Born from the ashes of the Jana Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party had a slow and diffident start. L K Advani’s Rath Yatra brought it fame, the Ram Janmabhoomi issue gave it a slogan and the Vajpayee era gave it its first great boost. As the party turns 41, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, journalist and author of The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times reflects on how the party evolved before and under Narendra Modi, to become the ‘new BJP’.
It’s been seven years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fresh from his de facto anointment as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral mascot for the parliamentary polls, unveiled his vision of a ‘new India’. Capturing the mood of the people, after the difficult years under UPA 2, Modi was quick to cash in on his promise of an India free of corruption, driven by new thinking and innovation.
This was in January 2014. The idea of a ‘new India’ still flits in and out of his speeches, depending on political urgency, but what cannot be denied is that Narendra Modi has succeeded in raising a ‘new BJP’.
The Bharatiya Janata Party was officially founded on 6th April 1980.
Its origins can be traced to a much more distant past, in the early decades of the 20th century, but as it marches past its 41st anniversary, here’s a look back at the BJP and how it got to where it is today.
What stands out for me is the complete confidence with which even the most dissonant of assertions is now made by its leaders. This confidence stems from the (rightful) assessment that the party has, since 2014 especially, transformed India’s political soul and spirit. A peripheral political force for close to a decade after its formation, the BJP was described as a ‘government-in-waiting’, even by former deputy prime minister and party president LK Advani, and as recently as 1991.
The tide turned in 1998, when the BJP- led National Democratic Alliance government under prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee formed the Government and held power for six years, until 2004.
But the story of the BJP is one of the conflicting pathways…moderate or right, and how far right? Under Narendra Modi, these questions seem to have been brushed aside. Today the BJP has emerged as a dominant political force that can impose its political views on the political system on almost every issue.
This stems from Modi’s own belief/conclusion that the sweeping mandate for the BJP in 2014 was in fact an endorsement of the party’s ideological firmness and not merely approval of the accommodative spirit of its earlier leadership. This has led to a deep-seated change in belief and perception within and outside the party.
The Birth of the BJP
Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency acted as a rallying cry for the opposition of the time. Disparate parties with different ideological leanings came together to fight against the excesses of a totalitarian regime. So it is no wonder that the Janata Party that defeated Indira consisted of a rather uncomfortable alliance.
The party included leaders from the Congress (O), formed after splitting from Indira Gandhi’s Congress (R); the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the precursor of the BJP); the Bharatiya Lok Dal; and the Congress for Democracy (CFD). Prominent Congress (R) leaders Jagjiwan Ram, H N Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy defected from the Congress (R) to float the CFD soon after Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency and called for elections in 1977.
It was an experiment that was bound to fail. One reason for disquiet within the party, for instance, was the heightened frontline action by the Jana Sangha’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Balasaheb Deoras, the third supremo of the RSS, assumed charge of that organisation in 1973 and laid particular emphasis on mass contact programmes. The frontal role that the RSS started playing during the Janata Party years alarmed sections of leaders such as those from the Congress (O) and Bharatiya Lok Dal.
Their discomfort however was an instance of double standards – these leaders had collaborated with the RSS during the agitation that led to the imposition of Emergency and thereafter agreed to the Jana Sangh’s merger with the new party. Yet now, in power, they wanted to restrict the role of the RSS. It was a classic instance of wanting to have the cake and eat it too.
The trigger for the final face-off came over the issue of ‘dual membership’. The members of the erstwhile Jana Sangh were also members of the RSS and they retained this membership even after merging with the Janata Party.
Things came to such a head that this became one of the most visible reasons for the collapse of the Janata government and the party.
Though considered a moderate, Vajpayee sailed with the RSS leadership. Nanaji Deshmukh of the erstwhile Jana Sangh, who was a Janata Party general secretary, was the point person coordinating with the RSS. Fighting with their backs to the wall, the former Jana Sangh members eventually quit the Janata Party.
The RSS’s Past
The disquiet over the RSS and its influence over sections of the Janata Party stemmed from the RSS’s controversial past. Even before it was established in 1925, the idea that inspired its founders had run into conflict with the mainstream anti-colonial movement that picked up speed after the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa in 1915. From the last decades of the 19th century, when the idea of Indian nationalism began gaining currency, two very clearly different paths to defining the nation and Indian nationhood began to emerge.
The first was a religion-centric path that saw the nation in terms of a people sharing a common culture, with religion being equated with culture. This enabled the defining of Indian as equivalent to Hindu, although it was claimed that this ‘Hindu’ was distinct from the Hindu religion and could include members of other faiths.
This was the stream of political thought from which the idea of Hindutva flowed, culminating in the formation of the RSS in 1925, and of the phalanx of organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and several others, in the decades subsequent to 1925.
The alternative to this approach to defining Indian nationalism was more inclusive and, instead of the individual identities of its people, it laid emphasis on the territorial boundaries of the country, with the land and people residing within, comprising the nation.
The religio-cultural approach to nationalism evolved out of a treatise titled Hindutva: Who Is A Hindu? written from within prison by VD Savarkar, a one-time revolutionary turned nationalist who codified ‘political’ Hinduism. Although he never joined the RSS, in fact, he even worked at cross purposes with it after his release in May 1937, Savarkar was considered a revered figure by the early leaders of the RSS, including its founder KB Hedgewar, even though Savarkar was accused of conspiracy in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case.
Although acquitted, a cloud of suspicion hung over Savarkar’s head because of the findings of a judicial commission appointed by the government in the 1960s. The Modi government has also iconised Savarkar whenever the opportunity has arisen.
Savarkar had argued that organising Hindus was the principal task, and the RSS was solely focussed on this.
As an organisation, it did not participate in the national movement although several of its leaders and workers joined the Civil Disobedience and the Quit India movements in a personal capacity. As a consequence, the RSS leadership remained disdainful of politics in the narrow sense of the word, although it was extremely resentful towards the inclusive politics advocated by leaders of the Indian National Congress, from Gandhi downwards.
Although Nathuram Godse had ceased to be have any formal association with the RSS several years prior to assassinating Gandhi, he remained part of this Hindu nationalistic ecosystem. This resulted in the ban on the RSS in 1948, which was lifted only after the courts ruled that there was no proof of its involvement in any conspiracy. The Congress-led government of the time also directed the RSS to adopt a constitution and made this a precondition for lifting the ban on it, in 1949.
However, even the allegation that it had been associated with a conspiracy to murder Gandhi was damaging enough for the RSS to suffer a plummet in public perception. Over time, this led to the idea that a political party ought to be established that could articulate the worldview of the RSS in the political arena.
In October 1951, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was established, with Syama Prasad Mookerjee as its founding president. He was a former president of the Hindu Mahasabha. And he had been a member of the first national government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, a post that Mookerjee resigned from over differences with the first prime minister.
In order to retain control over the Jana Sangh, the RSS leadership appointed one of its senior functionaries, Deendayal Upadhyaya, as general secretary.
The Jana Sangh did not meet with much electoral success in the early years. In 1967, it was considered impressive when the Jana Sangh won 35 of the 520 seats in the Lok Sabha. Importantly, though, it performed well in several states (state and general elections were held in the same year at the time), enabling it to forge close political associations with other non-Congress parties and join coalition governments in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and several other states.
Although the governments prove unstable, the alliances were rebuilt in the period preceding the imposition of Emergency in June 1975. Indira Gandhi’s government had begun to flounder in 1973. Despite its massive mandate in 1971, and its victory in a war with Pakistan that ended in the liberation of Bangladesh, at home it was facing agitations sparked by allegations of corruption and public discontent with price rise. Students in Gujarat, followed by Bihar, launched protest movements against the twin issues that soon acquired a pan-India character.
The Jana Sangh and the RSS remained at the forefront of the agitation and struggle against Emergency, after it was imposed by Indira Gandhi. Interestingly, this was also the period when Narendra Modi made his quiet entry into the political arena, going a step beyond being just a junior functionary managing the affairs of the RSS regional headquarters in Ahmedabad.
As the opposition rallied and won a moral and electoral victory against Indira Gandhi in 1977, the stage was set for the merger of the Jana Sangh with other non-Congress parties to form the first coalition to come to power in India.
But then came the troubles. Leaders from other Janata Party factions, chiefly members of the erstwhile socialist groups, demanded that the Jana Sangh members break ties with the RSS if they wished to remain part of the Janata Party regime.
Eventually, the Morarji Desai government lost its parliamentary majority after one faction led by Charan Singh walked out to form the government with external support from the Congress. But this government too proved unstable, as Indira Gandhi withdrew support and precipitated the polls. The Janata Party split and soon the Jana Sangh members had no option but to float a new party. The question now was whether the new party would be a replica of the earlier one, or would fashion for itself a new facade.
Because of the high-voltage controversy, the leaders who eventually founded the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980 felt they might be stigmatised for their overt association with the RSS. This was the primary reason why the new party’s programme was an amalgam of Gandhianism and socialism, distinct from its Hindu nationalistic or religio-cultural roots.
The founders of the BJP decided that the new party would shed its Jana Sangh legacy. There would be no formal ties with the RSS and the party would position itself as the inheritor of Jayaprakash Narayan’s legacy of fighting corruption in high places as well as promoting democracy and probity and accountability in public life.
The task before the motley lot of leaders who gathered in New Delhi on 6th April 1980 was to construct a new edifice – that of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the first meeting after its formation, the BJP noted that JP’s “dream was shattered” by the collapse of the Janata Party. However, despite professing its loyalty to JP, the BJP did not sever its umbilical cord with the RSS completely. In fact, a close link with the RSS was justified in the founding resolution adopted on 6th April 1980 in New Delhi when it noted that “when the Janata Party was formed in 1977, no one objected to the ties of the former Jana Sangh members with the RSS”. The new party claimed that criticism was levelled only “when the leadership struggle intensified” within the Janata Party.
On the question of personal links of BJP leaders to the RSS, the official position stated that it welcomed “in its fold all members of any organisation that is engaged in the social and cultural upliftment of the nation and its people”.
The BJP listed five points as its main objectives, indicative of the two legacies – that of the Jana Sangh and of Jayaprakash Narayan – that the new party aimed to ride on: Nationalism and national integration; commitment to democracy; Gandhian socialism; value-based politics; and genuine secularism. The BJP argued that its understanding of secularism was non-discriminatory whereas other parties appeased religious minorities, mainly Muslims.
Of these, the last point was an unambiguous endorsement of the RSS’s approach on the issue of communalism, while the first was an attempt to find a meeting point between the Hindutva position on nationalism and JP’s approach on the issue.
The leaders of the BJP thus struck a balance between the twin legacies of their party. This was symbolically underscored in the choice of flag. The BJP flag was neither pure saffron like that of the Jana Sangh, nor completely green like that of the Janata Party. Instead, there was a mix of the two colours. The lamp of the Jana Sangh was replaced by the lotus, a symbol of purity.
The most significant departure from the value system of the RSS / Jana Sangh was the BJP’s declaration of the new party’s principal commitment to Gandhian Socialism. This was a significant departure from the concept of Integral Humanism – a doctrine that was put forth as an alternative vision of national development to the one being pursued by the Congress – as propounded by Deendayal Upadhyay, one of the Jana Sangh’s former presidents.
In later years, after the elevation of LK Advani to party president in 1986, the BJP resurrected the treatise of Integral Humanism as its official philosophy and in the Modi era this has become an article of faith.
But previously, the leaders who formed the BJP in 1980 were not just from the erstwhile Jana Sangh fold but had also come from other sections. There were leaders like Sikandar Bakht, a Muslim who was appointed the first general secretary of the BJP, while Vajpayee was appointed the party’s first president. Bakht who had been with the Congress since the 1950s, parted ways with Indira Gandhi and joined the Congress (O) before its merger in the Janata Party.
Bakht had already weathered a communal storm when he was inducted into the BJP. In 1952, he married a Hindu Brahmin named Raj Sharma. This created considerable disquiet, with some Hindu sectarian forces targeting Muslims in a series of communal conflicts across Delhi aimed largely at Bakht’s Qureshi community.
Today, people from outside the fold still join the BJP but they change their tune to that of the party, and do not give it the kind of secular hue that Bakht’s inclusion did.
Back to 1980, even though there was no direct opposition to the appointment of Bakht and others like him, many old Jana Sangh stalwarts were dismayed at the centrist position the BJP seemed intent on. These old-timers were also upset because the BJP discontinued the system of holding samanvay baithaks or consultative meetings with the RSS.
The Debate on Identity
The schism in the new party was evident even at its first plenary session, in Bombay, in December 1980. Delegates to the session were not at ease with the concept of Gandhian Socialism because the idea of ‘socialism’ was considered ‘foreign’ because of its links with a ‘foreign ideology’: Marxism.
Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior, a party vice-president then, submitted a note during the working committee meeting arguing that new programmes were making the BJP a “photocopy” of the Congress. She withdrew her note after Vajpayee stated that though the word socialism was used, it was in the Indian context.
The new party’s political diffidence did not bear fruit. The BJP was crushed in the 1984 polls and even Vajpayee lost. From 1986 onwards, the BJP began to return to its political and ideological roots, with Advani as party president aided greatly by the sharpening of communal polarisation, courtesy the twin issues of the Shah Bano judgment and the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation for a temple in Ayodhya in place of the Mughal-era mosque that stood at the spot where Ram was believed to have been born.
In time, the BJP would articulate a troika of core issues – the building of the Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370 and no more special status to Kashmir, and the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code. Two of these – the temple and the abrogation of Article 370 – Modi can today take credit for having achieved.
Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, as it further hardened its stance, the BJP emerged from the periphery of the Indian political arena to occupy centre stage. But now some party veterans were beginning to feel that its Hindutva agenda was also self-limiting. As a result, in November 1995, Advani stepped aside for Vajpayee, who had the image of a moderate and more inclusive leader.
The following year, in 1996, President of India Shankar Dayal Sharma went by the letter of the Constitution and invited Vajpayee to form the government at the Centre, despite it being clear that he lacked a majority. Vajpayee resigned after 13 days in office.
In March 1998, after fresh elections, he was sworn in as prime minister a second time, and the BJP moved further towards the centre of the Indian political canvas. In order to gain the support of coalition partners, the party agreed to a National Agenda of Governance that did not include the three contentious issues on the BJP’s to-do list – the Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370 and introduction of a Uniform Civil Code.
The National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP, would govern at the Centre until 2004, the first right-of-centre political establishment to do so in India.
It remained reticent on disputable issues and Vajpayee restricted his personal and the government’s orientation within the Nehruvian framework of inclusive politics, where the political system was mindful of special needs of religious minorities on which there was a broad consensus.
In the decade after the NDA’s defeat to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004, senior BJP leaders remained unsure if the no-nonsense Hindutva approach to politics would get the people’s approval. Consequently, Advani tried seeking acceptance within India’s middle ground through a string of actions that began with him finding virtues in the late Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and terming him a secular leader.
Through that decade when the UPA was in power, one leader remained confident that the time had come for a tough and unapologetic stance on Hindutva, religious minorities and the RSS’s original definitions of nationalism. Way back in 2012, in the course of an interview with Modi while I was conducting research for my biography on him, he was clear that allies would once again flock to the BJP fold the moment they began to sense that the party could win, and not for reasons of ideology.
Since 2014, while the NDA tag remains, this government has been for all intents and purposes a BJP government. It is its agenda and vision that are at play
Forty-one years after its formation, Modi remains the most dominant personality of the ‘new BJP’, and why not. After all, it was his conviction that India was ripe for a change. That the dominant societal thinking could be altered from its post-independence Nehruvian moorings. And that a significant section of people was ready to endorse a majoritarian viewpoint. And all his convictions have played out.
While the debate over whether this evolution will enable India get on the fast track of development, improve quality of life for citizens and ease the disparities among them continues, the BJP’s self-assurance 41 years in, reminds me of the line penned by Victor Hugo, although written in a different context: ‘Forty is the old age of youth…’.
Crystal-ball gazing is fraught with peril. Especially if a significant section of public opinion remains directed against the approach of the ‘new BJP’. That is why the second part of Hugo’s line will stay in the realm of speculation: …fifty (is) the youth of old age. Much will depend on how the future is tackled by Modi and his colleagues, as well as by his adversaries.
But the BJP’s legacy will stand, etched in time.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right, and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.
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