As Cracks in NDA Widen, Is BJP's Ideology Incompatible With Regional Identities?

The BJP views regional identities with suspicion – as a subversion of its overarching Hindu identity agenda. Its differences with regional parties highlight this larger vulnerability.

The Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s resignation from the Union cabinet has direct implications for the future of politics in Punjab but, even more importantly, it has wider significance in terms of widening the cracks in NDA if Akali Dal Badal leaves the alliance due to pressure from the unprecedented upsurge in Punjab against the three farming ordinances which have now been passed by the parliament.

The Akali Dal’s core committee is likely to take the decision on the future of the alliance in the upcoming days as the BJP is in damage control mode, ‘persuading’ the Akali Dal not to cross the Rubicon and leave NDA. It would be increasingly untenable for the Akali Dal to continue to remain within the NDA after Badal’s resignation.

With fissures in the NDA surfacing, the veneer of the BJP’s invincibility, that is constantly projected by a pliant media, is beginning to wane. In Haryana, the BJP-led coalition government with Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party may face a crisis if deputy chief minister Chautala, under pressure from farming organisations, is forced to leave the coalition.

Haryana deputy CM Dushyant Chautala and CM Manohar Lal Khattar. Photo: PTI

Leading film stars such as Diljit Dosanjh, Gippy Grewal, Nimrat Khaira, Ammy Virk, Harbhajan Mann, Sargun Mehta, Karamjit Anmol, Gurpreet Ghuggi; and popular Punjabi singers such as Manmohan Waris and Kamal Heer have come out in support of the farmers, in a testament to the backing that farming organisations currently enjoy in Punjab and Haryana. The farming community’s opposition to the BJP’s agrarian policy may as well turn out to be the biggest threat the current dispensation has faced since coming into power in 2019.

Tensions between the Akali Dal and BJP which have been simmering for a while are now out in the open. The catalyst for the same is the persistent resistance being put forward by farmers in Punjab against the agriculture ordinances. The focus at the moment is on farmers’ organisations, more than any political party in Punjab.

Also read: With Harsimrat’s Resignation, SAD Begins Battle to Regain Political Prestige

Political parties, thus, have to request the farmers’ organisations to let them speak from their platforms. The farmers’ organisations are solely focused on reversing the BJP’s farming policies and are so confident of the mass support they enjoy that they have banned political speeches on their platform from leaders from any political party. Their opposition to the ordinances has elevated them to the position of leaders of the farmers’ resistance in other states as well and the call for Bharat Bandh on September 25 is an escalation of that resistance.

Punjab’s farming community constitutes the core of Akali Dal’s electoral base. If the Akali Dal had continued supporting the BJP-led government despite persistent opposition from the farmers against the central government’s policies, it would have been completely wiped out as a political force in Punjab. The Akali Dal has already lost the status of the main opposition party in the Punjab state assembly after the last state elections.

Members of various farmers organisations hold a protest over agriculture related ordinances, in Patiala, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI

One of the primary reasons for SAD’s humiliating electoral performance was police firing in 2015, which killed two protesters, after the desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in Bargari. If Nandigram in West Bengal precipitated the downfall of CPI(M) in 2007 when the Left Front government led by CPI(M) ordered police firing on peasants protesting against the acquisition of their land for a special economic zone project, the Bargari firing in 2015 accelerated the downfall of the Akali Dal government. CPM’s downfall in West Bengal and Akali Dal’s in Punjab highlights one fundamental rule of politics in a competitive political party system: no political party can survive in power if it hurts its own support base.

The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Akali Dal in Punjab are old regional allies of the BJP and were of critical strategic importance to the BJP. Shiv Sena was the only regional party which was ideologically committed to the BJP’s Hindutva vision. Its alliance with the BJP suffered from contradictions since it would, to curry favour with its Maratha base, target north Indian Hindus in Maharashtra which went against the BJP’s vision of Hindu aggregation over internal regional differences between Hindus.

This contradiction was managed in a messy way for some time to keep the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance going but once the Shiv Sena sensed that the BJP was attempting to marginalise Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena not only parted ways but has now become the BJP’s biggest rival in Maharashtra.

Also read: After Harsimrat Quits, Pressure Mounts on BJP’s Haryana Ally Dushyant Chautala

Punjab’s Akali Dal was, and perhaps is, important for the BJP because having a party with a Sikh support base as an ally, allows the BJP to rebut the claim that its a Hindu majoritarian party and is against minorities. Additionally, the RSS, the BJP’s ideological parent organisation, propagates the notion that Sikhs are part of the Hindu Dharma. The Akali Dal, unlike Shiv Sena, does not support the BJP’s Hindu supremacist vision.

On the contrary, the BJP’s vision has generated apprehension within the Akali Dal but since its main rival in Punjab is the Congress, it has been living with the political discomfort of aligning with BJP which has a support base amongst upper-caste Hindus in Punjab’s major towns. The Akali Dal’s partially successful attempt to expand its influence amongst upper-caste urban Hindus and the BJP’s attempt to make inroads into SAD’s rural Sikh support base has opened many new forms of local alliances and rivalries.

The rivalries seemed to be rising more prominently than the alliances given that there were murmurs that the BJP, like in Maharashtra, was planning to sideline the Akali Dal in preparation for the next assembly elections in Punjab. Therefore, there are several preexisting strains on the Akali Dal-BJP alliance than the differences precipitated over the BJP’s farming policies.

Karnataka State Farmers Association members take part in a protest rally against the State Government over their various demands, in Bengaluru, Monday, September 21, 2020. Photo: PTI

This trend, in turn, raises a more sweeping question about whether the BJP’s politics is fundamentally incompatible with regional identities and aspirations. The BJP and Congress are both opposed to the articulation of regional identities but in recent times, the BJP has shown a more aggressive approach than the Congress towards centralisation.

Its propagation of ‘one country, one agriculture market’ in defence of its recent farming policies, the aggressive promotion of Hindi over regional languages – far more than the Congress ever did during its reign – its decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status and its statehood are some of the key indicators of the BJP’s aggressive centralisation agenda.

The BJP views regional identities with suspicion – as a subversion of its overarching Hindu identity agenda. In this respect, the BJP is fortunate that its primary rival, the Congress is also ideologically incapable of understanding the importance of regional aspirations to undermine the BJP’s Hindutva agenda.

Also read: What the BJP’s Hurried Efforts to Boost Its Alliances Reveal

BJP’s true rival, therefore, is the political vision that values regional identities, languages and cultures. BJP’s differences with Shiv Sena and Akali Dal highlight the party’s larger vulnerability.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that regional identities confronting the Hindutva identity are the key vulnerability of Hindutva and the BJP. Dismissing local identities in a pejorative way as regionalism – as some on the Left tend to do – would be falling into the trap of the BJP’s unitarist Hindutva.

Pritam Singh is a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and the author of Federalism, Nationalism and Development.