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BJP: Winning at What Cost?

Against the run of play, the Maharashtra and Haryana results have thrown up an outcome that should cause the BJP some concern. The Maharashtra win, though definitive, is significantly less emphatic than expected and the Haryana win, is statistical at best That the party would form a government in both the states was always expected, but this kind of victory comes with its own set of problems. Its ally Shiv Sena, which has always been the BJP’s most vocal opposition, has the leverage today to extract more from its senior partner. The prospect of it aligning with the Congress-NCP and getting its hands on the coveted Chief Ministership might be improbable but it can give it the leverage that it so desperately seeks. In Haryana, the BJP needs to share power with a party that contested on an anti-BJP platform and is unlikely to be a reliable ally.

At one level, a victory is a victory. The party’s ability to manage electoral outcomes by converting even average performances into stable reigns has been quite remarkable. It is interesting that despite the aura of invincibility that the Modi-Shah combination enjoys, it has lost Rajasthan, MP and Chhatisgarh and managed to retain Gujarat and now Haryana only through marginal victories. The current results will undoubtedly put much greater pressure on Jharkhand and later but more crucially in UP, where the question of what campaign strategy to adopt will become a complex one. Nationalism, the gathering momentum of the Ram Temple or an effort to allay rural distress in a more visible and concerted manner? The old formula needs to be rethought.

Apart from the immediate exigencies that arise from these results, there is a more fundamental question that gets raised for the party. Unlike a centrist formation like the Congress which was designed around a broad set of loose principles, which allowed it relatively greater room for negotiation, compromise and internal dissent, the BJP needs internal coherence and conformity within its ranks. Its structure is unitary and its goal uni-directional. Unlike the Congress, it has the advantage of having a core base that is passionately committed. While it is accommodating of different voices within its ambit, the primary axis of difference lies in degree of aggressiveness in espousing a shared worldview, rather than any difference in the worldview itself. In Narendra Modi it has a leader who fits the mould for a party founded on a unitary worldview. A strong leader with mass appeal, with an image for decisiveness and clarity. Aided by Mr Shah who knows how to make things happen in line with this singular vision. And backed by the RSS which has constructed an ecosystem that is capable of dealing with both the here-and-now as well as chart a roadmap for the long-term. The party has a clear ideological destination that is has been driving purposefully towards.

In all respects, this is a party which not only should have the ability to practice the politics of self-belief, but should find it profitable to do so. A strong leader, a clear set of ideological beliefs with well-defined friends and enemies, an electoral base comprising the majority of the country, pliant media that not only toes the line but is an active crusader on the party’s behalf, all of these should make the BJP a party that insists on internal coherence in order to retain its purity. It is in a position to make a virtue out of not compromising on its stated set of beliefs.

Instead, what the party has chosen is an opportunistic strategy of winning power, using whatever means necessary. While this is usually heralded as politically masterful, the win-at-any-cost credo comes expectedly with costs. In the short run, the eagerness with which so many leaders from across several opposition parties should seek to join the BJP, furthers its plan to dominate the Opposition. The overall feeling of invincibility does get strengthened as a result. However, as the recent election results show, this sense can be quite illusory. A large number of recent defectors to the party needed to be accommodated as candidates thereby creating resentment amongst those that were traditional loyalists. To make things worse for the party, a large number of these recent entrants were rejected by the voters.

For a cadre-based party to devalue its faithful in order to appease transparently transactional opportunists and to do so consistently is a recipe for trouble. Currently, the ability of the leadership to win them elections might keep things under control, but at the state level, this ability seems to have been overestimated. The number of rebels contesting elections is now quite significant, and the prospect of Congress-style dissension in the party is now a distinct possibility going forward.

Also it does make a mockery of the BJP’s stated anti-corruption position. Nobody, not even the party’s most faithful followers, can argue that the likes of Dushyant Chautala have suddenly seen the light and have become sentinels of Hindutva. Unlike the Shiv Sena, which for all its attempts to garner a larger share of power, is fundamentally aligned to the ruling party’s ideology, the JJP has no such inclination. Nor did the Independents who have aligned with the party in states like Goa and Karnataka.

In the long run, the party runs the risk of gradually being converted into a loose conglomeration of transient opportunists, who seek the shelter of the party that can dole out the perks of power either out of greed or fear, rather than out of belief. The eventual hollowing out of a cadre-based ideology-driven party is a possibility, particularly once it is time to look beyond the current leadership. What is bad news for the party could well be good news for democracy as a whole, for it does leave a space for the Opposition. That is the paradox at work here- it might be the BJP’s burning need to win that could create conditions for it to lose.