Many political observers believe that the reverse counting has begun for his government with the negative vote against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
If a week is a long time in politics, then the four months remaining till the general election could be considered an entire lifetime. But, in practical terms, it is too short for the Modi government to resolve the problems that have dogged it the most in these elections — farm distress, youth unemployment and the collapse of small and medium businesses.
Having failed on Mr Modi’s development agenda that had delivered poll magic in 2014, if the BJP returns to power in May 2019 its leadership would have to be far more mindful of its mother organisation, the Rasht-riya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Glowing in the warmth of the landslide victory of the BJP in 2014, a friend close to the BJP’s ideology was emboldened enough to ask: “If we win a two-thirds majority in 2019 and then amend the Constitution to make India a Hindu nation, what can the Opposition do?”
What he was suggesting was that the path that had opened for the Hindutva forces in 2014 was likely to become a full-blown expressway by 2019. And that would be the right time to implement the agenda of the RSS.
This is a common misunderstanding of the RSS’s agenda for its political progeny, the BJP. The RSS stands for Hindutva but not necessarily for enforcing Hinduism as the state religion of India. For it, Hindutva is a social, cultural and even an economic world-view, and it would like to make that the pre-eminent narrative of Indian society.
Its differences with Mr Modi should not be reduced to his failure to deliver on this or that particular issue: to construct a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, enact a common civil code or fail to revoke Article 370 to deny Jammu and Kashmir its special status.
The RSS is aware of the legal and political hurdles that exist in a country as big and as diverse as India and sees these issues as long-term political goals. Even with a two-thirds majority in parliament, these goals would be difficult for the BJP to implement smoothly as their sensitivity can set fire to entire swathes of the country. The RSS has a millennial view of things compared to a government which exists only for a five-year term.
The friction between the RSS and Mr Modi is not over Hindutva per se but more about political functioning.
As opposed to the Prime Minister’s self-projection about his real and imagined achievements, the RSS believes in working silently. The present chief of the RSS has never talked about his parents being full-time RSS workers with no regular source of income, or how from being a graduate in veterinary science and animal husbandry, he rose to become the top philosopher and guide of the RSS. In the past, no one even knew who the top officials of the RSS were, and its chief publicly delivered his Mann Ki Baat only on Vijayadasami or Dasara.
The RSS believes in consultative functioning while Prime Minister Modi likes to centralise decision-making in himself.
Today there is no dialogue either within the party institutions or in the parliamentary party — only the Prime Minister and BJP president Amit Shah hold forth. In Cabinet meetings, hardly anyone, except apparently Nitin Gadkari, speaks their mind.
The RSS believes in developing the indigenous economy to make it self-reliant, and hence its emphasis on ‘swadeshi’. Mr Modi is rooting for foreign direct investment (FDI) with international corporations and inviting the economic investment and involvement of China and the West.
The RSS believes in promoting its core constituency of small businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers. But Mr Modi favours big corporations and his pet policies have supervised the destruction of small businesses and pushed the farm sector into a crisis of survival. The RSS also wants the entry of Christian missionaries banned. The Modi government, given international sensitivities, has not been very successful in doing that.
Therefore, if the BJP returns to power in the next general election, the RSS would like these issues addressed and provide succour to its base among the traders, small businessmen and farmers.
Who among its top leadership then is ideally suited to fulfil the RSS agenda?
Should Mr Modi win the top job again, what is likely to be his immediate priority? The first thing he did after ascending to power in 2014 was to marginalise his godfather L.K. Advani and veteran leader Murali Manohar Joshi.
So far he has tolerated leaders like Ms Sushma Swaraj, Mr Gadkari and Mr Rajnath Singh because of their public standing and the backing of the RSS. Should he win again, they can safely expect to be put to pasture in the ‘Magdarshak Mandal’, everything else can wait.
But if the BJP falls substantially short of a majority as the largest party, it is unlikely that Mr Modi would be the next Prime Minister. What is the magic number which will tip Mr Modi’s fortunes is debatable. However, should he not return to the seat, then Mr Gadkari and Mr Rajnath Singh would play an important role in forming the government and running the party while Ms Swaraj could be sent to the Rajya Sabha as Leader of the Opposition. Mr Gadkari, seen as a reconciliatory personality with deal-making abilities, could be the prime minister and Mr Rajnath Singh the party president.
In the scenario where the BJP leads a coalition government and is dependent on other smaller parties, there can be no question of prioritising the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, enacting a common civil code or abrogating Article 370. The Ayodhya issue will be put once again on the back burner.
The Ram temple could have been constructed, despite its potential for throwing the nation into turmoil, had the BJP won the recently concluded three state elections in the Hindi heartland. Raking up that issue now or later, even if it were to lead to a coalition after May 2019, would mean infusing new blood into the Opposition....