The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) greatest political asset, Narendra Modi, also poses the gravest threat to the party’s organisation and its future.
This may sound strange since Amit Shah has mightily strengthened the BJP organisation as an election fighting force. Committees in most places now cover every polling booth for house to house canvassing – a remarkable achievement.
But at the same time, the imposition of tight, top-down control over the organisation has destroyed what was once its somewhat democratic character. The autonomy and influence of lower level party units have been suffocated by utter dominance from up high.
The result is a strong/weak party. It can mount a solid ground game at elections, but it is otherwise a hollow shell in which members are powerless to do anything but obey, singing the praises of the supreme leader.
In other words, Modi’s authoritarian project has not only stripped away the power and substance of state institutions, most of the media, civil society organisations and other alternative power centres; it has done the same to the BJP as well.
In recent months, resentments against this have burst into the open within the party’s organisation across much of India. D.K. Singh lists 11 states engulfed by the “cacophony”: Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat Karnataka, West Bengal and Tripura. To this we can now add Rajasthan.
In reality, this anger is not new. It has been simmering since Modi imposed iron control over the party. Between 2014 and 2017, this writer heard bitter complaints from BJP leaders and activists in Bihar, Delhi, Karnataka, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. They were furious about poor, sometimes catastrophic state election results caused by the refusal of national leaders to listen to advice from seasoned state-level leaders.
The discontent, often bordering on rage, among BJP MLAs and activists emerges when they compare life before and after 2014.
Before, in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP, they had a voice in choosing higher level leaders in their states. Because those leaders owed their posts partly to activists at lower levels, they listened and responded to information and pleas from below. That meant that MLAs could represent their constituents’ needs and trigger government action to solve local problems. It enabled the party to collect information from below which strengthened higher level leaders.
Under Vajpayee, government programmes gave MLAs the power to cultivate networks of local allies by distributing benefits. That boosted the popularity of the BJP and of the legislators themselves. They could influence transfers of minor officials within their bailiwicks, which helped them to exercise local influence and to extract payments from those seeking transfers to recoup their heavy investments in election campaigns.
After 2014, they lost these things. They had to bow to diktats from Shah during state election campaigns which were issued in a threatening tone that was humiliating. They had to accept them even when they did not suit local conditions. National party leaders’ ill-chosen issues had such little appeal among voters that the BJP and the MLAs themselves lost seats. It was forbidden to blame Modi and Shah, so state-level party leaders – who were actually victims – had to take responsibility.
Leaders at state level were now imposed from above. They naturally focused on pleasing higher ups, so they listened less to BJP activists at lower levels. The party’s ability to gather information deteriorated, so that higher level leaders were flying half-blind. As Arun Shourie has said, even the prime minister “seals himself within an echo chamber – of second-rate persons…causing chaos”.
Between elections, government programmes are mainly managed by bureaucrats so that MLAs have little chance to distribute benefits. They can no longer represent constituents’ needs and obtain official help to meet them. Their networks of loyalists and their ability to win support for the BJP have withered. The party’s roots into society have shrivelled. The popularity of MLAs has declined because credit for those programmes goes entirely to Modi.
When the BJP falls short of victory in state elections, as it often does, lavish inducements attract defectors from other parties. They are offered ministries and other favours, excluding loyal MLAs and activists.
This approach has given the party control of several state governments such as Goa, Manipur, Haryana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Seizing power by any means serves Modi’s pursuit of top-down control. But it has weakened the BJP’s organisation by disempowering party activists and triggering furious faction fights. Bribes offered to turncoats have tainted the party’s reputation.
Vajpayee’s BJP no longer exists. It has been stripped of its substance. It is plagued by demoralisation and indiscipline. MLAs and activists cannot represent, benefit and connect with voters. In Yashwant Sinha’s words, it has become “a party of slaves”, what Arun Shourie calls “spineless yes men” and “frightened mice”.
The BJP is left with only one major asset: Modi and the cult that has developed around him. As Shourie says, “no one else matters” – not even Shah who must offer the man he calls “Saheb” utter subservience. This is no jugalbandi, with entwined twins operating on equal terms.
Modi’s image and appeal have strengthened the BJP during elections, at least to the Lok Sabha. But they also pose a severe threat to it over the longer term. The prime minister is in good health, but he is nearly 71. No plausible successor has been allowed to emerge. If he passes from the scene, his hollowed out party will struggle.
Even if he carries on, his approval ratings have plummeted. In August, India Today’s Mood of the Nation survey found that those who see him as the best choice as prime minister have fallen from 66 percent a year ago to 24 percent.
This slippage reminds us that India’s voters are sophisticated and impatient. They have thrown out national and state governments roughly 70% of the time since 1980 – very high rejection rates by international standards. The BJP will have vastly more campaign funds than its rivals, but in most state and national elections, the parties with more money have lost.
Some believe that hard-line Hindu nationalism is now so widely accepted that it will save the BJP. But the long string of disappointments in state elections suggests that this is untrue. Modi’s relentless drive for one-man dominance has so undermined his party’s organisation that its future and the future of his authoritarian project are in doubt.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London.