A BJP Loyalist’s Indictment of His Party 20 Years Ago Comes Alive in Modi’s India

India is back not only to the era of the Vajpayee-Advani 'jugalbandi' but to the relentless authoritarianism of the Indira-Sanjay days.

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It has become customary for the Indian political class to “observe” June 25, the day the Emergency was formally proclaimed by the Indira Gandhi-Sanjay Gandhi regime in 1975. Bogus and meaningless noises in defence of “democracy” are made by insincere politicians who hoard authoritarian instincts in their closets. This year, the ritual was performed with perfect Kafkaesque absurdity: the prime minister censoriously recalled the “emergency” while his policemen were on the loose arresting activists and journalists

The formal “Emergency” was an exercise in “legalistic” authoritarianism but it was made possible and preceded by an internal political working style within the Congress. That very phenomenon is now rampant in today’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Indeed, the recrudesce of this internal authoritarianism within the BJP was anticipated exactly 20 years ago by the veteran Hindi journalist Ram Bahadur Rai in a column he wrote in Jansatta.  A bit of context and a spot of introduction are needed. Known among his friends as “Rai Saheb,” Ram Bahadur Rai was once a prominent Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad activist who came of age in the JP movement. Since then, he has remained located within the ambit of the “Sangh parivar” and its ideological pretensions – without allowing himself to be bound by its much-touted “anushashan” or discipline. 

As a journalist, Rai Saheb was rarely tempted to become a cheer-leader; consequently, his journalism was both informed and detached, and therefore influential within the larger Sangh parivar. And, while this intellectual autonomy made Ram Bahadur Rai an odd man out in the Sangh fraternity, it also earned him grudging respect from those very men who were accustomed to commanding – and securing – obedience. In 2016, he was appointed president of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. 

In 2019, a collection of his select columns was published, under the title, “Niti aur Rajniti.” This collection includes a remarkable piece, dated June 29, 2002, entitled: ‘Jai-Jaykara ke jamavade se ‘nindak’ ko door rakhein’ (‘Exclude the critic from this gathering of sycophants’). 

The context of this piece was the air of intrigue and conspiracy at the highest level of the BJP, when the Vajpayee and the Advani camps joined hands to suborn Jana Krishnamurthi’s presidency of the BJP because they believed he was more willing to act on the advice of Murli Manohar Joshi rather their dictates. The duo saw to it that the BJP had a pliable president: Venkaiah Naidu. This was an unadulterated power play, a crucial redefining moment in an otherwise disciplined political party. Contextualising the sordid drama, Ram Bahadur Rai ended up de-coding the BJP’s new organisational style:

  1. From top to bottom, no leader need develop a backbone or have a spine.
  2. No leader is entitled to use his/her independent thought process.
  3. “We two and only two of us” have to be followed fully and thoroughly. 
  4. Wait for a direction from the top, otherwise do not act. No initiative allowed.
  5.  Do not make the mistake of judging politics by standards of national interest, ideology or global context. Politics is to be used for personal political career advancement.
  6. If you want to further your political career, learn every day new techniques and lessons in sycophancy.
  7. Disabuse your mind of the notion that the BJP is a party committed to the idea of collective leadership. 
  8. The new preferred mantra mandates that the party has to applaud each and every decision taken by its government; and, even if the decisions are unpopular, do not let the people’s anger and resentment bother your public postures.

Fast forward 20 years and it is clear the impulses highlighted in this indictment have acquired an altogether ominous momentum. The BJP, under the dual control of another Prime Minister and another Home Minister, stands transformed into a subservient instrument of rampant megalomania. The party has been recast into a passionate and animated sycophantic army; ministers and party officials are available on tap to sing praises, heap encomiums, rewrite history or revile the opposition in order to exalt the Supreme Leader. This total subordination of party and government to the whims and fancies of the leader cannot augur well for the BJP and its spiritual patrons in Nagpur. Even the RSS and other Sangh parivar affiliates find themselves too compromised and too inadequate to slow down the inexorable personality cult. Unhappy consequences, intended and unintended, are already upon us, disrupting our social harmony and poisoning our polity.

India is back not only to the era of the Vajpayee-Advani jugalbandi but to the relentless authoritarianism of the Indira-Sanjay days.

The only difference is that instead of the heavy-handedness and clumsiness of a Vidya Charan Shukla, today there is finesse and sophistication in the practices of everyday authoritarianism. The Indian state seems to be at its very best when innovating new ways of intimidation and coercion. No citizen or institution is beyond the thanedar’s reach. 

Ram Bahadur Rai’s bill of indictment 20 years ago ended with the invocation of Kabir’s timeless advice to rulers for all ages in his famous couplet, “nindak niyare rakhiye”: keep a critic at hand because without water and soap he can help the ‘king’ cleanse his act. Kabir was obviously cautioning the king against the dangers of sycophantic durbaris and advising the ruler to appreciate the very indispensability of dissent to what in modern parlance is called ‘good governance.’

“Nindak’ has become a vanishing breed in Naya Bharat. The ruling clique’s hired drum-beaters are kicking up such a din that not only the ‘nindak’s voice gets drowned but any dissent now virtually stands criminalised. No ‘nindak’ is needed . What is worse, the rulers of new India seem to care a fig for Kabir. We are already blessed with new vishavgurus.