The wheel of fortune turned full-circle for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. This, when Narendra Modi swept to power with a substantial majority. It was a majority at the Centre won after 30 years without. But right from the start, there was a problem with ideologically committed but unproven administrators. They had indeed delivered the thumping electoral win by working at the grassroots alongside lakhs of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers. But most of these people were ill equipped for governance. Who then could be invested with responsibility? The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had ruled only once before, for little over five years. Going with the best on offer, the BJP formed its ministries. But the Prime Minister, ignoring such frailties, laid out an ambitious agenda to shake off chronic inertia and bring India into the front rank of nations.
Culturally, the stature of the early founder ideologues like Veer Savarkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and markedly nationalist leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose, were resurrected, and their thoughts given prominence. But the problem of the restricted talent pool continued. The RSS/Jan Sangh/BJP had not originated or grown as a big tent, with a varied set of adherents. But after the third Cabinet and pantheon of ministers’ reshuffle just undertaken, there is a new hope. This conundrum has led the Prime Minister and the BJP president to think out of the traditional box. The policy shift towards inducting perceived merit, even with loyalty credentials that may not be decades old, is likely to have far reaching and favourable consequences. It is a risk worth taking, the Prime Minister and party president have decided, even as it flies in the face of the orthodoxy of the sanskari “closed shop”.
A parallel for the change just initiated at the top, may perhaps be drawn from the principal political parties in the United Kingdom. The Labour Party has morphed into “New Labour”, with very little trade unionism and overt Socialism now, a throwback like Jeremy Corbyn notwithstanding. And the Conservative Party has shed much of its association with the upper classes and aristocracy, to embrace a rainbow-hued inclusiveness.
The motive and suggestion is not, however, to give up on any of the Sangh Parivar’s core issues. Pending works in progress such as the Uniform Civil Code, the abrogation of the special status accorded to Jammu & Kashmir, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, must, and will no doubt be vigorously pursued. But so should labour reform, further land reform, enhanced foreign investment, teeth to ease of doing business, more anti corruption measures, rural and judicial reforms, enhanced manufacturing, greater digitalisation and simplification of procedures and the setting down of a large and diverse defence manufacturing infrastructure. And this is just to list a few of the myriad priorities.
Modi’s own domestic popularity owes a lot to the belief that he works tirelessly and selflessly for the benefit of the people. And his ever-growing international stature and resolve is a thing that most Indians take pride in. The electorate largely understands the enormity of the task, of tackling so many issues for the first time in our history and has shown remarkable patience, given that it is made up 65% by young people. They have clearly had enough of Congress and other family-owned regional parties with their persistent corruption, tired ideological positions and ruthless vote bank politics.
Also, the changes in the BJP voter list have to be kept abreast of. BJP is no longer the party of the “Brahmins, Banias, and Big Business in the Cow Belt”. It has reached out successfully to a huge constituency of Mahadalits, the Dalits proper, Muslim women, with the BJP’s successful support to the abolition of the instant triple talaq, the Shias, some Christians, as the appointment of “demolition man” K.J. Alphons, and electoral results in Goa and Manipur illustrate, Hindus of all castes, and indeed the poor of every description.
The electoral results increasingly reflect this, both in terms of vote share, and the number of states that BJP now runs outright, in coalition, and those ruled by its NDA allies. Before 2019, it could well add further to its tally. Electorally, the BJP/NDA is going from strength to strength.
The economic and social policies of the NDA too have been reoriented towards the uplift of the most disadvantaged in a productive way, without neglecting modern methods and infrastructure creation.
The attention now being given to execution is a timely shift. Not only do ministerial appointments of former eminent bureaucrats help, but there are a lot of other camp followers who can be inducted in future. These people can come from the private sector, civil society, the sympathetic media/intelligentsia. All committed BJP people, but perhaps not groomed by the RSS or the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyathi Parishad (AVBP). The appointment of a former diplomat from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Hardeep Singh Puri, with long-standing BJP leanings, is an illustration of this.
And to look back at relevant precedents, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was often called “the right man in the wrong party”. And this for a number of reasons. His long innings as a parliamentarian. His vision that marked him out as a future Prime Minister by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself. For his poetry and wonderful oratory, his inclusive nature, his wanting to make peace with Pakistan and settle issues with China, his strong emphasis on infrastructure and his ability to carry along the various contradictions and shades of opinion in his unwieldy coalition. These qualities were viewed admiringly by the Opposition, the entrenched and mostly Communist intelligentsia and the largely leftist media as supposedly Nehruvian proclivities. Almost every narrative forgave the Sangh Parivar its rath yatra—to the extent it could—thanks to Vajpayee. Even though its overt Hindutva catapulted the parliamentary seat tally for the BJP from a back-benching 2 to 120 on its own in the 1991 elections to the 10th Lok Sabha. Likewise, the assertion represented by the demolition of the Babri Masjid did not malign Vajpayee. The copious commentary on it blamed L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, the cadres, the leadership of the Shiv Sena and so on—everyone, in short, but Vajpayee. This flattering outlook nevertheless alternated with the sneer of “mukhota” (mask) emanating from the more hard-boiled analysts. Meaning, Atalji was the seemingly benign front for his Communal Hindu Fundamentalist brethren.
And now, after an interlude of 10 years, when the NDA has come to power again, it is headed by a non-Lutyens man, not even remotely Nehruvian, but with much in common with Vajpayee—a long-standing state Chief Minister made good. And this, despite having been an RSS pracharak for years, from which time Modi has retained a strong nationalist streak. But even in Gujarat, Modi had moved ahead, breaking the shackles of his original moorings, without showing it any disrespect at the same time.
The latest reshuffle seeks to strengthen the BJP credentials for delivery—placing an Olympic medal winning soldier/sportsman in the Ministry of Sports, for example. Chartered accountant Piyush Goyal, who has done a stellar job in reviving the performance of the Ministry of Power, has just been asked to implement many of technocrat Suresh Prabhu’s advanced ideas in the Railways. Tackling a Railway establishment riddled with vested interests, with 13 lakh employees and many others in its catchment area, it is seen, calls for spectacular energy and firmness, in addition to good ideas.
The surprise elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman to Cabinet rank and the Ministry of Defence, has again been done with an eye to implementation. Sitharaman is trained to negotiate via her stint at Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC), and good work done in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Another “can do” minister, Nitin Gadkari, of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway fame, a first in its time, with a track record for efficiency and delivery, has been asked to clean up the Ganga. A task that has eluded all his predecessors.
Let us remember therefore that the BJP has not only co-opted its way towards a winning 40% plus vote share, it is determined to service its governance to match going forward. And this, with the most energetic and meritorious people it can find.