In late February of this year, things were looking very good for the Bharatiya Janata Party. State assembly elections had just finished in Punjab, Uttarkhand and Manipur, with the BJP defeating the Congress party in all but the last. BJP president Rajnath Singh was feeding and being fed celebratory sweets left and right (see pic). In the media, against the backdrop of inflation and the rising price of basic foodstuffs, these results were interpreted as a general turning away from the Congress. The BJP’s subsequent decisive victory in the Delhi municipal elections in early April seemed to confirm its rise; the party’s dismal performance in 2006’s state assembly elections was all but forgotten. Admittedly, in Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal the BJP won a meagre 10 out of 542 seats contested – all 10 of which came in Assam. But perhaps the BJP leadership saw victory in the defeat of the Congress, which only won in Assam and Pondicherry.
As such, the results in Punjab, Uttarkhand and Delhi in early 2007 were trumpeted as a show of the BJP’s new power, and there were high hopes for the party in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly election. Amidst the uncertainties and complexities of this election, it seemed that the BJP could perform well. Could it even become the state’s biggest party? Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party seemed certain to fall, and it was an open question as to who could take its place.
As the UP election began, there was decided anticipation in the media about the BJP. On the flimsy evidence of the recent election results, everyone seemed eager to proclaim the party’s rise against the supposed failures of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. This national political narrative, perpetuated by the English- and Hindi-language media alike, diverted attention from the more politically substantial contest between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party in UP. Even if the BSP won the most seats, whoever was able to strike a ruling alliance with them, it was thought, the Congress or the BJP, could claim a victory in UP.
Give voters credit for their ability to confound the ‘experts’. The BSP won a surprising majority in UP, while the BJP and Congress both received a drubbing and no hope of a coalition. The first inkling of disaster for the BJP generally was evident during these elections. In mid-April, after three phases of voting in UP, Gujarati BJP MP Babubhai Katara was arrested in a human-smuggling case. He had tried to board a plane bound for Toronto with a woman and a boy posing as his wife and son. The party distanced itself from him, asking to be judged by its swift disciplining of the rogue MP. But throughout the UP election campaign, the BJP had been claiming itself as the ‘clean’ party, and this new situation gave the BJP its first public black eye.
In late April, three Gujarati police officers were arrested and charged with murder in the 2005 encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, whose wife was also later murdered by police (see Himal July 2007, “Simulated encounters, real murder”). A furious debate subsequently filled the media, with questions raised about the BJP’s treatment of Muslims in Gujarat, as well as the lawlessness of the state’s police force. The following month, with the counting of UP’s votes fast approaching, another controversy emerged in Gujarat. On 9 May, BJP activists barged into an art class at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Baroda, and physically attacked students and professors while vandalising artwork that they claimed offended their religious sentiments. When the police arrived, award-winning art student Chandramohan Srilamantula – not the trespassing BJP thugs – was arrested, subsequently spending five days in jail. With no arrests having been made in the case, a debate proceeded to rage over freedom of speech, with various protesters decrying both Chandramohan’s jailing and his artwork.
Again Gujarat – the ‘laboratory for Hindutva’ and a BJP centrepiece – looked dangerously lawless. Rumours spread that this show of violent Hindutva was carried out with Gujarat’s looming assembly elections, currently scheduled for December, firmly in mind. These events had no obvious or direct impact on the UP elections or the state’s Muslim population, though perhaps they implied what could be possible under a BJP government in UP, leading some voters to reject the party. Though to be fair, faked encounters, irate mobs of violent activists, and a politically motivated police force are not found only in states where the BJP rules.
In mid-May, after seven phases of voting in UP, the votes were counted. The BJP’s vote share and seat count fell to its lowest numbers since the 1980s. Of 350 seats contested, the party won just 51, and a paltry 17 percent of the vote share. It had heavily relied on the organisational support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but was publicly ambiguous about its support for a militant Hindutva agenda. During the election, the party had repeatedly claimed a groundswell of support; instead, the BJP was slaughtered. The UP results were a body blow to the party, exposing both its ideological and organisational weakness, as well as a poorly conceived campaign and vicious party infighting.
While the victories in Punjab, Uttarkhand and Delhi were icing, UP was the cake. One in six Indians lives in UP, and the state’s political influence on the nation is substantial. During the elections, pundits often noted that the road to Delhi goes through Lucknow. UP was the Congress heartland until the late 1980s, while the BJP’s success there during the 1990s made it possible for it to take power at the Centre. Today, we may be witnessing a similar rise by the BSP. The BJP’s loss this time around (as well as the Congress’s poor showing) reflected the weakness of the national parties here, as well as the power of regional ones.
From UP onwards, things only got worse. In Punjab, the BJP had been able to ensure a victory by playing a supporting role in an alliance with the Sikh-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in the February elections. Then, an explosive conflict between mainstream Sikh community leaders and the Dera Sacha Sauda, an unorthodox Sikh splinter community, spun out of control. In late May, two weeks of extensive protesting, sectarian clashes and shutdowns brought back memories of the religious conflict that had engulfed the state during the 1980s. The state government seemed ill-equipped to handle the situation, blaming the Congress for backing the Dera and taking a stand that seemed to exacerbate the conflict (see accompanying story, “Embers of a Sikh fire”). That a state that the BJP had recently crowed about winning was descending into chaos did not bode well for the party.
If that were not enough, by late May the BJP government in Rajasthan found itself facing large-scale protests that turned violent over the issue of Scheduled Tribe reservations for the Gujjar community in the state (see Himal July 2007, “Revisiting reservation”). It seemed that campaign promises made by BJP leader (and current chief minister) Vasundhara Raje in 2003 had not been kept, and the many enquiries by members of the Gujjar community had been brushed aside. Thousands of police and paramilitary forces were brought in to quell clashes between members of the Gujjar and Meena communities, during the course of which more than 20 people died and hundreds were injured. Roads into Jaipur and Delhi were impassable for days; trains to and from Rajasthan were not running; the protests spread into Haryana, Delhi and UP, and Chief Minister Raje was criticised by her own party members.
Next up, in June the Goa state assembly elections also went to the Congress, despite splits in the state unit of the Congress, which had given the BJP hopes of gaining control of the state. This time at the hands of the Congress and its allies, the BJP lost its second assembly election in a row.
July’s controversial presidential campaign also hurt the BJP. It did not officially field a candidate, and was unable to put much support behind Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. As such, the party ended up looking malicious and unfocused – attacking Congress candidate Pratibha Patil while wavering between supporting Shekhawat and the incumbent A P J Abdul Kalam (whom the BJP had put into the post in 2002). During the voting for president by members of the Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha and state Vidhan Sabhas, a large number of BJP legislators appear to have jumped ship to vote for Patil. Along the way, alliances with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka were frayed.
And just like that, the prospects of a BJP revival were, seemingly, dashed. To the media, the BJP had looked poised to convincingly take over the country as recently as early May. By August, there was talk of a crisis in the party, as well as worry over its ineffectiveness in governing the states that it does rule. For the time being, at the very least, media analysts have stopped talking about the party’s rising political fortunes.
For the BJP, the next big electoral battleground will be Gujarat in December. The string of recent setbacks has been demoralising no doubt, but a loss in Gujarat would be staggering. But is this likely? Although long a BJP stronghold, a number of recent incidents have indicated that all is not well for the party in Gujarat either. Two dozen or so BJP MLAs in the state – about a fifth of the party’s membership in the state assembly – have been giving Chief Minister Modi some headaches of late. In July, Surat MLA Dhirubhai Gajera wrote to the BJP national leadership, warning that Modi – whom he referred to as a “big embarrassment” – may instigate anti-Muslim rioting to improve his electoral chances. Likewise, former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel’s criticism has also exposed factionalism and caste-based tensions within the BJP.
Such disparagement has led to questions about whether Modi can retain the support of the politically significant Patel/Patidar community. It has also exposed cleavages between the old guard of the Hindu right in Gujarat and Modi’s more forward-looking and business-oriented vision for the party. Furthermore, Modi’s relations with the RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) have been troubled for some time now, mainly as a result of his ‘imperial’ governing style. He stands accused of concentrating too much power in his own hands, and of creating a personality cult around himself while ideologically alienating the RSS and VHP.
But neither Modi nor the BJP can be written off in Gujarat. Modi is a shrewd politician, and the national leadership still appears to be squarely behind him. Former law minister Arun Jaitley, who has been put in charge of the campaign, has praised Modi’s strong government, declaring, “Our focus in the coming election will be projecting our nationalistic ideology and the fast trajectory growth in the state achieved by the state government.” Indeed, the economic development that has occurred under Modi has been popular; some claim that even some Muslims in Gujarat support Modi due to what is considered his successful economic stewardship. At appearances during the recent UP campaign, Modi’s speeches steered clear of communal issues, discussing instead development, and holding out the promise of economically turning UP into another Gujarat. It is this development work, coupled with his leadership style, that Modi believes will be his electoral appeal in his own state.
The killing of Sohrabuddin and his wife, as well as the jailing of Chandramohan, may have generated outrage throughout India, but the BJP is currently trying to turn these issues to their political advantage. J S Bandukwala, of Gujarat’s People’s Union for Civil Liberties, says that the state government has offered “no regrets or remorse about the killings in fake encounters”, and that “human-rights groups are viewed as supporting terrorism when they condemn” the policemen involved. On the issue of Chandramohan, Bandukwala says that “the Sangh Parivar is hell-bent on keeping the issue alive”, continuing to denounce Chandramohan as anti-Hindu. Might the Gujarat government again take advantage of violence and injustice to appeal to certain voters?
It is also, of course, impossible to say what is likely to happen within the party before December. At this time, the BJP seems the most likely party to defeat the BJP. Right now things may not seem so rosy, but it remains unclear as to whether Keshubhai Patel’s rebels will indeed leave the party. Recent reports indicate that the BSP has in fact attempted to woo away some BJP MLAs in Gujarat, although whether they will succeed in doing so ahead of elections is far from certain. Meanwhile, other questions remain. Will the RSS and VHP fully back Modi in December? Will Modi’s track record alone gain him enough votes to win?
One significant question is whether the Congress is in any position to win in Gujarat. The BJP may not be doing as well as it was four months ago, but the Congress does not seem to be doing much better. The Goa win boosted spirits within the party, but after its troubles in UP, the Congress does not appear to have developed a strategy to improve its chances elsewhere. Its inability to neatly seal the nuclear deal with the US has added to the impression that it is somewhat ineffective politically, despite its willingness to go head to head with the left. Still, the Congress has been improving its showing in Gujarat in recent years. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, it trailed the BJP by only two seats in Gujarat. With some effort, the party could give the BJP a good fight. Either way, the BJP’s national fall has been dramatic and quick, but Gujarat still stands as theirs to lose.
Away from the Sangh Parivar?
For the time being, on the national plane the BJP appears to have eased up on its sabre-rattling, while also becoming a bit more introspective. It has backed off from its harsh criticism of the Indo-US nuclear deal, as well as its loud calls for midterm elections (recent surveys indicate that an early poll could be disastrous for both the BJP and the left). The events of the first half of 2007 have forced the party instead to confront a number of long-brewing internal tensions. Whether or not these matters can be effectively addressed is another question, as they strike directly at the heart of the party’s identity.
First and foremost, relations with the rest of the Sangh Parivar have become quite contentious. While the party frequently relies on the organisational support of the RSS in particular, hardline Hindutva is increasingly being seen by the BJP strategists as a political liability among voters. Even as Hindutva does appeal to a section of India’s population that is increasingly politicising its religious beliefs, it may need to be jettisoned to expand the reach of the BJP in many parts of the country.
With declining support in many former strongholds, and little influence in much of the south and east, the BJP’s strength remains in the Hindi heartland. But even in much of this area, lower-caste political parties (the BSP and Samajwadi Party in UP, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar) have destroyed the myth of a Hindu vote-bank. It has become increasingly important in these areas to woo Muslims in order to win elections, which has led the BJP to downplay Hindutva in many local contests. During the UP elections, for instance, the state BJP had arranged for Modi and Yogi Adityanath, two of the party’s most inflammatory speakers, to campaign in Ayodhya. But the party’s local candidate requested that they not come, believing that his success relied on communal harmony and Muslim support. They did not come, and he won.
Over the years, the BJP has tried to project itself as a responsible, national party of good governance and economic development. If the party were to officially distance itself further from Hindutva, this is its apparent alternative brand image. Interestingly, this is precisely what Modi has done in Gujarat since 2002 and is relying on for re-election. But can the party survive without the support of the Sangh Parivar, which will get more remote as the party becomes more mainstream? Likewise, do the party’s leaders have the courage (or desire) to turn their backs on their ideological backers? Given the enormity of the gamble, such a move is unlikely in the current context. At the same time, however, the national BJP’s support for Modi indicates a willingness by some in the party to challenge the RSS.
The question of who will decide the BJP’s future vis-à-vis the Sangh Parivar looms particularly large as aging stalwarts, such as Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani, prepare to exit the political arena. The elections in UP brought to light the factionalism within the party, as well as questions about Rajnath Singh’s abilities to lead. Political heavyweights of the BJP and the religious right – Modi, Rajnath Singh, Uma Bharti, Yogi Adityanath, Bal Thackery – have conflicting views about the future of the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP, and the place of Hindutva in politics and policies. With the coming departure of Vajpayee and Advani, there is no clear-cut leader to direct the party.
The behaviour of the BJP in Gujarat in the next several months will be an indicator of the party’s future. Which national players will call the shots? Will the RSS and the BJP work together? If so, how will such cooperation be structured? On what issues will the campaign be fought? And, in the end, will the party prove successful? Ground realities differ throughout the country, of course, and despite the current struggles of the BJP, Hindutva has become a factor in political contests in a way that it was not two decades ago. But the party’s strategies in Gujarat should offer a preview of the BJP post-2007: it can either muddle through another election and pray it avoids disaster, or it can begin to resolve the problems facing the party, and devise a sound long-term strategy.
~ James Mutti is a Fullbright scholar in Lucknow.