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A Modi Show: With a Key Change, BJP's Last Claim to Internal Democracy Is Gone

The formal re-arrangement in the party’s constitution can only be the proverbial tip of the authoritarian iceberg lurching just below the surface.
Illustration: Narendra Modi at the BJP meeting. Photo: X/@narendramodi

The filmiest of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘internal democracy’ fig leaf now stands dropped.

It was left to the Press Trust of India to inform us that the ruling party had, in its national convention of the weekend, amended its constitution to do away with the elaborate farce of an internal election to select its president. As per the amendment, it is now for its Parliamentary Board to “to take a decision related to its president, including his or her term and its extension in ’emergency’ situations. No one knows whether there was any discussion or debate over this very consequential amendment.

In this age of shoddy political journalism, the reporters who otherwise authoritatively propound on this or that nuance of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah machinations failed to decode the amendment move.

The PTI also added, rather enigmatically, “Though the party has not elaborated on the details and rationale behind the amendment, sources said it may have to do with the future appointments of its presidents.”

A penny has dropped. 

Since its re-launch in 1980, the BJP had always patted itself on the back as a political formation that was a total contrast in its internal functioning to that of the Congress party. In sloganeering short-hand, the BJP shamed the Congress as a party in the iron grip of a family and a party that had abandoned principles of internal democracy. The BJP leaders and apologists pointed out the “democratic” selection process by which its presidents were “elected.”

This claim was a bit thick; the party has not ever seen a contest for its top post, in sharp contrast the Congress in recent years, first in 1997 and then in 2023, genuine elections. The BJP presidents have always been “unanimously” elected; the party bosses and the Nagpur commissars see to it that no one dares enter the presidential fray against the “chosen” nominee. 

Till 2014, it was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that dictated the choice of the BJP president; and, as a corollary, the Nagpur commissars could also force an incumbent present to stand down. The most blatant use of this ‘veto’ power was on display when L.K. Advani was unceremoniously defrocked after he made his discovery of M.A. Jinnah’s secular credentials in 2005. And, of course, total mystery still surrounds how Nitin Gadkari was overnight made to step down as the party president and make way for Rajnath Singh in 2013.

Yet the BJP narrative continues to harp on its ‘democratic’ internal arrangements. 

That fiction may be hard to maintain after the recent amendment. Since 2014, when Narendra Modi emerged as the most effective vote-getter for the BJP, it is he who has claimed a right to re-arrange the leadership line-up. When veterans like Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi were kicked upstairs to some kind of ‘margdarshak mandal (literally, group which points one to the right path)’, it was a most hostile takeover of the BJP, with the commissars from Nagpur being reduced to silent spectators. 

The ‘Modification’ of the BJP was complete and total when Amit Shah was ‘elected’ – of course, unopposed – in 2014. The BJP was imitating the Indira Gandhi model: since she was seen as the one and only vote-getter for the Congress, it was only natural that the party should be at her beck and call, though she was careful to go through the formal process of internal consultation in the Congress Parliamentary Board. Every taluka Congress leader knew that it was Indira Gandhi’s diktat that would govern party matters from the district level up.

But it is Modi, with some assistance from Shah, who decides who will be in the Parliamentary Board.’ Photo: X/@narendramodi

The 2024 BJP party constitution amendment makes the party’s parliamentary board a super-politburo. But it is Modi, with some assistance from Shah, who decides who will be in the Parliamentary Board. Whether it is J.P. Nadda or any other token president, the total power and compete control rests incontestably with Modi. Not since Rajiv Gandhi (1984-89) has any single political leader – not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee – had this kind of absolute grip over the levers of power in the national government and the ruling party.  

The just concluded national convention predictably turned out to be grand celebration of the Modi cult. Never before has this self-professed “democratic” party put someone on as high a pedestal as the one Modi was put on. All other so-called senior leaders – Rajnath Singh, J.P. Nadda, and even Amit Shah – were reduced to chorus boys, singing hymns to the omnipotent ‘sevak (literally, servant)’, the harbinger of a 1,000 years of Ram Rajya.

Even those self-styled ‘moral guardians’ in Nagpur who all these decades pretended to believe in the supremacy of the “organisation” are content to be the “extras” in the Narendra Modi show. If anything, the 2024 amendment is a snub to the RSS bosses. The BJP now belongs to Modi. Any pretext of consultation, consensus and internal democracy is just an eyewash. 

 This deification of Modi is not just BJP’s internal issue. Its implications for the polity are obvious and odious. When a ruling party chooses to concentrate all power in one person, the polity invariably lurches towards an authoritarian temptation.

The so-called “Modi guarantee” is an in-your-face personality cult, now fully entrenched and internalised by the party as also by the bureaucracy and the large swathes of the media.

Our democracy already stands pock-marked with relentless personalisation of every area of national life. The formal re-arrangement in the party’s constitution can only be the proverbial tip of the authoritarian iceberg lurching just below the surface – a warning bell that should be heard.   

Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.

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