The fact that senior Congress leaders, including S M Krishna, a former Karnataka chief minister, have recently joined the BJP is revealing of the complex nature of both the Congress and the BJP. The hegemony that the Congress achieved after India’s independence was based on a party-building pattern typical of the “parties of notables”, to use political science jargon: This technique consists in amalgamating personalities who benefit from local influence as landowners, businessmen or money-lenders. Certainly, the party’s core group was made of members of the intelligentsia who dedicated their lives to the freedom struggle in the wake of Gandhi — but these Congressmen had realised that to win elections, they needed notables holding “vote banks”, a phrase coined by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in the 1960s, during the heyday of “the Congress system”, a key notion introduced by Rajni Kothari.

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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As early as the 1930s, the Congress had let small and middle zamindars join the party. This trend accelerated before the 1937 elections. After Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru turned to former maharajahs of Rajasthan and MP, where they had supported the Ram Rajya Parishad and the Hindu Mahasabha; this is how Vijaya Raje Scindia got a Congress ticket in 1957. Even after the 1969 split that resulted in most of the party notables rallying around Congress (O), Indira Gandhi continued to indulge in vote bank politics. She won the 1971 elections on a populist mode, but let former Congress (O) notables return to her party to win the 1972 state elections.

This party-building pattern largely explained the conservative overtone of Congress policies and, in particular, the dilution of land reform. But this conservatism remained mostly unnoticed because of the progressive discourse of the top leaders, Nehru, Indira, then Rajiv. Their progressive attitude did not find expression in major social transformations, but it was genuinely anti-communal — at least till the 1980s. The Congress is the only national party which never joined hands with the Jana Sangh or the BJP, in contrast to the Lohia socialists (who formed local coalitions with the Jana Sangh in the name of anti-Congress-ism), or the BSP in UP.

But below these top leaders, many Congressmen were sympathetic to the Sangh Parivar and crossed over. The list comprises ex-ministers or CMs who left the Congress for a Hindu nationalist organisation of the Sangh Parivar (or the Hindu Mahasabha) before and after 1947. The most prominent are N B Khare (former CM of Central Provinces and Berar), K M Munshi (former minister of Nehru), Gulzarilal Nanda (a former minister of Nehru, interim PM twice after Nehru and Shastri).

These turncoats were revealing of the shallowness of the Congress commitment to secularism at the local level, evident from the policies of many Hindu traditionalist chief ministers in the 1950s-60s: G.B. Pant, Sampurnanand, R.S. Shukla, etc refused to promote Urdu and passed the first anti-conversion laws. But these turncoats were also revealing of the intrinsic vulnerability of the Congress party-building pattern: Notables do not stick to a party because of its ideology, but because of power. When the Nehru-Gandhis stopped delivering on that front, some abandoned the party. In the 1990s, major Congress leaders created their own party: N.D. Tiwari and Arjun Singh, Mamata Banerjee, Madhav Rao Scindia. Some came back when Sonia Gandhi became party president — but Sharad Pawar left for this very reason.

Today, Congress notables who are after power and not unsympathetic to Hindutva are leaving again to join the BJP. Hindu nationalists cannot be surprised: In the 1950s, as Bruce Graham shows in his seminal book Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics, “the founders of the Jana Sangh were strongly influenced by the theory that the Congress party, which they regarded as materialistic and lacking in genuine principles, was about to disintegrate”. It took more time than they thought, but this is today a clear possibility. In the ’50s, the RSS was convinced the Congress was a transitory phenomenon because of its reliance on local notables. In contrast, the Jan Sangh was a cadre-based party, with a clear-cut ideology and Deendayal Upadhyaya was not in a hurry to transform it into a mass party.

Today, by welcoming a large number of ex-Congressmen, the BJP is adopting the party-building pattern that was, according to Upadhyaya, the main weakness of the Congress in the 1950s. How can we explain this change? First, the Sangh Parivar wants to destroy the Congress at any cost, evident from the BJP’s motto of a “Congress Mukt Bharat”. This revanchist attitude — unheard of in the history of India’s democracy — partly stems from the fact that the Congress has been the only party that dared to ban the RSS.

Second, the BJP needs Congressmen because it has too few able administrators and seasoned parliamentarians. Third, while the turncoats coming from the Congress may be opportunists, they may not substantially affect the integrity of the BJP’s ideology. Not only have there always been proponents of “soft Hindutva” in the Congress, but the party’s apparatus remains in the hands of RSS-trained men. At each level, the BJP structure is dominated by former pracharaks who have become Sangathan Mantris (organisation secretaries). The BJP, therefore, is not at all a party of notables, in spite of the inflow of former Congress politicians.

This “steel frame” may, however, get eroded if Narendra Modi and Amit Shah try to emancipate the party from the RSS. If they don’t or fail to do so, they’ll have invented a new political animal, a machine combining features of three types of parties that political scientists, till now, considered incompatible: Those of a cadre-based party, a party of notables and a mass party relying on the appeal of a populist leader.

The only caveat pertains to the diversity argument: The Congress could create an hegemonic system because it recognised the diversity of India, today reflected in the strength of regional parties. This objection may not be valid any more: First, the BJP may join hands with new local interpreters like the Shiv Sena. Second, India’s diversity may not be as resilient as it seems: Besides the cultural uniformisation fostered by new mass media, the convergence of consumption patterns and the craze for “development”, the instrumentalisation of Hinduism and the exploitation of anti-Muslim sentiments may work across the country. The hegemony epitomised by the BJP is already different from that of the “Congress system”, the Nehru era of “unity in diversity”.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.