The Jana Sangh and then the BJP have always oscillated between a strategy of ethno-religious mobilization and a more moderate approach to politics. Deendayal Upadhyaya had shown the way when he tried to combine a militant anti-cow slaughter movement in 1966-67 and a new kind of association with opponents of the Congress (including some leftists), with whom the Jana Sangh formed coalition governments (the famous Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments) in 1967. That was the golden age of Lohia's "non-Congressism".

This tension is in the DNA of the BJP: on the one hand, as an offshoot of the RSS, it has to promote a Hindu nationalist agenda, on the other hand, as a political party, it has to broaden its base by diluting its ideology. After more than six decades (the Jana Sangh had been founded in 1951), the trajectory of the party remains a zigzag. Certainly, the Jana Sangh had given up its Hindi-only policy as early as the 1960s in order to expand southwards. But the Hindutva agenda has surfaced repeatedly, largely because its architects did not see any contradiction between ethno-religious mobilizations and the electoral process: after all, the polarization of voters along religious lines could only help the BJP in a country where Hindus were in a majority.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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Indeed, the Ayodhya movement and its long list of yatras and riots (culminating in the 1989 Bhagalpur violence, when around 1,000 people died) catapulted the BJP from 2 to 85 MPs. And the man on the rath, soon after, was L.K. Advani himself. Is he now preaching moderation only to differentiate himself from Narendra Modi?

In fact, Advani realised soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid that this kind of technique had its own limitations and would never take the party to power. He said it plainly after the BJP failed to form the government in 1996, in spite of its electoral victory. "Though we were the largest party, we failed to form a government. It was felt that on an ideological basis we couldn't go further. So we embarked on the course of alliance-based coalitions." (Interview of L.K. Advani in Outlook, October 25, 1999).

The NDA took shape in this context and the BJP and its partners evolved a "National Agenda for Governance", from which the mainstays of the Sangh Parivar's program were removed, including the idea that a Ram temple had to be built in Ayodhya, the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution granting some autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, and the establishment of a uniform civil code aimed at depriving the religious minorities of certain features of their particular juridical identity. Most BJP allies did not appreciate their Hindu nationalist connotations. Not only did they not share the Hindutva ideology, they were also keen not to alienate their Muslim voters, and the BJP leaders acknowledged that, including Advani, in spite of the fact that he was supposed to be the radical face of the NDA when Vajpayee was supposed to be the moderate "mask" (as he was to say later).

Advani had been in a position to argue in favour of his approach to coalition politics till the NDA won and gave the RSS access to the corridors of power — and shielded Modi during the 2002 killings. But his position became untenable after he lost in 2004, and even more in 2009. In 2004, the RSS attributed the BJP's electoral defeat to the dilution of its ideology and Advani, as party president, was openly criticized by RSS chief K. Sudarshan. In an unprecedented move, the latter said during a TV interview that Advani and Vajpayee should make room for new faces. Advani, during the party's national executive meeting on September 18, 2005, declared: "an impression has gained ground that no political or organisational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS functionaries. This perception will do no good to either the party or the RSS... the BJP as a political party is accountable to the people, its performance being periodically put to test in elections. So in a democratic, multi-party polity, an ideologically driven party like the BJP has to function in a manner that enables it to keep its basic ideological stances intact and at the same time expand itself to reach the large sections of the people outside the layers of all ideology."

At the end of 2005, Advani was removed from the BJP's presidency and Rajnath Singh took over from him. After the BJP's defeat in the 2009 general elections, when Advani had been projected by the party as its prime ministerial candidate, he was removed from the post of leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and the RSS imposed Nitin Gadkari, a rather unknown figure, at the helm of the party. For many reasons, including allegations of corruption, Gadkari never seemed to be in a position to take the party to battle in 2014.

But by promoting Narendra Modi in spite of the recommendations of Advani, the new BJP president, Rajnath Singh, not only alienated the senior most figure of the Sangh Parivar, but also turned his back on the strategy that the party leaders had evolved in the 1990s. Indeed, he took the risk of breaking an NDA that was already shrinking. In 2004, the national executive committee of the JD(U) had reportedly issued a resolution declaring: "We joined the National Democratic Alliance only after the three controversial issues (construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code) had been removed from the agenda of the NDA. If any effort is now made to revive them, we shall have to take another road."

The JD(U) has taken another road this month without waiting for these items to stage a comeback on the BJP's agenda. Incidentally, they may not come back at all. But that does not matter: the post-2002 image of Modi is enough to suggest that the BJP is back to its Hindutva agenda.

Why have Rajnath Singh and his colleagues taken the risk to break the NDA further? Probably because they had no other leader to fight the 2014 election effectively and because they thought that Modi was in a position to create a (mini) wave — with the financial support of the corporate sector — on a non-communal, development-oriented program. Indeed, his "hat trick" in Gujarat has shown that he is an energetic (and rich) campaigner and a marketing master who may attract middle class voters across the country. But a Modi-led BJP — which has recently lost its only state in the south — will remain far from an absolute majority, even with the backing of the urban dwellers (who are much more numerous in Gujarat, at 44 per cent, than in the rest of the country, at about 30 per cent). By the way, the limitations of Imran Khan in Pakistan show that urban voters are not yet in a position to decide the fate of governments in South Asia.

If the BJP is to govern again, it will be in a coalition, as Advani keeps telling the Sangh Parivar — and Modi is not a coalition man. Not only are most of the potential allies of the BJP afraid of him, but he has never worked in a coalition and has alienated a large number of senior BJP members in Gujarat.

The BJP will probably continue to oscillate between two brands of politics for quite some time.

This article originally appeared in the Indian Express