Earlier this week, Union minister Smriti Irani said she would leave politics the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi hangs up his boots. Lest this be interpreted as her alluding to the possibility of a premature closure of a breathtaking political career, she exuded confidence that Mr Modi would be around for “long years”. But the moot point of her suo moto declaration is that she is active in politics and in the Bharatiya Janata Party chiefly because of personal loyalty and not out of commitment to an ideology or party programme. Another way of phrasing the declaration is that for Ms Irani, the leader is paramount over the party and what it stands for.
Fifteen years ago in December 2004, Ms Irani had threatened to fast unto death demanding the resignation of Mr Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat. Although the protest, embarrassing for the party, was subsequently called off, it must be emphasised that she wished to embark on it on Christmas Day, which was also Atal Behari Vajpayee’s birthday, as a mark of respect to him. Despite Mr Modi’s homage, the political and personal divergence between him and Vajpayee has been well documented. When Ms Irani announced her protest, she was asked if permission had been taken from the party leadership: “Why do you think you need permission to do what you think is right. The BJP is a democratic party.” Not many BJP leaders would be able to make such an assertion now without risking their stature and position.
This story needed retelling not for the transformation of Ms Irani, her changing loyalties and Mr Modi’s spectacularly altered fortunes. These developments involving the same set of individuals, over a period of a decade and a half, underscores the party’s transition. From being a “party with a difference” known for its ideology, loyalty towards its political fraternity and commitment to the party’s programmes, the adhesive in the party is now focused mostly on an individual. From a time when party leaders used nationalist slogans as their battle cry, now, as recently seen in the Lok Sabha on Budget day, the name of a single leader has turned into the rallying point. Anyone who doesn’t utter the incessant chant or who does not burst into a cackle of laughter when commanded, is pilloried — recall how defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was panned when she did not find the joke cracked at the expense of Renuka Chaudhury any bit amusing. The BJP now, like all non-Communist parties, has one presiding deity, and anyone not paying obeisance is most likely to be marginalised, if not actually labelled anti-national.
When the BJP distinguished itself as party where policies and programmes were more important than any individual, its leaders took pride in the collegiate style of the BJP’s working, where internal charcha or discussion was mandatory
before major decisions. In the years when the party moved from the political periphery to the centrestage before 2014, the party cadre boasted that the
organisation had the ability to carry ek mayan mein do talwarein — or two swords in one sheath — indicating to the Atal Behari Vajpayee-L.K. Advani duo. The two were at one level, two ends of the Hindutva spectrum, and locked in ceaseless competition. Yet they remained ideological brothers, never failing to close ranks whenever danger arose from outside. Barring the two main Communist parties and the “original” Janata Dal, the BJP was the closest one could get to a democratic party in Indian politics. Other parties, from the Congress to various factions of the Janata Parivar, which later branched out into family enterprises, even ideological parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, remain merely personal bastions of insecure yet ambitious leaders.
The BJP has its roots in the Jan Sangh, which was controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, especially after Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s death. Deen Dayal Upadhyay, who fronted for the RSS, was, however, more of a Balasaheb Deoras loyalist than a blind admirer of M.S. Golwalkar. The two differed on the fundamental organisational credo — Golwalkar practised the principle of Ek Chalak Anuvartitva — or follow one leader, while Deoras stood for Sah Chalak Anuvartitva — or follow multiple leaders. Till 2014, this remained the party’s organisational principle. In November 2015, the four sidelined party veterans — L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar — in a statement bemoaned the demise of this party tenet. They asked for a review of how “the party is being forced to kowtow to a handful, and how its consensual character has been destroyed”. Issues raised in that note have never been addressed and the page has been turned.
The danger of what has happened to the BJP, how the Congress reoriented itself as chiefly a family hegemonised organisation after 1967 and how other parties became proprietary units has always lurked. In his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1941, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar sounded three warnings for the emergent republic, of which the second is most pertinent in the context being discussed in this article. He quoted John Stuart Mill arguing that lawmakers and people must not “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enables him to subvert their institutions”.
Further ahead, he read out the words of another great patriot, the Irish leader Daniel O’Connel: “No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty.” Finally, he recalled that Bhakti was a part of India’s culture and religion for its capacity to be the road to salvation for many. However, “in politics Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. There is little point in blaming anyone or pointing fingers at individuals responsible for the BJP’s changed political values, but there is a need to be aware of this development and recall Ambedkar’s forewarning....