Anand K Sahay
There is an unmistakable contrast between the atmosphere generated by the BJP-RSS in the Lok Sabha election five years ago, spearheaded by a man who would soon be Prime Minister, and the poll campaign of the ruling side for the Parliament election which is less than a month away.
When he was BJP’s candidate for the top job, Mr Modi emphasised development, promised to create two crore jobs a year, root out corruption and black money, and create an atmosphere of equal opportunity for all to succeed in life through the mantra of sabka saath, sabka vikas.
On this basis, the connect with the voter was instant, and paid rich electoral dividends, for the first time catapulting the BJP to a position where it could have a parliamentary majority of its own, although its NDA allies were included in the governing architecture.
The future PM appeared to consciously obscure from view the majoritarian outlook for which the RSS and its kindred outfits — the BJP included — are generally known.
Although Mr Modi had been a full-time volunteer of the RSS — a pracharak — before he became chief minister of Gujarat, he was all too aware that if he had to achieve his goal of heading the government at the Centre, he had to pitch his appeal to the whole country, not to a particular section.
Thus were mobilised farmers, workers, the middle classes in their broadest definition, and businesses, besides all caste and religion groups, and youth everywhere. With the help of a fawning media, the sense was created that freedom from constraints was around the corner. The BJP’s stunning win that followed whipped other parties, especially the Congress.
Contentious issues like the Ram temple at Ayodhya, the scrapping of Article 370 of the Constitution which links Kashmir to India under the Instrument of Accession signed in 1947, and the RSS’ jingoistic nationalism (Hindutva) were kept away from view.
So successful was the technique that it resulted in a Modi wave which swept everything before it, and the vote for the BJP was densely packed. While the party won only about 31 per cent of the votes nationally, voting in its favour was a lot more concentrated in north India, besides Gujarat and Maharashtra, than the national data might suggest. In these places, the saffron share of the votes polled rose for the first time in history above even 40 per cent.
In 2019, however, the BJP appears to be returning to its roots, switching tactics completely. In focus for it now are the middle classes including the small urban trader, and the upper caste of Hindu society, not the broad spectrum of all Indians, like in 2014. These particular sections have been the RSS-BJP’s traditional catchment area, the segment on which it used to bank before it became a mass party in 1992.
The new emphasis on the RSS-BJP’s old configuration may be seen in the government’s move to extend the benefit of reservations in government employment and college admissions at public institutions to the “general” category, and surprisingly embraced even those who paid income-tax.
This of course made a mockery of the idea of affirmative action, which had been conceived as a measure of social justice to help historically deprived sections of society who were handicapped on account of societal discrimination — namely SCs, STs and OBCs. Evidently, wooing voters took precedence over principle.
Besides playing the reservation card for upper castes, the government raised the floor for paying income tax nearly three times — to people whose monthly earnings were-around `60,000 per month, a category which, in the Indian context, counts as well-to-do. In India, governments have tried hard to bring more and more people into the tax net, but this was a step in the opposite direction.
Bending over backwards to please the middle class and upper castes had become necessary as the poorer strata — SC-STs and OBCs, who were recent converts to the BJP’s cause — had begun to chafe a bit. The five years of this government have impacted the poorest sections of India the hardest.
These were not traditional BJP voters, but the party was able to make inroads into this group through communal mobilisation with its successful campaign to demolish Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid in 1992. A consolidation of this gain on an unprecedented scale was achieved with the seeming broad-church approach of Mr Modi in 2014. It is this architecture that has now come under inordinate pressure, especially among the younger people — both urban and rural.
The component of the BJP’s support base enticed in more recent times has felt disregarded on account of adverse policy in the past five years. Unemployment has raged in the country with the present situation being the worst in 45 years, and farmers’ woes have worsened, the glitzy propaganda notwithstanding. Things have got to such a point that the government finds it expedient not to publish crucial labour bureau data and data in other key economic fields, raising doubts for the first time in India’s history about the integrity of official statistics. The acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission has resigned.
With the poorer sections feeling let down, it became a matter of practical necessity for the government party to return the focus to the middle classes and the upper castes, a section likely to be more sympathetic. In a sense, from having lately become a multi-class and multi-caste party, a bit like the Congress, the BJP has been forced to resile and return to its uni-class past. Structurally, this renders it more vulnerable than at any time in the past two decades.
In order not to be overwhelmed by the situation, the saffron party is trying to place its bets on two unknowns. The first is the orator-doer persona of the Prime Minister, though this wasn’t of much avail when the BJP lost the Assembly election in three Hindi belt states, considered its forte, late last year.
The second is the venting of strident nationalism after Balakot in order to appear attractive once again to the relatively poorer sections, who have otherwise got little from the system. The BJP’s opponents would, in fact, hope that the saffron party will persists with ultra-nationalism and pseudo-patriotism while they themselves get to highlight the questions of daily life of the poor.
The governing party would no doubt hope that it can come good in the Lok Sabha election in spite of its present beleaguered status if, in multi-cornered contests, its opponents cut one another down and do not threaten it in unison. In that event, it will need to ensure that it does not bleed upper caste-middle class votes, the sections it is critically relying on in northern India, its corps headquarters.