The BJP is, by any measure, still in pole position as far as the 2024 general election is concerned. The Prime Minister is more popular than any other rival leader; the party’s organisational strength is impressive; its control over resources and the information order is massive; and the significant communal shift in Indian politics gives it a large, committed base. It is still an uphill battle to generate widespread excitement for the Opposition, despite modest momentum for Congress in a few states. But under the surface, you can see signs of a quiet worry setting in in the BJP. A year is a long time in world affairs these days. But there is little doubt that BJP will also go into the 2024 election facing an unprecedented set of political dilemmas.
The first challenge is crafting a narrative that has to now deal with the burden of actual performance rather than weaving fantasies about the future. To put the matter as dispassionately as possible, the BJP’s economic performance in political terms has not been incompetent enough to generate a massive economic backlash against the government; there is no deep crescendo of anger. But equally, there is a growing realisation, even amongst BJP supporters, that instead of a revolutionary transformation of the Indian state, governance, in the broadest sense, has more or less converged on the mean.
This is the most charitable characterisation of its performance; one can make the case that the performance is worse. Our economy is in the same structural dilemma over employment as it was a decade ago; our smart cities are no smarter; our ecology no more robust; our industrial policy is still more about policy than industry.
The BJP claims credit for welfare schemes and infrastructure. But this is part of a general expansion of state capacity in which even Opposition chief ministers have done as well, and have held onto power as a result. Our institutions and liberties are in worse shape. But there is great electoral diffidence on these issues, in part because people are not convinced that the Opposition can claim a huge moral high ground. But after Manipur, the handling of the wrestlers’ protest, the sense of a governance frisson is palpable.
The Prime Minister still displays enormous energy in electioneering. But the sense of imaginative exhaustion (from their own point of view) is palpable. The political consequences of this mood affiliation will not be easy for the PM to navigate; it is evident in the way his speeches are now, even from his own interests, out of joint. Too many claims, and his own delivery record mugs his dream making, in a way that is now more palpable — too few claims and there is nothing distinctive to offer. The slogans and abbreviations are fast running out. Anyone remember, “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance?” BJP is now having to harness a resigned pessimism and risk averseness, rather than optimism and boldness.
The imaginative exhaustion is also matched by the risk of mid-level organisational exhaustion. Political parties become vulnerable not entirely because of the desertion of foot soldiers, but sapping motivations of the mid- and second-tier leadership, whose ambitions have to be nurtured. This motivation can get sapped for two reasons. First, over-centralisation, where party work is day in and day out grind for one leader’s glory. Mid-level organisational leaders want to ride the leader’s coat tails, share the spoils of power, and many of them are capable of endless sycophancy. But it is hard to see a large number of politicians being able to sustain a sense of commitment and vocation, be cogs in a machine forever, subject to a forbidding hierarchy, and increasingly unclear about whose ambitions you are serving.
Congress had this problem, but most leaders compensated by running their own private shops at the expense of the party. Quietly, many BJP leaders will express this sense of exhaustion. This is also exacerbated by the fact that in key states, the BJP’s expansion strategy has been to seek defectors from other parties, leaving old timers stranded in the game of recognition and patronage. Leaders managing the party hierarchy require three things: Intrinsic or ideological motivation, a suitable outlet for ambition, or just sheer monetary patronage. In most states, the BJP is increasingly relying largely on the third, much to the detriment of the party. This made it vulnerable in Karnataka, and possibly in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh as well. It runs the same risk in Maharashtra. None of the mid-level leaders can challenge the BJP’s hierarchy, but what they can unconsciously project is a sense of ennui, a listlessness and loss of sincerity. The BJP may still overcome this challenge, but it is far more visible now than before.
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The fascination of evil is its entertaining power, its sense of breaking norms that have been sapped of vitality, simply because people are bored. Much of the right-wing success capitalised on these base aesthetic impulses — contempt, humiliation, vicariousness, and demonisation. One should be extremely cautious about inferring anything about actual politics from mere discourse. But in a small way, it is telling that for the first time the BJP is beginning to lose that perverse narrative edge. The propaganda system it relies on is still as communally vile as ever. But its narrative tropes are much less effective in taking down its opponents. If anything this is an area where Congress is finally acquiring some seriously cutting-edge fire power.
In the last few years, harnessing the memes of production was an effective tool of casting doubt. But they relied on an asymmetry. All that BJP needed to win was cast doubt on its opponents. The aim was to destroy the truth — and pave the way for a kind of nihilism where anything goes. But what do you do after nihilism has been established as the governing truth and norm? It no longer has the power of critique, a sense of novelty, or even an opponent to target. It is now just another tiresome incantation evident in the ever-increasing self goals of the BJP’s IT cell.
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The BJP is now facing a triple dilemma: It cannot run on promissory notes; its management of the ambitions of its mid-level leadership will put strains on its organisational identity; and its success in institutionalising nihilism now runs the risk of making the party an utter bore. The only part on which it has delivered is the institutionalisation of Hindutva, in all its vilest forms. But it will, for the first time, have to project that Hindutva in a context where there will be nothing else — no other economic narrative, no organisational distinctiveness, and no novel narrative power to support it.
The writer is Contributing Editor at The Indian Express
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