BJP’s ‘One India’ model stands antithetical to regional and constituency specific needs and particularities and could lead to stronger sub-national impulses going forward. These impulses will find political vehicles and champions – new ones if old ones fade – as they have done before in equally hegemonic times.
Manish Dubey is an independent policy analyst working on decentralised governance, water and sanitation and rural livelihood issues. He is the author of A Murder In Gurgaon and tweets @ManishDubey1972.