Unusual situations throw unlikely leaders to the fore. That seems to be the case with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Balia MP Bharat Singh, a hitherto-undistinguished politician whose popularity suddenly shot up among the party’s parliamentarians a few days ago after he showed courage to break the apparently impregnable wall of silence the saffron outfit has constructed since it came to power last May.

At the BJP’s parliamentary party meet on May 5, Singh did something that no other MP had dared so far – he questioned the performance of the Narendra Modi government and criticised the functioning of union ministers. The meeting was immediately called to a close. Three days later, on May 8, when Singh rose in the Lok Sabha to raise the issue of the plight of farmers in his constituency, his party’s ministers watched him with deep anxiety while ordinary BJP MPs supported him by thumping their desks.

Of course, the Bharat Singh episode is tiny. But the unusual response to this failed attempt to break the wall of silence points to the widespread discontentment among the majority of BJP MPs, who find it hard to cope with the arrangements under which the party is being run.

In private conversations, BJP leaders admit that being in power has indeed taken its toll on the party. Over the the last one year – especially after Amit Shah became the president of the party – the BJP has witnessed a systematic dismantling of institutions aimed at ensuring collective decision making. “The massive support that Bharat Singh’s revolt generated could not have happened had there not been an environment of fear in the party,” said a senior BJP leader.

Though Amit Shah became BJP president in July, the “environment of fear” began as soon as Modi led the saffron party to a landslide victory last May. Once the reins of the party passed into the hands of Shah, the BJP’s metamorphosis picked up rather fast.

Changed hierarchy

BJP leaders point out that under Modi and Shah, senior leaders have been sidelined and the party hierarchy messed up. The first casualty was the BJP core group, which consisted of the members of the party’s Parliamentary Board as well as all the general secretaries and leaders in-charge of various state party units. “Earlier, the core group used to meet on the first Friday of every month to take significant decisions,” a BJP leader said. "But it was dissolved once Amit Shah took over."

Simultaneously, Amit Shah dropped the party’s founding fathers Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi from the BJP’s highest decision making body, the Parliamentary Board, and placed them in the newly constituted Margdarshak Mandal advisory panel. So far the new body hasn’t even met once.

In a strict sense, the Parliamentary Board continues to survive, but BJP leaders admit that it exists only in name, all the important decisions being taken autocratically by the duo – Modi and Shah.

From the point of view of the BJP, the collapse of institutions is something it never experienced in the past. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, despite wielding the supreme command over the party, never tampered with the BJP’s institutions of collective decision making. This was visible even at  times when the RSS seemed at loggerheads with the top leaders of the BJP. Such situations, for example, arose during the later years of Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government and in 2005 when Advani’s pro-Jinnah comments infuriated the Sangh.

Mandal and Dalit politics

But extreme centralisation of power wasn't the only consequence of the BJP’s victory in the Lok Sabha polls. The realisation that the massive electoral success might not have been possible without active support from Other Backward Classes and Dalits has spurred the new leadership to embrace and reinvent Mandal politics to engineer a saffron surge in the small towns and economically backward countryside in the Hindi belt.

In this, Modi and Shah – the only two decisive faces in the BJP for the last one year or so – have received help from the fact that  the prime minister is an OBC. “It is a political necessity,” said a BJP leader considered close to Amit Shah. “Earlier most of the leaders of Uttar Pradesh and a section of them in Bihar belonged to upper castes. These leaders were not just out of touch with the changing political reality in their states, but they also had bases so limited that they could never think of getting absolute majority. Only by reinventing Mandal and Dalit politics can the party succeed in reviving the subaltern saffron voters,” he said.

In last year’s Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is said to have greatly succeeded in attracting a considerable chunk of OBC and Dalit voters in UP and Bihar. During the 1990s, a similarly aggressive Mandalisation of the party, which began on the suggestion of erstwhile BJP ideologue Govindacharya, did pay dividends, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Around the end of the decade, however, the BJP witnessed an upper caste backlash, resulting in the ouster of OBC leader Kalyan Singh and the marginalisation of Govindacharya.

It is too early to say whether history will repeat itself. One can, however, argue that this would largely depend on the outcome of assembly elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Bihar goes to the polls in November and UP in early 2017.