Saffron wave

Kamil Ahmed offers a primer on the rise of the BJP

Saffron wave
Unlike in Punjab, on the eve of Partition in 1947, large-scale migration did not take place in Bengal. Hindus in East Pakistan were in a state of confusion as to whether to migrate to India or to try their luck in East Pakistan. A large number of violent crimes against Hindus in East Pakistan including rapes, abductions, plundering and forced conversions were being reported – and that incited Syama Prasad to act.

Hence, in response to the refugee crisis from East Pakistan, after Partition, Syama Prasad Mukherjee founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (later BJP) in 195,1 as the political wing of the RSS. Before that he had joined Nehru’s cabinet on the 15th of August 1947, but later resigned in protest when Nehru didn’t bring him on board whilst dealing with Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan on matters concerning the plight of Hindu Bengalis in East Pakistan.

Deendayal Upadhyaya

Mukherjee hailed from a family of educationists from West Bengal. He strayed into the ranks of the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1940s but left, owing to Nathuram Godsee – Gandhi’s assassin, who had roots in the Mahasabha. When Mukherjee died in 1953, the fate of the Jana Sangh changed and the party came further into the orbit of the RSS. The RSS was a socio-cultural organisation based in northern India and faced a challenge in that it had no electoral background.

Jana Sangh’s association with the RSS and Arya Samaj (a Hindu reformist movement) gave a north Indian dimension to its politics, which, along with their involvement in the movement against cow slaughter (another upper caste cause) stymied their growth in southern India. At first socialist parties, and later Dravidian parties established their hegemony in southern India. The BJP, meanwhile, failed to articulate the concerns of ‘intermediary’ castes.

The leadership of the Jana Sangh was given to Deendayal Upadhyaya, who was General Secretary of since its first Kanpur Session in 1951. After Mukherjee’s death, there was a widespread perception that the Jana Sangh would not survive – but Upadhya proved otherwise.

Syama Prasad Mukherjee

The proclamation of an Emergency by Indira Gandhi and the formation of the Janata Party

From the time of Independence in 1947 till 1967, the Congress enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the Hindu electorate in India. Then there was a lull for four years in Indian politics. In 1971, after the conflict in former East Pakistan, the status of Indira Gandhi rose to that of a ‘mother goddess’. People started seeing her as a great military strategist and diplomat. There was no particular political vacuum that the BJP could fill but by 1974, Gandhi’s image was tarnished owing to poverty, unemployment, inflation and skyrocketing oil prices. A movement against the Congress government started in the first half of 1975 and was at its apex in June. During the same period Congress lost an important by-election in Gujarat and Indira Gandhi was found guilty by the Allahabad High Court for electoral malpractice.

In order to control the situation, Indira Gandhi, then Indian Prime Minister, proclaimed a State of Emergency in India, that lasted for 21 months. Although RSS was banned and their leaders were arrested, the Emergency came as a blessing in disguise for the Jana Sangh. It merged with the Janata Party and formed a government in 1977 with Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. But the Janata government collapsed and the Party broke up owing to the insistence of Jana Sangh’s leaders – who wanted to maintain their RSS membership. Socialist cadres in the Janata Party feared that with their RSS roots they would turn this party into another Jana Sangh.

Enter Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The leadership of the Jana Sangh was given to Atal Bihari Vajpayee after Deendayal Upadhyaya ‘s death. Vajpaaye’s nomination for leadership was impeded by Balraj Madhok but L.K. Advani along with RSS snubbed Madhok. Just like his predecessor, Vajpayee had no electoral background and was exposed to both RSS and Arya Samaj. Adhering to Upadhya’s advice, Vajpayee contested elections from three seats in 1957 for the Lok Sabha and got elected from one.

In June 1980, after parting ways with Janata Party, Jana Sangh changed its political make up and inculcated a certain Gandhian sort of socialism. Jana Sangh was now the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the plan failed to bring any electoral success due to unexpected circumstances. Indira Gandhi was murdered just ahead of elections in 1984 and the Congress rose to power riding a massive sympathy wave. The BJP won only 2 seats and Congress got an overwhelming majority of the 414 seats. It is believed that another factor behind BJP’s failure was abandoning its Hindu base and turning to Gandhian socialism – which alienated the RSS. In retaliation, RSS men canvassed for Congress in elections. As a consequence of defeat, Vajpayee was sidelined and L.K. Advani became the BJP boss.
Muslims saw Congress's efforts as being insincere and a cynical attempt to consolidate the minority vote

L.K. Advani instantly reverted to its Hindu base and BJP decided to use the Ram Janambhoomi to make inroads into the Hindu electorate. Meanwhile, PM Rajiv Gandhi was struggling because of corruption allegations with the Bofors scam topping the list – that involved kickbacks in an arms deal from a Swedish company. Some factions of Congress parted ways with it and formed a new party called Janata Dal. Janata Dal joined hands with BJP and managed to form a government in 1989. VP Singh was made PM and BJP preferred to support him from the outside.

PM VP Singh brought out the Mandal Commission Report that proposed to introduce reservations for other backward castes in government jobs and higher education Institutes – whereas the BJP saw it as an attempt to divide the Hindu electorate. Hence the BJP and Janata Dal parted ways after Laalu Prasad Yadav of Janata Dal arrested Advani while he was leading a procession invoking Ram Janambhoomi to mobilize the ‘Hindu conscience’. As a result of the Ram Janambhoomi movement, led by Advani, in 1992 the Babri masjid was razed to the ground by Hindu fanatics. This event finally created a major Hindu support base for the BJP – which, along with several blunders by Narasima Rao’s government, led them to power for the first time in 1996. This stint in power lasted for only 13 days. Followed by the formation of two unstable governments, the BJP came to power for 13 months – and another election later, for five years. Advani was sidelined owing to his role in the razing of the Babri Masjid and Vajpayee again became the boss of the BJP. But, by then the Sangh Parivar (right-wing organisations in India) had tasted blood and they wanted to dominate Vajpayee’s government. Vajpayee outsmarted them by insulating his cabinet from members with an RSS background. At one end, Vajpayee was pursuing a Hindu nationalistic agenda by detonating nuclear bombs and on the other hand, he was approaching Pakistan for peace. Moreover Vajpayee, by pursuing a neoliberal economic agenda, managed to create an alternate support base that was interested in economic growth more than anything else.

Vajpayee had a clean track record but after the Gujarat riots in 2002 he was finding it fairly difficult to defend the BJP’s government both at the national and international levels. Along with Modi, Vajpayee was being held responsible for not curtailing the riots and later, for not sacking the CM of Gujarat who became the face of the riots. In December 2002,Modi swept the state elections in Gujarat.

BJP went into general elections in 2004 on the basis of their economic performance in Gujarat but contrary to expectations, lost elections to Congress with a narrow margin. The ghosts of the Gujarat riots haunted the BJP big time as the minority vote was consolidated against them. Soon after that, Vajpayee decided to retire from politics and 75-year-old Advani took his place. BJP went to polls in 2009 under leadership of L.K. Advani and lost another election to Congress. In this case, Congress managed to further consolidate the minority vote against the BJP and their victory margin rose as compared to the last elections.

The Modi wave

Despite two consecutive defeats in general elections, BJP was going strong in Gujarat led by Narendra Modi. He had won a second state election in 2007.When he won his third state election in 2013, RSS decided to make him Prime Ministerial candidate. Keeping in mind Modi’s tainted past (the Gujarat riots), Congress took BJP forg ranted and thought that as long as Modi was leading BJP’s campaign they would be able to capitalise on the minority vote. For that, Congress started counting on schemes like NREGA to find a substitute voter base and the Sachar Commission Report to consolidate the minority vote. NREGA provided income, if not regular jobs, for the poor but it drained resources and the vote bank it created was volatile. The Sachar Commission Report was a 403-page report on social and economic conditions of Indian Muslims, and it recommended reforms to fix the prevailing situation – including reservations in IAS and IPS and favourable bank loans. The Andhra Pradesh government, formed by Congress, introduced those reforms but were struck down by courts declaring that reservations can’t be made on the basis of religion. On the other hand, a continuous influx of Bangladeshis was seen to be affecting the demographic balance in West Bengal. Meanwhile, Modi succeeded in convincing Hindu viters that Congress was tilted towards minorities – while Muslims saw Congress’s efforts as being insincere and a cynical attempt to consolidate the minority vote. There was a severe Identity crisis in the Congress and BJP capitalised on that. Consequently, when the results of general elections in 2014 were announced, the BJP led by Modi stormed to power.