Opinion | BJP Manifesto: Medium Is The Message

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As voters begin their quinquennial trek to polling booths on Friday, they would perhaps mull over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) agenda for the next five years. By the first week of June, the verdict of nearly a billion voters will be known and we will have an inkling of the direction in which India, that is Bharat, is headed.

Incumbent Prime Minister and the country's most popular leader, Narendra Modi, has hardly been coy about his own vision. If anything, he has been more explicit about it in the past couple of years. Modi is a trained pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) ideological parent, and has barely wavered from the core values of the Sangh, foremost among which is the belief that India is a Hindu nation. It is quite another matter that the Sangh dislikes personality cults, but PM Modi has done exactly that to further the same agenda. While he and at least a section of the Sangh are not in sync on the economic agenda, they are on the same page on deepening Hindu nationalism. It is plainly evident in the way the BJP's manifestos have evolved.

How The Manifestos Have Changed

The 2014 manifesto had photos of 11 leaders, including elder statesmen such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, and manifesto committee chairman, Murli Manohar Joshi, on its cover. Four of those - Vajpayee, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar - have passed away, while Joshi and Advani have retired. Three others, Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and Raman Singh, once seen as national leaders, are now on the margins. Only Rajnath Singh, who was then party president, is in the Modi cabinet. There was no mention of Nitin Gadkari then and it stays that way even now.

The second page of the manifesto had photographs of the Sangh Parivar's founding political ideologues, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The manifesto was a detailed 42-page document enunciating the BJP's agenda and plans for almost every sector, ranging from farming to defence. It even talked about reviewing the nuclear doctrine. The manifesto was signed off with a commitment to pursue the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya within the framework of the Constitution and a Uniform Civil Code. There was also a specific commitment to ensure equal opportunities for minorities and the setting up of a permanent inter-faith consultative mechanism. On the whole, it was a matter-of-fact statement of the BJP's roadmap for the country.

Modi stood alone even as other leaders vanished from the cover of the manifesto in 2019. Amit Shah made an appearance as BJP president. So did Rajnath Singh as the manifesto committee chair. The promises and plans hardly changed. There was a lot more of the same. It also had one line: "We are committed to the empowerment and 'development with dignity' of all minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis etc." There was no elaboration and no mention of the inter-faith consultative mechanism promised earlier. Mookerjee, Upadhyaya and Vajpayee moved to the last page.

Why The 2024 Document Is Different

The 2024 manifesto is markedly different. There are 52 photographs of PM Modi. The cover has Modi and BJP President J.P. Nadda. Rajnath Singh again makes an appearance as the manifesto committee chairperson. The Prime Minister's pictures include stills of him feeding elephants and cows, interacting with students, soldiers, and old people, and handing out government doles. A key departure from previous documents is the prominence given to Hindu religious symbols, including the Ram Temple.

While the manifesto talks about celebrating India's ancient culture, the symbolism is distinctly Hindu. In the section headlined Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, the Prime Minister appears wearing the symbol of the Ramanandi sect on his forehead, which for most part of his public life has remained bare.

Closest To Ideology

In the section on regional development, which largely focuses on the Northeast - though in general terms - Modi is shown visiting South Indian temples. He meditates with the snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the background. It also says: "We will partner with neighbouring countries to strategically manage the Himalayan rivers. Our focus will be on holistic measures to mitigate the devastating effects of floods and harnessing hydroelectric power to generate affordable electricity." The 2014 manifesto had promised a national Mission on Himalayas, a Himalayan Sustainable Fund and a central university dedicated to the mountain ranges. Those have vanished.

The manifesto largely follows the 'show, don't tell' principle. It does not mention the words Hindu or Hindutva anywhere, but makes the direction clear. It is as close to the RSS's ideology as it can be.

On Muslim Candidate

The BJP has declared the names of 430 candidates, of which only one is Muslim. It is yet to declare candidates in the Muslim-majority Kashmir. The lone Muslim candidate, M. Abdul Salam, is contesting from Kerala's Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency, which is 70% Muslim. Salam, a former vice-chancellor of Calicut University, told this writer that he does not know much about the RSS or its Hindutva ideology. Salam said he was in the BJP only because of Modi, who was his role model.

Salam, who regularly visits temples such as Sabarimala and Guruvayur, where non-Hindus are not allowed entry, says all Indian Muslims can anyway trace their roots back to Hindu ancestors. That is an acknowledgement that the RSS has historically demanded of Indian Muslims; it's the principle underlying Gharwapsi or re-converting to Hinduism. One RSS leader once told me that it was the most humane way of handling the Muslim question.

'Marching Ahead With Plan'

It's a project that is gathering steam. In the first year of the Modi government, an RSS re-conversion event in Agra created a nationwide furore and drew stern warnings to party leaders from PM Modi. A decade later, 194 individuals from a nomadic tribe re-converting to Hinduism is a proud statistic in the RSS annual report for 2023-24.

In 2009, just before he became the Sarsanghachalak, Mohan Bhagwat told a group of young management professionals and IT engineers, "From 1925 to 2008, the evolution of the Sangh shows that we are indeed marching ahead with our plan and reaching our goal consistently. It is all about an individual. He is to be encouraged. There are difficulties in this. But we are not the people who talk about problems. We will overcome and surmount problems and try to accelerate the pace of our work effectively. This picture is clear in front of us. Not only the goal, the strategy, all the stages, methodology to reach there are all worked out and we have a clear cut plan before us."

(The writer is editor of The Signal and author of The RSS And The Making Of The Deep Nation.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author