Last week, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the populous North Indian state of Bihar without a single vote cast or campaign rally staged. In a dramatic reversal that Bollywood screenwriters could only dream of, the state’s chief minister Nitish Kumar—an on-again, off-again partner of the BJP—unceremoniously dumped his coalition allies in order to make common cause once more with the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Then, over the weekend, 12 BJP ministers were formally inducted into Kumar’s revamped cabinet.
The upheaval is only the latest signal that the BJP is the new center of political gravity in a country long controlled by the storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of the Congress Party. The BJP not only occupies prime position for the country’s next general election—scheduled for 2019—but it is also moving at breakneck speed to cement its hold over powerful state governments. Although the BJP government’s gathering strength signals policy stability and political consolidation, it simultaneously raises concerns about the health of India’s democratic checks and balances.
It is hard to fathom now, but prior to Modi’s rise to power in 2014, many longtime observers of India’s labyrinthine domestic politics felt that the BJP’s best years were behind it. Having completed its first full five-year term in 2004 under then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP was trounced in two successive elections by the Congress Party. But few could envisage the next act in this drama: the emergence on the national stage of Modi, a provincial politician who had been the long-serving chief minister of the state of Gujarat. Touting his business-friendly policies, nationalist rhetoric, and an aspirational appeal that struck a chord with a young and increasingly restless India, Modi led his party to a historic electoral rout. Securing the first single-party parliamentary majority in three decades, Modi has ushered in a golden age for the BJP.
One major factor spurring the BJP’s growth is its systematic capture of state governments. In 2014, the BJP and its allies (collectively known as the National Democratic Alliance or NDA) were in power in just six states, largely confined to the north and west India. Today, the NDA governs 18 states in all four corners of the country.
One of the states the BJP has won over is Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which the BJP stormed in February, forming a BJP government there for the first time in 15 years. Less commented upon was what the BJP managed to pull off the same month in the coastal state of Goa and the northeastern state of Manipur, where the party emerged with the second largest clutch of seats after state elections. In both instances, the BJP quickly formed governments through a mix of cunning, politicking, and coalition appeal. Within hours of the votes, as Congress Party strategists literally napped, the BJP had skillfully stitched together alliances. These backroom deals are important because they symbolize just how swiftly the BJP has supplanted the Congress Party, which now clings to power in just six states, only two of which (Karnataka and Punjab) have sizeable populations.
This brings us to Bihar, whose politics have resembled a soap opera of late. A pivotal political bastion in the Hindi heartland, the state is home to one of the few Indian politicians—Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), a regional political outfit—with the potential to go toe-to-toe with Modi at a national level.
Save for a brief nine-month period, Kumar has served as Bihar’s chief minister since 2005, when he first joined hands with the BJP to form a government there. In 2013, Kumar split from the BJP in an attempt to distance himself from Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism while solidifying his standing with Bihar’s Muslims, who account for 17 percent of the state’s population. Kumar’s maneuver backfired, and the BJP steamrolled him in the 2014 national elections.
As the state geared up for regional elections in 2015, Kumar engineered a grand opposition alliance—a coalition of odd bedfellows united solely by their disdain for the BJP— that kept the Hindu nationalist party at bay. Last week, Kumar reversed course again; many analysts wrote that the regional satrap had no choice after corruption allegations surrounding his leading alliance partner threatened to besmirch Kumar’s own reputation for probity. But there is a deeper calculation at play here: Kumar recognized that the 2019 elections are likely a foregone conclusion. After the BJP’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh, opposition politician Omar Abdullah famously tweeted: “At this rate we might as well forget 2019 & start planning/hoping for 2024.” Kumar apparently agrees; as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.
The BJP’s momentum has opened up unprecedented opportunities for the party. Last month, it managed to install its chosen candidate, Ram Nath Kovind, as India’s new president. Although the president is largely a figurehead, having an ally in the position can help in a pinch; presidents wield a handful of crucial powers, such as dismissing an elected state government in times of “crisis,” a power play that has been abused before. On August 5, India’s elected officials will select the country’s vice president; if the BJP gets its way, the country’s three topmost political positions will be in the party’s hands for the first time in India’s history. In the longer term, the addition of Bihar will hasten the arrival of the BJP’s majority in the upper house, whose members are indirectly elected by India’s state legislatures; this could materialize as soon as late 2018. With control of both legislative chambers, the BJP can push through its legislative agenda with few impediments.
But, if Indian history serves as any guide, this concentration of power in the hands of a single party also has a downside. During the heyday of the Congress Party in the 1970s under the leadership of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, national politics devolved into an orgy of political excess and institutional decay. The Congress Party, fabled for its pan-Indian appeal, developed an autocratic culture made famous by the sycophantic quip, “India is Indira. And Indira is India.” The remaking of the party in Indira’s mold ultimately damaged it, too, but it also proved disastrous for governance. The BJP, which has rapidly centralized authority under Modi and party president Amit Shah, would do well to heed the lessons of the past.
But the rise of the BJP is also accompanied by a unique challenge: Hindu majoritarianism. In recent months, hardline elements of the party and its numerous affiliates have openly brandished their Hindu chauvinism in a disturbing fashion. Lynchings of those suspected of engaging in the cattle trade (according to Hindu tradition, cows are revered) are on the rise. In Uttar Pradesh, Modi named a controversial Hindu spiritual leader, Yogi Adityanath, as his hand-picked chief minister. Adityanath has a long history of engaging in anti-minority rhetoric, and his ascension has raised fresh concerns that his followers will be emboldened to convert his words into deeds.
Concerns about civil liberties are coupled with rumblings about the state of the economy. Taken together, they suggest that Modi’s standing is not invulnerable. Although India’s macro indicators continue to trend positive—growth is steady if not extraordinary, inflation has declined, and foreign investment is up—the ground realities often paint a different picture. Modi’s gambit last year to suddenly invalidate 86 percent of India’s circulating currency may deliver long-term benefits in terms of encouraging a digital economy, but it has created short-term disruption. Rising joblessness is testing the patience of India’s youthful workforce, which is moving to cities in search of formal sector employment but is often forced to settle for far less. Domestic investment continues to be snarled by a banking system saddled with bad loans and business houses laden with debt. True, the Modi government finally managed to push through the long-awaited national Goods and Services Tax (GST), but it comes replete with exceptions, caveats, and multiple rates that have dimmed its luster.
The opposition, therefore, possesses potential ammunition. Nevertheless, its inability to either rally behind a common leader or devise an aspirational agenda that could win the masses over has left it handicapped. Another round of state elections are due in December, including in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, which has long been a BJP bastion. Last week, the leader of the Congress Party in Gujarat resigned in disgust over an alleged “conspiracy” to oust him before the upcoming poll. The party leadership had to surreptitiously ferry its legislators to a resort in south India just to prevent further defections. The symbolism is telling: as the BJP grows in strength, the opposition is literally heading for the hills.