It is quite startling to see how much India’s ruling party has deviated from the ideology it propounded at the time of its birth. The spark that led to the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party was the dual membership controversy within the ranks of the Janata Party, which came to power in 1977 after the Emergency. The Socialist and the Congress (0) elements in the Janata Party objected the fact that some former leaders of the Jan Sangh who had joined the Janata Party retained their association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Isolated in the Janata Party, the Jan Sangh veterans formed the BJP at Delhi’s Firoz Shah Kotla ground on April 5, 1980. LK Advani stated at the formation-gathering that the new party was committed to concept of total revolution propounded by Jayaprakash Narayan, under whose guidance the Janata Party had been started. The formation-gathering declared the five basic tenets of the BJP: nationalism, democracy, secularism, a Gandhian economic policy and value-based politics.

The BJP’s first national conference was held at the specially christened Samata Nagar in Bandra in Mumbai in December 1980. Atal Bihari Vajpayee made an electrifying presidential address, which was the BJP’s baptism sermon. Vajpayee energetically underscored his contention that the newly formed BJP was not a new incarnation of the Jan Sangh. Without referring either to Shyam Prasad Mukherjee or to Deendayal Upadhyaya, the major deities of today’s BJP pantheon, Vajpayee was keen to claim Jayaprakash Narayan’s legacy.

Bankruptcy in politics

Vajpayee stated that the greatest crisis of India was the moral bankruptcy in politics. Vajpayee urged party functionaries to rebuild society based values like tolerance, simplicity and fraternity. But today, as the BJP is emboldened by its brute majority in Parliament, society is marred by mob lynching, hate speech and rampant intolerance, with tacit and open support of the powers that be. Besides, the allegations of corruption in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France and allegations of crony capitalism that have dogged the Modi government raise questions about the BJP’s commitment to a moral politics,

Vajpayee believed that the development model coupled by the application of science and technology as framed by Jawaharlal Nehru had brought economic prosperity; but with galloping inequality. He lamented the growing inequity in India. The BJP has since not only done its best to uproot Nehruvian scientific temper from Indian society, under its stewardship, economic and social inequality is touching the all-time high.

According to Oxfam, the top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth. Seventy three per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1% while 67 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a 1% increase in their wealth. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed to walk Vajpayee’s talk.

On December 6, 1992, Hindutva mobs demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya as senior BJP leaders looked on. Credit: Douglas E.Curran/AFP

Vajpayee unequivocally declared that Gandhian Socialism was the foundational ideology of the newly launched party. Gandhi was a cosmopolitan in his outlook, a quality that is conspicuously absent in the BJP’s politics. Gandhi assimilated non-violence from Jainism, a Catholicity of outlook from Vaishnavism, fraternity from Islam, compassion from Christianity, passive resistance from Thoreau, contempt for industrial civilisation, simplicity and piety from Tolstoy and Ruskin. In contrast to this cosmopolitan philosophy, the BJP has always pursued parochial Brahmanism in praxis.

To elucidate the Gandhian philosophy to which he declared a committment, Vajpayee quoted the Yagya hymn “इदंनमम” (This is not mine. This life, this action-nothing is mine! Nothing is for me! My life is for the world and the rest of the universe!). But in Modi era, the BJP’s crony capitalists are committed to accumulation of the astronomical sums of capital. The most important driving force of Modi’s economics is the Karl Marx observation, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.”

Gandhism vs Marxism

Vajpayee underlined the fundamental difference between Gandhism and Marxism regarding violence. He stated that all Communist revolutions were actualised and maintained through violence and that Marxist revolutions eventually devour their own children. Marxism is an anti-democratic ideology and stands for centralisation of power. Vajpayee cited the example of Poland, where brutal state power was applied by the Communist regime against the proletarian class. He hinted that the newly launched party would stand for democracy and abjure violence and the centralisation of state power.

But in practice, BJP hatched the violent Ayodhya movement and Modi oversaw the bloody Gujarat pogrom in 2002 that left over 1,000 people and dishoused tens of thousands. Presently, the BJP with power at Centre is practicing duopoly of power as all powers are vested with two men: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Constitutional institutions like Parliament have effectively been emasculated and constitutional principles that allow a decentralisation of power like federalism are being torpedoed.

Vajpayee batted for Gandhiji’s trusteeship theory of the political economy. Trusteeship assimilates the virtues of both capitalism and socialism even as it rejects their vices. He said that had India adopted trusteeship approach in 1947 itself, crisis would have been avoided. When the BJP in power, once under Vajpayee’s leadership and now under Modi’s stewardship, it has not ventured to practice Gandhian trusteeship. In contrast, it has practiced crony capitalism. Vajpayee said that socialism and capitalism were twin brothers and stated that socialism kills liberty and capitalism kills equality. He declared that BJP was adopting Gandhian Socialism as an alternative third way and ideology of the BJP. In practice, the party has paid only a lip service to the idea.

More than a thousand people were killed in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Credit: AFP

Vajpayee said, in his presidential speech, that the concept of religion-based state was foreign to Indian traditions. He cited Ekam Sad Vipra Bahudha Vadanti (The real is one, the learned speak of it variously) as the root of Indian philosophy. The Bahudhaapproach is both a celebration of diversity and attitude of mind that respects another person’s point of view. It promotes the feeling that the world would be a dull and monotonous if there was only one religion, one philosophy, one God, one language and one folklore. It recognises that pluralism is the soul of democracy. Vajpayee held that democracy and secularism are inseparable and his party’s commitment to secularism was as fundamental as the commitment to democracy. In practice, what is the pluralist credentials of the BJP, which has been pushing the majoritarian juggernaut ever since its inception?

Electoral transformation

Vajpayee advocated for a fundamental transformation of the electoral system of India. He said that the Lok Sabha election result of 1980 amply demonstrated that a party without a genuinely popular mandate could win the election, thanks to the faulty first-past-the-post system. In the poll, the Congress bagged 66.85% of the seats even though it managed to win only 42.57% of the votes. Vajpayee pointed out that no party had ever won an absolute majority in terms of vote share in any election since the first general election in 1952. A party that wins without a popular mandate has a deceptive parliamentary majority that plays with the destiny of the people, he said.

That is why Vajpayee demanded for a change to the List System based on Proportional Representation. He even blamed the Janata Government for ignoring this proposal. In 2019 General Election, the BJP’s vote share was only 37.37%, but the party won 55.80% of seats. In 2014, the vote share was even lower, at only 31.34%. Despite this, the party managed to win 51.93% of seats. Will the BJP heed Vajpayee’s advice now?

How can we interpret the BJP’s metamorphosis from Vajpayee’s pristine idealism to Modi’s coercive, amoral or Machiavellian realpolitik? It was more a zemblanity rather than an accident. William Boyd coined the term zemblanity in his 1998 novel Armadillo to mean the opposite of serendipity: “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design”. A zemblanity is, effectively, an “unpleasant unsurprise”. Otherwise, we have to conclude that either Vajpayee was insincere or Modi has betrayed the baptism sermon Vajpayee delivered for the BJP in 1980.

Faisal CK is an independent researcher who specialises in constitutional law and political philosophy.