Throughout the second half of 2019, India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party has served the country a package of ideologically-driven reforms. The events came in like a series of jabs and in quick succession, rather than gradually. In terms of ideological clashes, the three most hotly debated steps were (1) the changes in the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (August 2019); (2) the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Ayodhya case (November 2019); and (3) the voting through of the Citizenship Amendment Act (passed in December 2019). The timing of the court’s verdict could have been due to the institution’s own schedule, but it nonetheless certainly reflected the dominant political mood in New Delhi.
Despite the controversies around these developments, the present time is perfect for the BJP to push through such changes. This by no means indicates that I think positively of these reforms. Yet, while being critical of many of their provisions, here I am trying to look at these steps from the perspective of India’s ruling party, not mine, and to understand its rationale.
First, this is the first time that the BJP enjoys an entirely secure majority on its own at the central level. The party always talked of exactly the kind of reforms and changes it has presented now – only that so far it was limited by the constraints of its own political coalition.
After the National Democratic Alliance was formed in 1998, it was rumored for years that the three core promises that the BJP had to stop itself from pushing were: (1) ending Kashmir’s special status; (2) introducing a Uniform Civil Code; and (3) the construction of a temple devoted to the Hindu god Rama in Ayodhya.
All of these would have been welcomed by the party’s core Hindu electorate. All of this would have also been unacceptable to many of India’s Muslims as: (1) Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region; (2) the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code would have done away with a separate Muslim civil law; and (3) the temple in Ayodhya is to stand on a place where BJP politicians and their allies destroyed a mosque in 1992 (which, they believe, had been constructed on the ruins of Rama’s earlier temple). As some of the BJP’s allies of the 1998-2004 period relied on Muslim electorates (at least partially), sidelining these three issues was reportedly a form of a coalition-building compromise.
It is hard not to notice that this core agenda is no longer sitting idle on the substitute bench; it has run out to the field, to play at the very center of the team’s attack formation. Promise 1 has been fulfilled by the BJP in August 2019 (while many thought the party would never dare to do so). Promise 3 remains to be fulfilled and may take years, but the Supreme Court’s ruling is likely paving the way for its finalization. Promise 2 may be the next big bold step, and a part of it was also introduced in the last years (i.e., making the practice of triple talaq illegal by legislative steps taken in 2018 and 2019).
Some may argue that the BJP already enjoyed a stable mandate during its most recent full term (2014-2019), so why did Modi and his team not introduce such changes then? The answer is because the majority was more precarious and hence the party’s reliance on its allies was higher as well. True, in 2014 the BJP scored a comfortable win by taking 282 seats in India’s lower house of Parliament (10 above the 272 majority benchmark). Back then it could have ruled even without its alliance partners. Yet, throughout the tenure some of its legislative members took up other priorities. Gradually, the BJP lost its majority; its rule by the end of its tenure in 2019 was stable, but only thanks to the support granted by its coalition members.
In 2019, the BJP has not only repeated its electoral success, but jumped much higher. As of now, it has 303 seats alone, while its coalition partners strengthened it with 35 additional ones (even after the biggest ally, Shiv Sena, recently parted its ways with the BJP). In a nutshell – even in the completely unlikely case of all of the BJP’s allies abandoning it, the party would still enjoy a majority on its own and a very safe one; it has never enjoyed such a position before. Its 31-seats-above-majority margin is not a one that can erode easily, even in case of unpredictable and random events. What better time than now would be better to push through its core agenda?
Second, the BJP has never really abandoned its agenda. The only thing it did was to not try to push it to the fore during its earlier terms. But the party – and much more, the nationalist organization behind it, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS – never stopped talking of reaching such goals as building the temple in Ayodhya or the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Many sources, including party’s election manifestos were indicative of this. The same referred to how the BJP viewed the issue of citizenship and its attitude to foreign Muslims coming to India. Seen this way, nothing that happened now has been surprising.
Third, one should perhaps take into account the party’s radical electorate. In 2014, Modi rode through the election campaign right into the prime minister’s residence on a carefully nourished steed named Vikas or ‘development’. At that time, the BJP presented itself as a party essentially focused on economic progress and people’s welfare. Many seemed to believe that it had cast away a part of its nationalist armor to wear the soft robes of a moderate party. The BJP thus attracted a part of a middle-ground electorate and reached out to many new constituencies.
But what did the radical party supporters think of this? This is hard to measure, but one could notice dim signals of discontent. The RSS as a whole continues to back Modi firmly, but two of its well-known and most radical leaders, Praveen Togadia and Ashok Singhal, started to criticize the leader in the last years. Whatever the true reasons behind the tussle, what they did publicly was to to remind the audience that Modi’s government had not fulfilled the promises made to its Hindu nationalist base. Indeed, as Modi and the BJP are poised to rule India for ten years straight, if not for the current changes, its radical electorate could have started asking more and more why their party was squandering its golden opportunity to finally walk the talk on the key promises of their ideological agenda.
Fourth and finally, the beginning of the ongoing term is a better time to push through such significant changes than second half. By the 2024 elections, the present controversies will not be completely forgotten, but the flame of their intensity may diminish somewhat, especially if there will be no organized opposition to push back in a coordinated way. Those protesting now are probably mostly the people who do not vote for the BJP anyway and those in the middle may be persuaded by new promises of welfare and progress made by the time the 2024 campaign comes around (which may partially cover up the current controversies). Meanwhile, the hardcore electorate will fondly remember the changes made now.
It is thus probable that what we will see in the coming years is the continuation of the current trend, possibly through such changes as the Citizenship Amendment Act being followed by a National Register of Citizens, and perhaps also through some form of a Uniform Civil Code (introduced in one bold step or through piecemeal legislation). By the 2024 election campaign, however, the BJP will be back to its middle-of-the-road party avatar, to talking less about ideology and more about development.