July 08, 2020
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BJP 2.0: The Cult

The BJP reinvents itself as a single-leader party with Narendra Modi as spearhead. What does it do to BJP’s chances, and India’s?

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BJP 2.0: The Cult
Narendra Bisht
BJP 2.0: The Cult

BJP 2.0

What the Narendra Modi era means

  • Emergence of a cult figure whose image subsumes everyone else’s, including the party’s
  • Wholesale shift in BJP’s centre of gravity from New Delhi to Ahmedabad, via Nagpur
  • By rooting for Modi, RSS tightens its stranglehold on BJP; brings Hindutva back to the table
  • His business record in Gujarat promises a pro-capitalist, pro-corporate investment climate
  • Rags-to-riches OBC leader whose rise cocks a snook at clubby nature of national politics
  • Disappearance of a collective leadership with the eclipse of second- and third-rung leaders
  • Muscular attitude to internal security and external affairs issues, especially vis-a-vis Pakistan
  • Re-energised, vocal and abusive cadre who won’t tolerate questions on the NaMo mythology
  • An unapologetic take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards both minorities and NDA partners


For critics of Narendra Damodardas Modi, Friday the 13th could now on always be a reminder of how a domineering regional satrap “willed himself” to pursue an ambition, bulldozing his way to the top and throwing both convention and a well-entrenched party establishment in Delhi off its feet permanently. September 13, 2013, will also be remembered as the day the BJP decisively changed direction, taking itself back to an agenda and conception of polity that it had for a long time been trying to distance itself from. 

Late that evening, as a bitterly divided leadership emerged to announce the name of Modi as their candidate for prime minister, it wasn’t just “willpower” that had won the day. After all, Modi has pitchforked himself to a position of power and prestige in the party that had so far been held only by A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. In the ascendance of Modi, in many ways, is the beginning of a new chapter in the journey of the 33-year-old saffron outfit. For the first time since its inception, it is ‘without’ its two founding fathers: Vajpayee and Advani. While the almost decade-long absence of former prime minister Vajpayee can be attributed to poor health (the BJP’s tallest-ever leader turns 89 in December this year), it’s the curious case of the forced retirement of patriarch L.K. Advani that defines what has changed for the BJP this September.

Vajpayee is in poor health but it’s Advani’s forced retirement that has changed the BJP in 2013.

“It’s almost like the BJP has been born again,” says a senior leader now considered part of the dissident old guard, “and like most things born anew, nothing of the old BJP will remain, whether it is the party’s ideology, policies or even politics. The first to go will be the old players.” A former ideologue of the BJP is sharper in his analysis: “It’s like the snake periodically shedding its skin. In 1977, the Jan Sangh merged with other political parties to form the Janata Party. In 1980, another rejig formed the BJP. This time, BJP 2.0 has been born. But unlike the 1980s when the BJP was a liberal democratic party believing in Gandhian socialism, in 2013, adhocism and sycophancy will rule the party and its politics. Ethics will be bid adieu and if we were lamenting the slow deterioration of the party ideology so far, that race will reach the finish line now...the new generation is all about opportunism, and that will leave the party normless, directionless and purposeless”.

While that last prediction may be tested in the longer run, for now the BJP is clear that the purpose in raising the pitch for Modi is rather immediate electoral gains. The impending Lok Sabha polls has pushed the BJP to eclipse its entire galaxy of leaders behind the shadow of one man who the party thinks can deliver it the mandate. For long a cadre-based, ideologically oriented party, it’s now trying to transform itself into a single leader-driven, result-oriented one which will be guided by the tools of marketing. Indeed, it almost seems as if second- and third-rung leaders have no identity in the BJP of 2013.

Photograph by Narendra Bisht

Extraordinarily, this constitutes a generational shift, with the old order making way for the new, only in a deb­atable sort of way. The fundamental shift that the BJP GenNext’s incessant NaMo chant marks out is away from the old ideal of collective leadership. The ‘collective’ has now been replaced by the ‘cult’. And a cult, by its inherent nature, rarely subscribes to either reason or rationale. Is it any wonder then that Advani’s persistent demand that they wait until after the assembly polls later this year to anoint Modi was brushed aside by the ‘followers’? For old-timers, it is this rise of the cult around a singular figure of supreme authority that will remain the defining difference between the BJP of yore and the BJP now. A senior party leader says, “The BJP never believed in a single window entry or exit point for its politics. When you start promoting one leader, you create a cult which will bring drastic changes within the party. Everything will change, from the party’s style of working to the motivation and reason for being in politics.” He adds that “the BJP used to pride itself on following a framework that it based its politics on. Now that will be gone and replacing it will be an all-encompassing personality who no one dares rise against.”

The BJP’s bid to transform itself into a single-leader, result-oriented party means second-rung leaders are no longer relevant.

Ironic as it may be, this very cult worship now brings the BJP closer to its main opponent, the Congress party, which had chosen to weave its politics around one woman, Indira Gandhi, some 44 years ago. Having sat in opposition for a decade now, the BJP in defeat has decided to re-dedicate itself to cult politics, an accusation that it never missed a chance to level against the Congress in the past. Incidentally, the BJP’s previous experiment with personality politics had failed miserably in 2004 when the late Pramod Mahajan had tried to build an entire electoral campaign around the strengths of one man, Vajpayee, to seek re-election for the party. 

For, in reality, Vajpayee was part of a duality. It worked, with all its conflicts, only because he had a partner like Adv­ani, willing to step aside after maximising the electoral dividends of ideology as and when the need arose. Had Advani not stepped aside to make way for Vajpayee in 1998, it would have been impossible for the BJP to drum up allies to form the government. Similarly, had the moderate Vajpayee not made space for Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, the BJP wouldn’t have made the leap from two seats in the Lok Sabha to 88. With that division of power and the ability to switch faces between moderate and hawkish gone, the BJP may have forfeited a structural flexibility it always needed. Modi is no Vajpayee. But the responsibility of success and failure will now just rest on one set of shoulders: his. He will now have to roll into one both the Hindutva mascot and the pro-devel­opment image that he has been honing for a few years now. 

NaMo, NaMo BJP supporters perform a ‘havan’ on Modi’s birthday at Hanuman mandir in New Delhi, Sept 17. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

“Modi has no choice but to don the mantle of both ‘Hindu hriday samrat’ and ‘vikas purush’,” says a senior leader. While the BJP will woo the Hindu heartland in states like Uttar Pradesh with Modi as Hindutva mascot, for the urban elite the party will bank on NaMo’s development-oriented politics to wean votes. Beyond that, the party will also see tangible changes in its policies and programmes. Top amongst them, senior party leaders say, will be an intensification of stand vis-a-vis “issues of internal security and economic policies”.

The BJP GenNext’s incessant NaMo chant marks a fundamental shift in the party— the collective replaced by the cult.

Insiders explain that the BJP will now be forced to follow the Gujarat model of development that harps on capitalism and favours corporates, with manufacturing and agriculture on the backburner. “Through its years as the Jan Sangh, the party believed in promoting swadeshi and did not have much love for foreign direct investment. In fact, even the RSS in the past has passed resolutions against FDI. The BJP’s very opposition to FDI in retail in Parliament in the recent past also stemmed from this RSS agenda. But with the advent of Modi, all that will disappear. Modi believes in a corporate and FDI-driven economy,” defines a BJP leader close to both Modi and the Sangh.

Modi’s carefully crafted image of a decisive leader will also now ensure that the BJP is far more aggressive on matters pertaining to internal security. Those close to the Modi cabal say “internal security is an emotional issue with Indians and Modi understands that well. Modi will not just present a strong leadership ready to take on troublesome neighbours but will also steer clear of Advani’s Jinnah-is-secular kind of ‘moderate’ statements. Modi’s internal security, unlike the old BJP’s, would mean that the minorities must learn to behave”.

So does that mean Modi in Delhi would entail the return of Hindutva hardliners and the iron fist of the RSS controlling the BJP? No doubt the Sangh has been instrumental in ensuring that Modi was propelled to the top job, but Nagpur, sources say, still has reservations about Modi’s readiness to accommodate the Sangh in his scheme of things. A senior RSS functionary told Outlook, “All said and done, even if the Delhi circle despises what the RSS leadership had proposed, they will finally bow to the Sangh’s diktats. That said, the RSS may have helped Modi become PM candidate but we keep little hope that Modi will be as generous in his conduct towards us in the future.” In a self-contradictory line, the Sangh also argues that hardline Hindutva has run its course and will have little resonance in an India of 2014. 

This contradiction runs through BJP strategy as well. For, by making Modi the flag-bearer of the party’s identity, his drumbeaters have cut the line on the BJP’s adopted success mantra of coalition politics. Unlike the BJP of the ’90s that found its strength from cobbling up ally support as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), BJP-II will struggle hard to find allies. Even as few in the party mourned the demise of the 19-year-old alliance with the JD(U), there’s no denying the BJP’s go-it-alone strategy may dent the NDA in a permanent sort of way. Needless to say, Modi lacks Vajpayee’s qualities of flexibility and reconciliation, both imperative traits in a coalition era. 

That both Modi and BJP 2.0 are playing for high stakes is a given. The reincarnation of the BJP has permanently put an end to the perennial first-among-equals debate in the BJP. Modi’s time has come but will his moment under the sun coincide with BJP 2.0 shining in reflected glory? The answer to that is just seven months away.

By Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai

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