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The BJP and its Opportunities - a turning point in Indian politics?

If the 2014 general election is supposed to be a "turning point" in Indian politics, as some claim, it will be because of either Arvind Kejriwal or Narendra Modi. These two personalities are, after all, the only "new" elements in Indian politics at the national level, provided we do not consider the heir to the throne in the Gandhi dynasty a significant novelty. Of the two, Kejriwal is certainly the greater novelty; in addition, he has proven his ability to inspire people. However, a political change was already up for discussion before it drew public and published opinion on its side and found a place in people's hearts and minds; until recently, even its ardent supporters considered its potential influence on the upcoming parliamentary elections to be rather limited. Of course, Modi has also proven that he can inspire people. He also brings an element of fear into the election campaign that would otherwise have been exciting because of the unpredictability of the election outcome, but not because of its possible impact on the future direction of Indian politics.

The fear Modi arouses (and enthusiasm, at least in a small but not insignificant segment of the Indian population) is related to the Gujarat pogrom, which continued last fall with the outbreak of communal violence in Muzaffanagar, even if one continues for the ongoing ones The communal unrest in Uttar Pradesh since 2012 can hardly be blamed on Modi's rise in the BJP. Modi has often been compared to Hitler, although these allusions to German history have diminished over time. "Few people would have expected Hitler to become the monster he turned out to be in 1932," and "Hitler didn't need an absolute majority to turn the Weimar Republic into Nazi Germany," said an old friend of mine , an economist who is otherwise not at all prone to exaggeration or emotional analysis.

But it's not just local violence that causes this fear: Modi isn't just the supposed "butcher of Gujarat". It has often been said that Modi has two faces. On the one hand, he embodies the Hindu nationalist (hindutva) and, on the other hand, a bearer of hope for India's economy: Modi as the pride of the Hindus and as the hero of Tata Nano. But for many who fear new communal unrest, Modi's second face is not much more handsome. Its development record in Gujarat cannot be questioned if one applies simple measures such as economic growth, even if this is not such a unique achievement compared to some other Indian states. His policies in this regard, however, arouse suspicions of capitalist nepotism, and his authoritarian features fuel fears about the stability of India's political institutions.

If 2014 turns into a turning point for Indian politics and Modi's rise is the cause, the Nazi comparison may be far-fetched. But couldn't you imagine that in retrospect 2014 will appear another turning point in Indian history - like in 1971 - only this time with opposite economic and political effects? If Arvind Rajagopal, professor at New York University, is right that the state of emergency under Indira Gandhi constituted the prehistory of the new middle class, wouldn't the turning point in 2014 mean its maturity?

The presidential madness

The BJP has long boasted of its leadership qualities, allegedly demonstrated by longtime party leaders Vajpayee and Advani and "second generation" leaders (whom Modi, ironically, had to oust in order to establish himself as a candidate for prime minister in his party). Consistent with this self-portrayal, the party is known to strive for a presidential political system. This happened quite openly during the NDA's (NDA: National Democratic Alliance) government's campaign for constitutional reform, although it soon had to back down.

Nevertheless, for many years the discussion has been shaped by the longing for a political competition in the presidential style. She has tried to stylize the unregulated appearance of the political mainstream in India into a competition between two leaders whose personalities embody the disputed viewpoints. She endeavored to assign certain attributes to the "firmly rooted" system represented by Congress and the smaller regional parties, and to set itself apart from it, namely with self-labels such as decisiveness, reform orientation and ability to govern. Even if the BJP has so far failed to achieve any major success, the longing for a simplified, streamlined and possibly presidential political system is shared by a not insignificant part of the increasingly "Americanized" public opinion, which is particularly evident in the major newspapers and news channels articulated.

It is this longing for simplified political choices in the face of apparently (but superficially) chaotic political competition that connects Modi and Kejriwal. Until recently, it was also part of the program with which Congress attempted to present Rahul Gandhi - in contrast to the established politicians - as a "symbol of youth". The desired novelty is reflected here more in a different political style than in new content. It refers to a mostly middle-class discussion that calls for quick political decision-making processes - from observers, tired of the detailed questions of governance, typically described as governance - in contrast to the centrist consensus-oriented style of government of the Indian state. According to this view, governance is tantamount to a kind of leadership that is capable of eliminating the obstacles that arise from the need for consensus, but not leadership that is able to incorporate the most diverse interests in the old-fashioned Nehru style. This does not necessarily express a strong desire for authoritarian leadership, but nevertheless an authoritarian impulse that is satisfied when the leader is able to dominate the election campaign.

While the presidential system that is the breeding ground for this authoritarian impulse seeks to guide the debate in the print media, it does not take into account the many other voices in Indian politics. The two major national parties have lost a lot of acceptance as coalition partners since they turned to presidential debates. The alliances that have formed around the Congress Party and the BJP have fallen apart in political practice. The innumerable possibilities of a third coalition, the so-called Third Front, have not materialized due to a lack of adequate priorities, but their potential protagonists still control a considerable proportion of the vote in the elections. The decline in traditional patterns of party competition in many of the larger Indian states is actually a by-product of the rule of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in recent years. West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar are now joining the circle of federal states with a multipolar election campaign. The example of Uttar Pradesh has shown for many years that even small differences in voting can lead to large shifts in the number of seats, making it difficult to predict election results over the long term.

The presidential madness of the BJP and the vast majority of the public appears all the more blatant when confronted with the elementary facts of the electoral process in those states that hold more than half of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the parliamentary lower house. Congress can at least fall back on its status as the “standard option” of Indian politics, as Rahul Gandhi put it, when it comes to forming coalitions. The BJP, however, has no easy options in this regard. Aside from Tamil Nadu's Prime Minister Jayalalitha, who may be hoping for the highest government office instead of helping Modi, there are few major regional parties who have good reasons to side with the BJP. Realistically speaking - even with the participation of possible partners after it has been elected as the strongest party - the BJP would have to achieve its best election result of all time if it wanted to form the next government without undertaking a fundamental reorientation of political forces after the elections, what would run counter to the stated principles of a number of regional parties.

Where should all the seats come from?

The party would need about 180 seats to form a government, but where should those seats come from? The BJP may be able to build on the successes of the last regional elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, which would probably bring it 55-60 seats. She can be hopeful of doing well in Gujarat and Punjab and winning some seats in Haryana, Jharkhand and the mountain states, but she shouldn't expect (excluding potential coalition partners) to get more than 35 seats in those states. Even if Yediyurappa rejoins the party in Karnataka, it seems unlikely that the BJP will get more than 15 seats in the southern states. The recent elections in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam show that it does not play a decisive role in the eastern states either. In Maharashtra, the party would have to achieve a resounding success if it wants to win more than twelve seats. Without taking Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into account, the BJP can hope for 120 seats at best from the larger states.

Accordingly, it would have to win around half of the seats in these two states in order to have the necessary strength in parliament to be able to form coalitions based on the election results. In Bihar, the rift between the BJP and JDU coalition partners creates uncertainty. In the largely tripolar election campaign with more or less equally popular candidates, the outcome will likely depend on very narrow majorities. In U.P., by far the most important state for the BJP in the upcoming elections, a very similar situation has existed for two decades: Currently, given the current unpopularity of the government, many observers see the Samajwadi party in decline.

But regardless of whether or not the Akhilesh Yadav government has actually lost its popularity, many observers forget that there has not been a government in this state in a long time that was "popular" in the sense that it was the absolute majority of voters knew behind them. The ruling party won an absolute majority of the seats with less than 30 percent of the vote. Votes received by a possibly strengthening BJP would weaken all other main actors in the same way and further lower the bar for election success. Even if this makes the outcome of the elections even more uncertain, it does not seem very likely that the BJP will win votes in U.P. and Bihar enough to compensate for its weakness in the south and east.
So if the prospects for a government are so bleak, how can we understand Modi's logic of running as prime minister? Why did it find support in it from a significant part of the BJP leadership? And most importantly, why was the RSS ready to support a project whose success seems so unlikely at this point in time?

Short- and Long-Term Goals: Is the Turning Point in Indian Politics Contracting?

It may be quite simple, of course: Modi may have actually believed that his personal charisma would be enough to win the upcoming elections in a "presidential" contest, despite the BJP's relatively weak starting position. And he might even be right. Modi is known for taking calculable risks, for example in internal party conflicts or especially in the case of the Gujarat pogrom, in which his own position as prime minister hung in the air for a while. Also, Modi's rise has undoubtedly helped re-energize the party, while the RSS was able to use his candidacy to garner support from the larger Sangh Parivar.

Nonetheless, Modi's rise to the top of the party comes with a strong risk factor: he took a gamble by jeopardizing his relatively secure position in Gujarat to gain a dominant position in the party at the national level that would be difficult if it were to be defeated would be held. With its unreserved support for Modi in the run-up to his candidacy, the RSS risks not only to gamble away the possible future role of the most popular political leader in the spectrum of Hindu nationalists; She even takes the calculated risk of trusting the reins of the party to someone she can hardly control. Its spokesmen have indicated that the RSS leaders fear for their own position if the Congress party returns to power.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that a presumably severely weakened Congress at the head of a shaky coalition government could pose a serious threat to RSS. George Tsebelis, a professor at the University of Michigan, noted that activists' behavior often appears strange only because it is usually assumed that their behavior should make sense. Neither Modi nor RSS are used to taking long-term risks for short-term gains, quite the contrary. In this context, what would be the long-term goals of the main protagonists - responsible for the developments in the BJP last summer - which would compensate for the corresponding short-term risks?

At the height of his popularity in Gujarat and among BJP cadres, the summer of 2013 gave Modi the opportunity - before potential rivals such as Shivraj Singh Chauhan could pose a threat - to achieve a dominant position in the party, despite the support of the RSS of previously strained relationships. To speculate on another chance in a few years, after the failure of a possibly short-lived government, would have meant missing out on the opportunity to reach an agreement with the RSS and risking a new "collective" party leadership, which is preferred RSS would be a viable option without Advani's involvement.

It is the exact number of seats won that will determine the future course of the BJP in this situation, more than would otherwise have been the case under "normal" circumstances. Since forming alliances after the elections will likely prove difficult, Modi will need a number of seats that will set him apart from his competitors more than just primus inter pares. At the same time, other BJP leaders and the RSS may long have speculated on pushing Modi back into a position where his dominance can be better contained by publicly more unsullied leaders, excluding the older generation. If the BJP does well but not outstandingly, the "turning point" in Indian politics will probably have to wait for some time.

Further articles, interviews, analyzes as well as studies and publications on India in the election year 2014 in our dossier:
"India in the Election Year - New beginnings or stagnation?".