Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Why is the BJP so keen on appropriating icons from outside its Hindutva fold?

First published on Scroll.

Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao was a man of versatile talents. An effective chief minister, he is also known for being the first Indian prime minister who was not a native Hindi-speaker – a somewhat patronising fact to remember him by, given that he was a polyglot who knew 17 languages, including Hindi.

Eleven years after this death, he still has the political classes chattering: the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is building a memorial to Rao in Delhi. So keen is it on achieving this that work was rushed to inaugurate the memorial on Rao’s 94th birth anniversary on Sunday.

The BJP’s move to remember Rao stands in stark contrast to the Congress’s attitude towards his memory. Although a Congressman for life, Rao was dumped rather hastily. His fall from grace was so complete that the Congress even forced his family to perform his last rites in Hyderabad and not in Delhi, lest the attention took away some of the spotlight from the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

Rao isn’t the only estranged Congressman that the BJP wants to commemorate. Last Wednesday, the Narendra Modi government approved plans for a national memorial at the birthplace of Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar. And then of course, there is the continued appropriation of Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose.

Searching for icons

Why is the BJP, the largest party in Parliament, and Narendra Modi so keen on appropriating non-BJP icons? The party claims to be feting Rao for instituting liberalisation. But to be consistent with the rationale, will the party also praise Manmohan Singh given that his contribution was also integral to the process? Seems unlikely.

It is also unlikely that Jayaprakash Narayan, the socialist leader the BJP is commemorating, would take too well to celebrations of liberalisation. It is also ironical that Modi is celebrating JP’s fight against over-centralisation of power in the person of the prime minister.

Platitudes aside, the core issue is quite simple. The BJP might be facing a surfeit of electoral riches now but its political legacy is shallow and weak. There is no historical depth in the Bharaiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine that now dominates Indian politics. On the one hand, this is a great story of a meteoric rise. But, on the other, lack of a historical narrative can be a serious handicap to building a strong foundation for power.

A long history of nothing

To be sure, the BJP-RSS aren’t new organisations. The RSS was founded in 1925 and will celebrate its 90th anniversary in September. The RSS’ political arm, the BJP, is no spring chicken either. It was founded in 1951, making it a venerable 64 years old.

The issue isn’t age – it’s impact. The BJP as a political formation might have existed for a great many years, but for most of that time, it’s been a marginal player in Indian politics with no influence and, consequently, no legacy.

In 1971, for example, the Jan Sangh only managed to win 7.35% of the votes polled. Added up, the vote share of the two Congress parties (the Congress-O and Indira Gandhi’s Congress) was more than seven times as much.

After that came the Emergency, the 40th anniversary of which is being so exuberantly marked by the BJP. The party today uses the event to claim its historical roots.

Did the Emergency birth the BJP?

This is understandable given that the BJP – or the wider Hindutva family – really has nothing to show for the Freedom Movement. Leaders such as Vinayak Savarkar and BJP founder SP Mookerkee, for example, opposed the Quit India movement and cooperated with the British Raj. This might have made tactical sense at the time and helped the Hindutva movement grow a bit but it really doesn’t make for a good historical narrative.

Thus, all the BJP has left is the Emergency and, for the past month or so, we’ve been treated to narratives about how seminal the BJP-RSS role was in this movement against Indira Gandhi’s despotism (expectedly, even Modi’s personal role in it has been lionised).

These narratives are effective and help the BJP carve out a distinct space for itself in India’s history. Narratives aside, however, the funny thing is that this supposedly heroic role of the BJP-RSS in upholding democracy during the Emergency helped it very little in actually getting any democratic support for itself.

After 1971, the next election the BJP fought alone was in 1984 (it fought the 1977 and ‘80 elections as part of the Janata Party, so there are no numbers to go on). Its vote share in ‘84 ? 7.74%. Sure, the numbers were up from 7.35% before the Emergency (1971 elections). But only by 0.39 or 5%. That’s it.

Its role in the Emergency that the BJP is most proud of today – that it considers its moment of political birth – seems to have had no effect on India’s voters. Post emergency, the BJP was as much of a minor player as it was before.

Ram’s role

So if not the Emergency, what actually gave birth to the party which now has a majority in the Lok Sabha? Let’s look at the numbers again.

In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped to 20.11% : a near tripling of its 1984 number. In contrast, the BJP vote share in 2014 only increased by a little more than 50% since 1991. The 1991 inflexion point? The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. The search for Ram’s birthplace generated a religious frenzy which also birthed the BJP as a serious contender to power.

Unfortunately, effective as they are at the ballot box, religious frenzies don’t make for terribly effective historical narratives. Until reminded by, say, a pesky Vishva Hindu Parishad functionary, the BJP wouldn’t mind forgetting this movement. And of course it seems to have no plans to build a temple as long as it is in a position of political strength.

Apart from that, however, there really isn’t much else of impact in the BJP’s rather uneventful history. So while the party has pushed its Hindutva leaders, given that they were political pygmies in their times, it has not been very effective. People such as SP Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya might be committed Hindutva ideologues but they really don’t add any heft to the BJP today.

To compensate, the BJP desperately trawls around for anyone who isn’t a Congress favourite – a fairly easy task, it might be noted, since that includes almost anyone who isn’t a Nehru-Gandhi. Legacies of ex-Congressmen such as Vallabhbhai Patel, PV Narasimha Rao and Jayaprakash Narayan are seized hurriedly and even the square pegs of committed ideological opponents such as Marxist revolutionary Bhagat Singh are sought to be hammered into the round Hindutva holes of the BJP.

Given the BJP’s absolute lack of options, this is hardly a surprise and till now, in fact, the Modi government has done a fairly good job of icon appropriation. After all, if there’s one thing this government is good at, it’s communication. Even so, this complete invention of a historical narrative is no easy task and it remains to be seen, a few decades down the line, how well the BJP has performed at this task.

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