Can the BJP Move India to the Right?

After suffering defeat at the polls two elections in a row, India’s main opposition party has to enhance its vision.

With India’s budget session scheduled for the last days of February it’s time to have a look at the way the country’s main opposition party — and probably India’s only right-wing political party — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will use the session.

There’s no doubt that the BJP is on a juggernaut after winning the most recent state elections in Bihar along with its ally the Janata Dal by almost a fourth-fifth majority. The Congress-led United Progressive government has boosted the morale of the opposition with its indifference to essential governance coupled with corruption charges against several of its cabinet ministers who were forced to resign. But the bigger question is whether Indian voters will shift to the right.

The BJP has adopted an aggressive strategy to win over voters, both in parliament and during the seasonal yatras (pilgrimages) it conducts. The most recent one in India’s northernmost state, involved hoisting India’s tricolor at Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir on the eve of the Republic Day, January 26. Prominent members of the party, including the opposition leaders in both houses of parliament and former party leader Rajnath Singh were arrested and detained.

The well orchestrated show was both a success and failure with the former in tactics and the latter in strategy. Any political organization needs to have efficient tacticians who can organize an efficient rally but it should also have leaders who can effectively communicate the overall political objective of conducting either a rally or meeting. The BJP has failed in understanding or at least communicating a broader political strategy.

This has been a problem of the party’s for many years. It has failed to grasp the attention of voters and not yet come to terms with its defeat in the general elections of 2004. As a result, it lost additional seats in the elections of 2009 despite a change in leadership.

At the same time, the BJP has done well in state elections in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The people trust the party and its leaders to provide good governance.

The Congress’ mistakes have irritated many Indians but it is not enough for the BJP to be merely reactionary. Whereas on the local level, people have been disillusioned with the ruling party and vote for a change or continuance if the incumbent BJP government performs well, nationally, the party fails to articulate big ideas. Its leaders have not been able to translate their party’s message into campaign rhetoric very effectively. This is why the majority of the people, especially in the middle class, see the BJP as a party worth of being in opposition but not one that should return to government yet.

In India’s democracy, leaders who are able to articulate their views in a nuanced and decent fashion will find widespread support. It is why India had Indira Gandhi as prime minister. The political maturity she represented is lacking within today’s BJP leadership. India’s growing professional middle class, which generally has more liberal views, is wary of the sort of partisan politics that seem to be on the rise instead.

Until 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee provided the BJP with moderate and charismatic leadership but his withdrawal from active politics has left a space for pronounced right-wings politics — which should not be confused with the BJP’s own version of jingoism or Hindu nationalism. Unless the party recognizes this opportunity, it will likely repeat the mistakes of the past two general elections when the world’s largest democracy votes in 2014.