All indicators demonstrate that the Congress is suffering from a terminal disease. What is not so evident is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is beginning to suffer from the same malaise. There are three major ingredients that determine the health of a political party in a democracy: shared ideology, dedicated cadres, and inner party democracy. All of them have been absent in the Congress for decades.
Charisma can be fickle
Inner party democracy was never a major characteristic of the BJP as it was the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that decided who would lead its political arm. This tradition continues with one major difference. Earlier, even the tallest leaders of the party including Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani could not create a cult of personality around them thanks in part to the RSS’s control. This has changed drastically under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The fortunes of the party have become inextricably tied to the durability of Mr. Modi’s charisma. Echoes of “Indira is India” can be heard in the slogan “Modi hai to mumkin hai (if Modi is there, it is possible)”. But as Indira Gandhi’s resounding defeat in 1977 demonstrated, charisma can be very fickle. If Mr. Modi’s charisma loses its shine, so would the standing of the party.
Thanks to its parent organisation, the RSS, ideological commitment and dedicated cadres have been the BJP’s strongest attributes. However, now the BJP appears to be following in the Congress’s footsteps by diminishing its esprit de corps and organisational cohesion and thus diluting its ideology. The latter is compromised once esprit de corps declines as a result of a vast array of people with diverse or no political persuasions joining the party in search of power and its attendant perks.
One can already see this happening at the State level where in many instances there is fierce competition within the BJP for the benefits of office. The danger of this virus becoming more virulent is becoming evident as the BJP uses all sorts of enticements to attract politicians from other parties to switch loyalties in order to bring down non-BJP governments. It did so successfully in Karnataka where more than a dozen MLAs from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) joined the BJP with almost all of them rewarded with ministerial berths thus creating heart burn among existing contenders for office.
It won an even greater prize in Madhya Pradesh by inducing a leading light of the Congress, Jyotiraditya Scindia, to switch sides, along with several of his followers, thus bringing down the Kamal Nath government.
It almost succeeded in doing the same in Rajasthan but failed because Sachin Pilot lost his nerve at the last moment. This drama is being re-enacted in West Bengal with Trinamool Congress members, including some very important figures, being lured into switching to the BJP with attractive offers.
However, in the long run, this strategy is likely to be counterproductive because the “aya rams” of today can easily become the “gaya rams” of tomorrow as they do not have the same ideological commitment or the esprit de corps as do the members who have been socialised into the party’s culture by their association with the RSS. Such temporary successes hide the rot gnawing away at the party’s core. The BJP is slowly but surely turning it into a mirror image of the Congress. Just as the glue that held the Congress together for several decades was the allurement of power, increasingly the adhesive holding the BJP together is the appeal of office and the privileges that go with it. But this attraction can dissipate and be replaced by disillusionment leading to defections at the slightest indication of a reversal in the BJP’s fortunes or its inability to accommodate defectors in high offices. Given present trends, it is possible that the BJP will repeat the Congress’s trajectory.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University