By Gayari Kumar | February 15, 2021
The year 2014 is known as the watershed year for Indian voters. It was the year that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set a historic record―unbeaten since 1984―when it not only gained an undeniable majority in the Indian Parliament, but also set a precedent by winning the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha—a staggering 52%. The BJP has been dubbed the greatest election machine for winning landslide victories across several states in what is known as the “NaMo” wave, but according to journalist Prashant Jha, few people in 2013 could have anticipated such a sweeping victory for the BJP. Although there is significant reason to believe that BJP’s victory was a response to people’s growing discontent with the Congress party and the need for new, fresh faces in government, it is nonetheless imperative to understand the strategic workings of the party that broke Congress’s 64 year old rule of India.
In fact, support for the BJP since their 2014 victory has been widespread. Very few could look past the illusion of the party’s greatness to gain a clear insight into the direction it was heading. But the BJP’s recent, overt, and undeniable disrespect for human rights has turned the few disillusioned people into many. It is now more imperative than ever to understand how the public could have bolstered a party that is presently passing unprecedented legislation to wipe out religious minorities in its nation. Propaganda is perfected with practice, and the BJP got a lot of it in the late 1990’s. In the following years, its propaganda machine perfected its use of communal polarization—one of the many tools it has used to secure its vote bank. Indeed, the BJP had quickly become a master at fooling the public, and the public a master at being fooled.
Important to note about the genesis of the BJP is that it stems from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization most commonly known for its affiliation with Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. The RSS, however, was not a political organization, but a cultural one that espoused Hindu rashtra. But as the political potential for the RSS grew, the Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 to become the leading party for Hindu activists. The party was filled mainly by RSS members and it had its limitations since it favored the more traditional sectors of Hinduism and failed “to transcend the limitations of its origins.” In other words, it was oriented mainly for North Indian Brahmins. But from a political standpoint, such an extremist stance hardly garners national support. Indeed, several religious minorities feared the Jana Sangh’s cause to turn India’s secularism on its head and create a Hindu nation. The BJP was formed when those in the Jana Sangh who were affiliated with RSS realized these political limitations and exited to create the Bharatiya Janata Party instead. If the evolution of politics has proven one thing, it’s that the aggressive wolf doesn’t win the race, but the sly fox. So too, the right-wing BJP examined its political playing field to determine when it would and would not be beneficial for them to stand behind their Hindutva philosophy. Consequently, the BJP became a seller of its principles more so than a believer of them.
In 1984, while the Congress maintained its political dominance over India, the BJP was finding it difficult to gain even 2 MP seats in Parliament. In a struggle to loosen their grip, tactics that were used by the British fifty years before were called into action once again. An imperative tactic of the RSS to bolster support for the BJP was to divide and rule on the basis of religion. What is necessary to understand about the RSS is that it is one of the many invisible-hand organizations that are part of the Sangh Parivar that has worked to set the stage for the BJP. Their victories in the 1992 general elections were a reflection of these backhanded operations. Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, was one of the main targets for the BJP to experiment their tactics and garner Hindu support. In this city, BJP President Laal Krishna Advani spearheaded the infamous campaign against the desolate Babri Masjid, claiming that there was first a Ram Mandir in its place which had been destroyed by Emperor Babur. No conclusive historical evidence has substantiated this theory, but nevertheless their propaganda campaign was successful in creating anti-Muslim sentiments as the phrase “Muslalman Ka Doh Hi Sthann” (BJP is neither here nor there) grew increasingly popular at this time. The Sangh Parivar and BJP joined in organizing tens of thousands of Hindus to descend on the town in Ayodhya. One young Hindu, Anu Aggarwal, in a crowd of armed militants said: “This is to show we will die for Ram” as he waved his air pistol to the group. One thousand people died in this militant assault in 1990, and in 1992 they demolished the mosque. Hamid al-Gabid, the secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference expressed his shock at the “premeditated crime against…Muslims everywhere.” According to Siddharth Varadarajan, the campaign aimed at “the creation of a Hindu vote-bank.”
This radical phase of the BJP as it espoused Hindu nationalism turned its electoral performance around in the 1991 elections, improving its seat share from two to 119. According to a study conducted by three political scientists from Yale University, “the BJS/BJP saw a 0.8 percentage point average increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election.” Another study conducted by Rohit Ticku examines the positive causal relationship between the electoral performance of BJP and the extent of riots: “three of the states where it has recorded the best electoral performance over the sample period also have the dubious distinction of being most riot prone.”
Perhaps the most telling thing about the BJP’s strategy to generate and maintain support is that years after the Babri Masjid demolition, and despite having control of the central government for years now, their promise to build the Ram Mandir has still gone unfulfilled. While the BJP had no problem ignoring court orders when they demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, they have now been letting the issue linger for months on end in the Supreme Court. This has caused a rift between BJP and the several Hindu national parties of the Sangh Parivar that had been instrumental in the mosque’s demolition. In October of 2017, the Shiv Sena demanded the BJP build the mandir: “Don’t just raise slogans, start picking up Bricks.” The Shiva Sena believes that the BJP is garnering Hindu votes by convincing people that the party must be in power in order for the temple to be built, but the actual building of the temple is of no concern to the party. Similarly, senior journalist Rahul Shrivastava claims that “the BJP won’t mind the revival of charges against Advani as it provides a means to keep their core constituency constantly engaged.” In light of today’s Muslim oppression by the BJP, this incident is significant in highlighting the old yet reemerging strategy of the party: sometimes there is more political capital in raising a problem than there is in implementing the solution. As long as the Babri Masjid controversy remained untouched, there would always be a fire to stoke whenever the BJP needed to garner votes. Indeed, if the philosophy of BJP could be summed up it would be: problems are the new solutions.