BY PRAKASH NANDA

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) is reportedly now on a membership-drive. Party president Amit Shah is said to be aiming at making the BJP the world’s largest democratic party. At the moment, the BJP, in numerical terms, is in all probability still behind the Congress (official sites of the both the Congress and the BJP do not mention their respective total memberships). But, it is increasingly becoming obvious that the BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is India’s “dominant-party”, a distinction which the Congress had not long ago. The decline of the Congress may have begun with the advent of the “coalition-era” in 1990s, particularly at the central level. Earlier, collation-experiments at the Centre had proved short-lived. But then, enough attention, perhaps, is not being given to the fact that the coalition-era at the Centre was a logical consequence of the rise and success of state-level or other parties in various states where Congress lost power by and by.

If one goes by the Indian politics during the days of the Congress-dominance, then two features were particularly striking. One was that the dominant party, that is the Congress, was not only in power at the Centre but also in majority of the states of the country. I think, under Narendra Modi, the BJP seems to be proceeding in the similar direction. It has just won two vital states of Maharashtra and Haryana that are of both political and economic significance. And going by the ground reports, the BJP is likely to win the forthcoming elections in minerals-rich state of Jharkhand. If it captures the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in near future, the BJP will have almost all the important states in its kitty.

The second distinctive feature of the one party-dominance, which I think is more important, was that the Congress was the principal pole in Indian politics that determined the national agenda while other parties were just reactive. Even during the earlier days of the coalition-era, all other non-Congress parties were joining hands to form a pole that could resist or withstand the Congress power. Individually, none of the non-Congress parties was strong enough, but united they were of some consequence.

Viewed thus, Modi-led BJP has virtually become the principal pole in Indian politics. Other parties have realised that on their own they cannot stop the Modi- juggernaut. Last fortnight, some of the leading regional parties, which did not see eye to eye , sat together and contemplated even of an outright merger to fight Modi-led BJP. And now it seems that the Congress and the almost defunct Communist parties will join hands with them. In other words, in all likelihood Indian polity is going to witness a broad non-BJP front launching a combined challenge to BJP electorally or otherwise. Only some strictly one-sate parties like the Biju Janata Dal(BJD) in Odisha and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu will perhaps remain neutral in this battle or throw their lot with the BJP, given a good bargain of extracting economic concessions from the Modi-government in Delhi.

All this indicates the external characteristics of the dominant party-system. Equally important, however, are the internal characteristics. And here again, the Congress-experiment throws some light. As the dominant party, the Congress experienced two phases – one before Indira Gandhi came to the scene, another under and after her. In the pre-Indira days, the Congress was no doubt the principal pole in Indian polity; but it was democratic enough to allow strong regional Congress leaders who preferred to work in their respective states as chief ministers, ministers or party presidents. In fact, some of them guided the central leadership. The point to note here is that they were leaders on the basis of their own strength and the party as a whole depended on them. In their day-to-day functioning, they were almost autonomous, notwithstanding the facts that at the Centre there were towering leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, G B Pant and Moraji Desai. Secondly, even at the central level, the Prime Minister of the day respected, more or less, the principle of collective leadership both at the cabinet(council of ministers) and party levels.

Things underwent big changes under Indira Gandhi. In fact, it can be said in retrospect that it is these changes under Indira Gandhi that sowed the seeds of decline of the Congress in the long run. Under Indira Gandhi, regional strongmen of the Congress were systematically decimated. Under Indira Gandhi, the distinction between the central government and the party got virtually blurred. In other words, now we had one supreme leader of the Congress who was the principal vote-catcher of the party all over the country, who alone decided who would be Chief Ministers of the states where the party won elections, who alone selected the central ministers, and who alone set the agenda of both the government and party. These internal features of the Congress seem to have been legitimised or instituionalised in the Congress party and there is no likelihood of any change as long as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi remain in charge. But then it will be wrong to blame Sonia and Rahul because it is they who can keep the Congress in tact to day and it is they who can fetch some votes.

Against this background, let us look at a BJP under Modi. It is the early days, but then there is an unmistakable impression that is gaining ground all over that Modi is fast emulating Indira Gandhi. In her days of glory, Indira Gandhi was simply unchallengeable. Modi seems to be in a similar situation today. The newly elected Chief Ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra were solely his choice. The BJP President Amit Shah will never dare to say a thing that is unpalatable to Modi. And like Indira Gandhi, Modi seems to be the principal vote-catcher of the party in most parts of the country.

But then, if the trends that got instituionalised in the Congress party under Indira proved subsequently to be the factors of its decline, will the same happen to the BJP sooner or later? In my considered view, there are some differences between a Congress under Indira Gandhi and the BJP under Modi. On a closer scrutiny, things are not that rosy for Modi. All told, in its hey days, the Congress had all-India presence. The BJP has not reached that stage. Its support base at the moment is primarily in the North, West and Central India. And the BJP has reached a plateau in these three regions as in the last general elections the party got more than 90 percent of its elected representatives. Repeating this feat next time will be a herculean task. That means that Modi has to expand his base in Eastern and Sothern India and that will not be possible without making or finding regional allies, to begin with. In other words he has to be sobre and conciliatory.

Secondly, the Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, is too formidable an organisation to allow Modi a completely free run. I am not one of those who buy the argument that it is the RSS which dictates everything to the BJP-government, but it has to be admitted that the latter cannot ignore the sentiments of the former beyond a point. All told, the RSS, which has the real all-India network in providing the social service, provides the foot soldiers to the BJP during elections. Important BJP ministers, including Modi himself, began their careers as and continue to be RSS members. I do not think that RSS will like a situation where the BJP gets completely “Congressised”(if one may use this term).

Thirdly, though Modi is undoubtedly the tallest leader of the BJP today, the fact still remains that there are at least three important central states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – all BJP citadels – where the Chief Ministers can win elections without Modi’s help. They are important leaders in their own rights. For example, let us take the case of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He won his third consecutive elections last year. A powerful orator who loves to remain low profile and easily accessible to the people, his achievements in Madhya Pradesh are remarkable- 24×7 electricity, over 11 percent annual growth rate for the last 7 years and nearly 25 percent annual growth in agriculture ( Madhya Pradesh produces more wheat than Punjab, it produces more pulses than any other state, and what is important is that most if its agricultural products are through organic farming) – and all this was achieved under not exactly a friendly Central government(it was under the Congress party).

It is in Modi’s interest that he not only takes along powerful Chief Ministers with him but also promotes such powerful Chief Ministers elsewhere. After all, India is a federation of states and powerful BJP Chief Ministers in states will make Modi a formidable Prime Minister. A formidable Prime Minister is not the one who centralises all the power in him or her but is the one who has formidable party and ministerial colleagues. Of course, at the Centre, Modi has severe paucity of talents in his Council of Ministers, but the solution lies in optimum utilisation of the available talents, not bringing successful and popular Chief Ministers into his cabinet, something he did in appointing Goa’s Manohar Parrikar as the Defence Minister last week. I think there are a good number of BJP MPs who deserve to be ministers and a number of ministers who have earned their positions not because of their talents but because of extraneous considerations such as personal loyalty, caste, creed and gender. It is difficult to understand why Modi, whom many voted because he rose above regional, casteist and religious slogans during the electioneering, appoints Muslims as only minority affairs ministers; they, if talented, can be given other ministerial portfolios.

In sum, if BJP is going to be the real dominant party for a long time, then Modi needs powerful and popular Chief Ministers like Chouhan and Parrikar in state capitals, not in Delhi.

(Prakash Nanda is Editor of Uday India, a niche monthly devoted to defence, security and diplomacy. The blog has been reproduced from the website of Uday India. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)