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Modi versus the BJP

By Dishil Shrimankar 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has created history by crossing the 100-seat mark in the recently concluded state-assembly elections in Maharashtra, a state in western India. The BJP has single-handedly won 123 seats out of the 288 member-House. This is historic, as no party has been able to cross the mark since the early 1990s. In the 1990 state assembly polls, Congress had secured as many as 141 seats. Since then, no national or regional party had come anywhere near the 100-seat mark. Although the party is falling short of the 141-halfway mark (which is required to form a majority government in the House), the party’s victory is impressive considering the fragmented nature of Maharashtra’s party system.

The BJP has been the junior partnerof the regionalist party-Shiv Sena in almost all the state-assembly elections since the early 1990s. In spite of being organizationally and ideologically weak, and being historically dependent on the Shiv Sena, the BJP was able to independently cross the 100-seat mark in the state.  Hence, crossing the 100-seat threshold is truly a remarkable achievement for the party.

What inferences can we draw from the victory of the BJP in the state?  One thing clearly emerges from the elections, which is that the BJP was not able to win due to its superior organizational or ideological strength. It evidently shows that the party emerged victorious because of Narendra Modi. Once again, not dissimilar to the Lok Sabha elections, Modi was able to use his charismatic appeal to woo the voters. No state-level leader, especially after the death of Gopinath Munde, could come close to the popularity and support enjoyed by Modi.

However, this explanation might sound very simplistic to keen observers who could point out to several alternative explanations. First, what about the anti-incumbency factor against the 15 year Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) rule? Surely, this factor has played into the party’s victory in the state. Nonetheless, this should have equally helped the Shiv Sena party. However, it didn’t! Moreover, the anti-incumbency explanation cannot explain the victory of the Congress-NCP alliance during the 2009 assembly election in spite of being in power for 10 years before that. This undoubtedly shows that it would not be appropriate to simply rely on the incumbency factor to explain the current outcome.

It would be appropriate to argue that the credit for the current victory should go to Narendra Modi (and his lieutenant Amit Shah). This is more astonishing, as both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah come from the neighboring state of Gujarat. The anti-Gujarati card was repetitively used by the regionalist parties (like the Shiv Sena, NCP and Maharashtra Navniram Sena-MNS) during the campaign. Nonetheless, this did not stop Modi from successfully casting himself as a regional vernacularized idiom of Maratha martiality and rustic values. From downing popular regional attires to speaking the language, Modi was able to hit the regional parties where it hit them the most: invoking regionalist sentiments. This aspect of Modi playing the regionalist card demonstrates that the regionalist sentiments in the state have not receded, but have only been strategically employed by a charismatic national leader. This should immediately come as a warning to the regional parties in Maharashtra, who are thereof facing an existential threat.

The timing of the assembly elections, especially its proximity to the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, has certainly helped the Modi wave. However, this would not be possible in states that go to elections after the end of the ‘honeymoon’ period. History has repeatedly showed us that plebiscitary victories centered on personalistic images are less enduring when compared to those won through organizational or collective strength. This plebiscitary, leader centric, approach does remind one of Maurice Duverger’s warning. Duverger speculated that “every domination bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction”. This pattern is clearly imprinted in Indian political history. The Congress party under Indira Gandhi also relied heavily on the charisma of Indira Gandhi to win national and state elections. As argued by Christophe Jaffrelot, she particularly de-institutionalized the Congress party, especially its federal and consociational aspects that were developed under Jawaharlal Nehru. In hindsight, it could be argued that the current death of the Congress party was effectively sowed by one of its most popular leader: Indira Gandhi. Does this mean the Prime Minister Modi is also sowing the seeds for the party death in the future? Ironically, this warning is also sounded out by the BJP’s mother organization: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is particularly unhappy with the way Modi has been marginalizing and bypassing the organizational aspects by personalizing political power.

Dishil Shrimankar is a PhD student with Nottingham University’s Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS).

The annual IAPS Tomlinson Lecture titled ‘Humanitarian Landscapes: Deep Lessons from Afghanistan’ will be held on Thursday, 20th November 2014.

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inAsia and PacificIndia Votes 2014

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