For an “above average” student, as a Vadnagar school teacher described Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister’s grasp of history does not appear to be foolproof. Having once called the Mahatma “Mohanlal”, Modi has now said that the BJP’s travails since 1947 have been worse than what the Congress faced during the freedom movement.
Considering that the Hindu Right did not participate in the struggle for Independence, it is not surprising that Modi’s knowledge of that period is somewhat hazy. But the “world’s most popular leader”, as Modi’s acolyte Amit Shah designated his boss, is guilty of gross exaggeration when he says that the party faced huge obstacles from soon after Independence to the present day without specifying what assailed it.
For one, he is talking about the Jan Sangh since the BJP emerged from it only in 1980. For another, the difficulties were evidently posed by the Jan Sangh’s lack of popularity for which the party has only itself to blame. It was the people who put up the obstacles, which is why for more than four decades from the time of India’s first general election in 1952, the Jan Sangh was in the political doldrums.
It won three seats in the Lok Sabha in 1952, four in 1957 and 14 in 1962. The Jan Sangh’s best performance was in 1967 when it won 35 seats. That was the year when the Congress’s decline began as could be seen from the appearance of the hodge-podge Samyukta Vidhayak Dals (SVD) and United Fronts which ousted it from power in several states in the Hindi heartland and in Punjab, Odisha, Kerala, and West Bengal.
However, the impetus for anti-Congress politics provided by the SVDs, which included the Jan Sangh from the Right and the CPI from the Left, and the United Fronts was extinguished by Indira Gandhi’s rise as Goddess Durga, as Atal Behari Vajpayee called her, after the liberation of Bangladesh. The Jan Sangh decided to call it a day, therefore, in 1977 when it merged with another motley combination, the Janata Party.
Since then, it is the Congress’s blunders which have kept the Jan Sangh-BJP in the limelight rather than its own achievements. Arguably, the Congress would not have lost in 1977 if it had not imposed the Emergency. In 2014, too, the BJP would have had little chance of coming to power if the Congress had been able to sustain the momentum it acquired when its tally of Lok Sabha seats rose from 145 in 2004 to 206 in 2009.
But Sonia Gandhi’s scuttling of the economic reforms in favour of populism helped Modi to successfully peddle his pro-development line and reduce the Congress to its lowest ever tally of 44 seats. Even then, the BJP was able to secure only 31 percent of the votes in 2014, leaving out large parts of the country where it has no presence such as Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal. Since then, Delhi, Bihar, and Kerala have been added to the list where the BJP does not exist as a major force at present.
The reason why it cannot make much headway in these states where there are strong regional leaders is that the BJP still has the image problem of being a communal party. It is this reputation of being an anti-minority outfit which was responsible for the “storms of protests” which Modi says was faced by the party from its early days.
Of late, there have been attempts by Modi to turn the party away from its anti-minority line by reining in hotheads like Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj, and the gau rakshaks (cow protectors). But history is against him, for a perusal of the reports of the judicial inquiry commissions since Independence into communal riots shows that the hands of the RSS and the Jan Sangh were behind nearly all such outbreaks.
The role of aggressive affiliates of the RSS like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal could also be seen in the riots which followed the Babri masjid demolition in 1992 and a decade later, in the Gujarat riots of 2002. These are the historical reasons why the BJP faced an uphill task in the past and does so even now. However, the Prime Minister could hardly be expected to allude to these factors. Hence, the blame which he has placed on the party’s unnamed opponents for blocking its advance.
It is not surprising in this context that communalism was the driving force behind the BJP’s ascent in the 1990s when it exploited the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to rouse anti-Muslim sentiments. Coupled with the Congress’s decline, it helped the party to emerge from the margins to the centre-stage of Indian politics. But, fortunately, some in the party appear to have realised the diminishing value of communalism in advancing its cause. But the BJP will continue to face roadblocks until it unequivocally abandons its anti-minority outlook.
(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)