BJP in opposition supported civil liberties but in power, places state above citizens
BJP showed little interest in Ayodhya till the late 1980s but injecting religion into politics gave it success. It opposed social reforms by the state while in opposition but embraced it in power
The Bharatiya Janata Party has evolved over the years in an unusual manner, going from being conservative on social issues to radical.
In its formative decades, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, even under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, showed itself to be hesitant to take up issues related to personal law. In its 1951 manifesto it said of Ambedkar's Hindu Code Bill that “the party holds that social reform should not come as imposition from above. It should work from within society. Any far-reaching changes as envisaged by the Hindu Code Bill therefore should not be made.”
What were these far-reaching changes? They were two. First, the inheritance of property by women, especially widows, and second, divorce. The BJP/BJS was opposed to the idea even after the laws were passed in watered-down fashion and it promised to repeal them. It would not allow women the right to divorce because, its 1957 manifesto reads, “indissoluble marriage has been the basis of Hindu society.” The party also assumed that joint families would remain forever and was opposed to modern inheritance laws.
This position on the Hindu Code fell away with time, because the laws were acceptable to society. Divorce is a sensible option where marriages have failed and the idea of marriage as a binding sacrament (‘for seven lives’) is no longer held sacred by most Indians.
Given its conservatism on social issues, the party was initially hesitant to press on the Uniform Civil Code, which finds mention in its first five decades only once. In 1967, the party began dropping its opposition to the Hindu marriage and succession laws. It said it would enact a code to “govern the laws of marriage, adoption and inheritance of all Indian citizens." But it had no enthusiasm for this and there is no reference to this again for the next quarter century.
It may interest readers to know that from its formation to the 1984 election, the BJP had no interest in Ayodhya. Though the idols had been smuggled into the Babri Mosque on the night of December 22 1949, only a few months before the formation of the Jana Sangh, the Ram temple had never been an issue for the party.
The break came when the party sank in the 1984 elections and Vajpayee ceded the presidency to LK Advani. An unelected figure (being a creature till then of the Council and the Rajya Sabha), Advani did not appear to know how mass mobilisation worked. In his autobiography he writes that he was surprised at the massive mobs that gathered around his Rath Yatra after he took up the temple issue. Exultant at the response, the BJP’s manifesto now made its first reference: "By not allowing the rebuilding of the Ram Janma Mandir in Ayodhya, on the lines of Somnath Mandir built by the government of India in 1948, it has allowed tensions to rise, and gravely strained social harmony."
The introduction of religion into politics by the BJP in 1989 cleaved India's electorate in a way it had not been before, and gave the BJP unprecedented electoral rewards. Advani won the party its first states; before him the BJP had no government in any state on its own before 1990. And of course, the events of 1992 produced national dominance. The party’s vote share had never been more than single digits till Ayodhya. It doubled first to 18 per cent and then doubled again.
The realisation came that an anti-Muslim thrust, rather than a Hindu conservative one, was a popular platform on which the party could mobilise. It was taken further. The Uniform Civil Code was now a permanent feature in the programme, with a specific attack on polygamy. The BJP went after Muslim divorce under Modi, but that was not satisfying because it could not produce polarisation. Laws criminalising marriages between Hindus and Muslims came in the BJP states of Uttarakhand (2018) and then Himachal Pradesh (2019), UP and MP (2020), Gujarat (2021) and Karnataka (2022).
The push for two-child laws in the BJP states of Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka and the targeting of Muslims and polygamy will produce polarisation and will likely be rewarding. The BJP state units do work in tandem.
As an electorate we appear to be in thrall of such things, even at a time as this when the economy, unemployment and fuel prices are where they are. Today social reform from above is the flavour for the BJP.
It may also interest readers to know that in a parallel development the Jana Sangh/BJP has gone from being radical on criminal law and civil liberties to being conservative. In 1951, it said it would repeal Nehru’s first amendment restricting freedom of speech, assembly and association because this was not civil liberty “as understood in democratic countries”. In 1954 and for years later it said it would repeal preventive detention laws (like UAPA and Public Safety Act) because they were “in absolute contravention of the principles of individual liberty.” The BJP has become the biggest champions of these laws now of course.
When it was not in power, when it had little hope of achieving power, the party stood for the rights of India’s citizens over those of the State. Today when it is in control of the State, the BJP stands for the rights of the State over those of the individual.