The big fight of 2019 will decide if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will permanently endorse the Narendra Modi/Yogi Adityanath brand of politics or the Shivraj Chauhan/Atal Behari Vajpayee brand of a kinder, gentler party not given to permanent attrition with the past and holding minorities under siege.
The trifecta of losses in the three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have dented Brand Modi. Post Modi’s emphatic 2014 win, he turned the once cadre-based BJP, which prided itself on inner party democracy, into a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for brand Modi.
It was simple – the once noisy party was subordinate and only Modi was the message. Delivered with menacing undertone by Modi’s messenger Amit Shah. The BJP was a two-man party till Yogi Adityanath shoe-horned himself into the equation with his personal brand of hate politics.
Now with only four months to go for the big battle and faced with a resurgent Congress party under Rahul Gandhi, the Sangh has to decide whether to follow the hard Hindutva line of minority baiting with its attendant ‘cow terrorism’ and lynching or the Shivraj model where he presented himself as the avuncular “mamaji (uncle) of Madhya Pradesh”.
The Sangh has been here before – it had the hardline L.K. Advani forever wringing his hands at the “pseudo seculars” and the Atalji model.
The limitations of the hardline Advani model was exposed as the BJP was treated like a pariah and could not attract any allies to form a government. With Modi getting an absolute majority, the Sangh thought it had found its saviour.
Modi has lost steam ever since the absolutely nutty demonetisation decision and a serious crisis of jobs coupled with huge agrarian distress.
He seems to be out of ideas. Therefore, expect the dial up of polarisation.
Modi clearly can’t go to the voters on his mediocre track record in office. This time around he will be accountable for the wild promises he made to get elected.
Project Yogi sponsored by the Sangh also seems to have torpedoed with the country’s politically most important state Uttar Pradesh reeling under his poor governance. Yogi’s role as the star campaigner of the BJP has also flopped badly. So if Yogi can’t be taken national and Modi is losing momentum, what can the Sangh Parivar do?
Plan B could be a return to a more normal party if Modi is unable to secure an absolute majority, which now looks likely. The Sangh has always had a tense relationship with Modi because of his overweening arrogance and the Shah-Modi attempts to attack Sangh favourites such as Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari.
Sangh supremo Mohan Bhagwat had publicly repudiated Shah’s war cry of a Congress mukt Bharat (Congress free India).
Chauhan, who nearly won a fourth term and was a chief minister the same time Modi was, has never attacked minorities in Madhya Pradesh while quietly carrying out the Sangh’s agenda. The tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh have been an unpublished laboratory of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for decades.
The Sangh Parivar feels that Yogi has energised the cadre in a way Modi does not, but it is all pointless if it cannot yield electoral dividend.
So, depending upon national mood the RSS has various “mukhotas” (masks) lined up. Whatever the numbers it could be Modi or a softer gentler version – Gadkari or Shivraj.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning journalist and author of 'I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army'. Her twitter handle is @bainjal