India can perhaps boast of having the largest number of political parties, both registered and recognised, with over 2,700 in the nation. This huge number makes one believe that the diversity of views and approaches to various governance and public policy issues must have compelled groups to establish new parties, adding to their ever-increasing tally.
However, a cursory look at the names of political parties as an indication of their distinct philosophy demolishes the presumption. There is hardly any difference in names like the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Rashtriya Lok Dal. And the similarities do not end here. A vast majority of them are dynasty-driven and most are splinter groups of the Grand Old Party. No wonder most of them claim to be having a similar doctrinal approach, professing so-called Left Liberalism.
Looking at the history of post-Independence democratic polity in India, it was the Congress system—to use the term popularised by Rajni Kothari—that continued its unchallenged stranglehold for more than a decade. Later, when a few political parties tried to challenge the hegemony of the Congress more forcefully, bereft of any markedly different policy approach, they could not provide any distinct political alternative. After the Avadi session of the Congress party, socialists lost relevance and communists became confused. This created a void, only to be convincingly filled in by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The 21st of this October marks the 70th anniversary of the launch of this distinct politico-ideological journey.
The journey of this distinct ideological stream is remarkable in many ways. However, there are three important features of this journey: its unique ideological footprint, the steady growth of its organisational strength and its indelible mark on governance at the state as well as national level. These merit a closer look.
On 21 October 1951, when about 200 delegates had come together at the Raghumal Arya Kanya Vidyalaya close to the Gol Market in Central Delhi to announce the formation of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, they were clear about their objectives. The centrality of cultural nationalism and mixed economy as opposed to the Nehruvian socialist model were the two most distinguishing factors that separated the BJS from others. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh (and later the BJP too) had never opposed equal rights to Muslims and other minorities. What they opposed was the appeasement of minorities by converting them into vote banks in total disregard of real issues like their socio-economic development. This vote bank politics was the other name of ‘minority-ism’, a term popularised by L K Advani. In its first manifesto released before the 1952 general elections, the Jan Sangh had mentioned this: “... the rebuilding of Bharat on the basis of Bharatiya Sanskriti and maryada as a political, social and economic democracy, granting equal opportunity and liberty to all individuals so as to make her a prosperous, powerful and united nation, progressive, modern and enlightened.”
Expectedly, this centrality of Indian culture continued even in the BJP era. Although the Ram Mandir movement of the late 90s was its centrepiece, it was not confined to just that. The BJS and BJP were conscious of both symbolism as well as transformation at the grassroots level. In order to end separatism, the nullification of Article 370 continued to occupy high priority in the BJS as well as BJP agendas. Similarly, emotional integration of border areas including the Northeast was always given due importance. Emphasising symbolism, it was a BJP MP who ensured that sessions of Parliament start with the National Song and end with the National Anthem as a regular practice. Recent initiatives of the Modi government like the Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat programme or the construction of a war memorial right at the centre of the national capital underscored the continuity of the unique theme of cultural nationalism.
Uniquely powered by its distinct ideology, the BJP initially faced rough weather as the party was considered an outcast by others. But skilfully, it converted this untouchability into an opportunity. It’s leadership described this as ‘majestic isolation’ and adroitly presented itself as a ‘party with a difference’. Its organisational profile as well as its governance remained a testimony to this. Earlier known as a party of upper castes, today the BJP has become one of all the underprivileged.
What have the BJS-BJP together contributed to the Indian polity during the last 70 years? The Jan Sangh to BJP journey established three clear things. Firstly, that ideology and idealism continue to be relevant as a distinguishing factor even when people in other democracies are rushing to write their epitaph. A subset of this is the fact that unlike in the past, talking about protecting the interest of the Hindu majority community is no more a sin. Parties otherwise shy of uttering the word Hindu today are competing with each other in flaunting their respect for its symbols. Secondly, in a polity where riding on waves and cashing on anti-incumbency had become routine, the BJS to BJP yatra restored the importance of cadre building. Through its very own system of functioning, it has shown that party organisations can also be cultivated methodically.
Thirdly, right since its BJS days, the BJP has resisted the temptations of playing to the gallery. In 1952, the eight-member Legislature Party of Jan Sangh in Rajasthan had faced a vertical split as six members revolted against its decision to support a key land reform bill. But even at that cost, the party went ahead. Today, if the BJP has steadfastly refused to withdraw the three pro-small farmers’ bills even in the face of the agitation, it is because of the same continued commitment to principles.
In a fragmented polity, where identity issues are unstoppably milked by regional and community-based parties using a dynast as a mascot, the Jan Sangh to BJP yatra stands out for its well-articulated ‘Nation First’ politics. Reading the Jan Sangh’s 1957 manifesto adds to one’s insights about the BJP today. The manifesto says, “Along with safeguarding democracy, Jan Sangh aims at strengthening the forces of nationalism and unity to checkmate the separatist forces from within and the forces of aggression from without.”
Most surprisingly and sadly, when nationalist spirit was pushed to the periphery and patriotism was considered unimportant, the BJS-BJP made this its principle plank and thereby tried to prevent fissiparous tendencies from spreading their influence. Even today, when PM Modi stresses on ‘Sabka Prayas’, he reminds us of taking ownership of the entire nation. Never before had any PM so very candidly reminded fellow countrymen of their responsibility without mincing words. This is the latest example of a true ‘majestic isolation’ once again.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, President, ICCR, and BJP Rajya Sabha MP (email@example.com)