BJP under Modi went too far right, centrist politics needed: Prodyut Bora, BJP IT cell founder

Courtesy Prodyut Bora
25 August, 2020

In February 2015, Prodyut Bora, the founder of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s now infamous IT cell, resigned from the party after a stint of over a decade. Bora had also held several senior positions in the party’s organisational structure and worked closely with senior BJP leaders, such as LK Advani and Rajnath Singh. His departure had raised eyebrows as very few people have resigned from senior party positions in the BJP’s entire history, and the IT cell had contributed significantly to the party’s victory in the 2014 general elections. At the time, Bora said that the over-centralisation of power by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then BJP president Amit Shah, and their undemocratic style of politics, were some of the reasons behind his departure. The same year, Bora launched the Liberal Democratic Party, a regional political outfit based out of Assam. 

As Indian politics places itself firmly on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were previously members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least away from the Right. Yet others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. What makes such individuals go against the stream? What events, situations and considerations shape their decisions? Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, being published by The Caravan. Chandra spoke to Bora about his personal and professional trajectory, other departures from the BJP, his vision for the LDP and his opinion of the “Vajpayee era” of the BJP as the “kind of politics India needs.” 

Abhimanyu Chandra: You previously said that several professionals joined the BJP at the end of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership and the early days of the United Progressive Alliance government, and you were among them. Like you, have many of these people become disillusioned with the BJP under Modi-Shah, or have they mostly remained with the party?
Prodyut Bora: I don’t have numbers, but from anecdotal evidence I would say that many of those old-time guys have moved away. One of those people is Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Today, he is a bitter critic of Modi. At one point he was a supporter. He is India’s most successful dot-com entrepreneur.

A lot of us, we were quite attracted by Vajpayee’s tenure. We felt that there was a professional as the president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam. There was a sense that this is now a resurgent India, this is now a new India. Young people have a place here. And this was an accommodative India. George Fernandes [a Christian-born socialist leader and a prominent trade unionist] was the defence minister. Mamata Banerjee was in the cabinet then. It was a 23-party coalition, politically.

Overall, we got the sense that this was a government that deserved to come back to power. I joined the BJP in September 2004, three months after they lost power. I came with that notion, that this is a government that deserves to come back, so let me do my bit. I think a lot of these people came with that mindset. My experience is that most of them have moved away.

In my case, I was a registered BJP member, I had an official designation. Sanjeev, for instance, did not have official responsibilities. Nonetheless, he was very closely connected. Another guy was Rajesh Jain, who founded Netcore [an AI-driven marketing firm]. He sold the website IndiaWorld for Rs 500 crore. He was the original poster-boy of the dot-com era in India. He was involved [with the BJP] and now he has moved away.

AC: Some prominent people in the BJP still have professional backgrounds. For instance, the current IT cell head Amit Malviya and the member of parliament Jayant Sinha. Given this shared professional background, say with an Amit Malviya, how does one person go from being a BJP supporter to becoming a critic, whereas another does not?
PB: Multiple people will have multiple reasons. My reason was very clear. The prospect of the Vajpayee era was the promise of building a centrist party, or slightly right-of-centre party. This was what I, and many of us, felt India needed. For me, one of the attractions of Vajpayee was that—that this is a man who is in the middle of the ideological spectrum. He is a man who can attract someone like a George Fernandes, someone like an APJ Abdul Kalam. This is the kind of politics India needs, a centrist politics, or maybe a little right of centre.

What the BJP became after Modi is just too far right for my comfort. So, my reason is purely ideology. I left very early in the Modi regime, in February 2015. Thereafter, a lot of other people left. Arun Shourie left. Yashwant Sinha left. A whole lot of people left.

AC: Shourie and Sinha, in particular, have continued to be vocal in public life. But why did some of the other, less well-known people leave?
PB: It’s a multiplicity of reasons. Some would say the kind of collaborative decision making that was in the BJP had gone away. There were some key themes. One theme is the party turning too right of centre. A second theme would be the autocratic and too much centralised decision making. The third theme what people would say is—too much of promises, converting politics into a spectacle. People got sick and tired of it. Every day you were coming up with a new idea, a new tamasha.

AC: Were people in the BJP or even liberals, supportive when you went public with your decision to leave?
PB: People were first of all shocked because I was one of the five youngest national executive members. I had a pretty good run in the BJP. At a very young age, I had been given various responsibilities. A person typically resigns when you don’t get something—when you don’t get a ticket, when you are not given a position of responsibility. If you’ve got everything then why the hell do you walk out? By the time I moved out in February 2015, Modi was at the peak of his popularity.

But two things made it very easy for me to move out. The first was, I think, the most influential book in my life. This was a book called Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which I read at the age of 11. This book is a profile of some twelve American senators, who, in their lifetime, have opposed policies which the public supported but which they personally thought were bad for the country. But in the process of doing that they took a huge political risk, they lost out politically. To do something to lose out politically—that is not how politicians are wired. No politician does something to lose politically. But to lose out politically in the pursuit of something you think is right, that is courage.

Somehow this book always stayed in mind—that you should be able to walk out whenever you want to. So, that was a very young, shaping influence in my life.

Second, when I joined the BJP, one of the stories that I read as part of BJP’s history was about Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who was a member of the [then prime minister Jawaharlal] Nehru cabinet. In 1951, he walked out of the Nehru cabinet over Nehru’s Kashmir policy. And he went on to start the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. At the peak of Nehru’s popularity, at the peak of Congress’ influence. You can imagine that Congress, at that time, was the overwhelming, dominant political power. At that time, to walk out of the Congress, and to dream of starting an alternative political party, was audacious.

So, if I look back today, I would say that these two things gave me courage. I felt, what did I have to lose? 

AC: When you resigned from the party, were you mocked by anyone from the Left—that you had failed to be consistently liberal, that you had failed in terms of being sufficiently pure as a liberal?
PB: I don’t think a practising politician needs to pass through anyone’s agni pariksha—trial by fire. If at all, then the voters’ agni pariksha. I give a damn to any liberal intellectual’s certificate.

Politics, by its very design, is a constant process of negotiation and compromise. So, you have to be flexible and a realist, you can never be a purist. You can never be a purist leftist, or a purist rightist. There are multiple competing interests. You have to balance them. So, can you be a textbook liberal, or Marxist, or capitalist, and practice in politics? Definitely not.

So, I don’t think a politician should yield themselves to any kind of such test, and should have the larger vision in mind. And be true to oneself. At the end of the day, I am answerable to my conscience, nobody else’s.

AC: You mentioned that the BJP went too right for your comfort under Modi. Could you recount what was the final straw for you, why did you leave specifically in February 2015?
PB: I wanted to resign the day Modi was announced as the prime ministerial candidate, in late 2013. I had my misgivings. And at that time, a lot of people opposed his appointment, Sushma Swaraj, LK Advani. There was a lot of opposition from within the BJP to Modi’s elevation. His role in the [2002 Gujarat] riots. His very centralised administration. The way he kind of finished off all his peers in the BJP in Gujarat.

BJP had a very collegial leadership. One slogan in the party was that the “president presides, the team decides.” Vajpayee showcased this style. He accommodated his colleagues’ views. That was the culture in the party. And I felt under this man from Gujarat, the collegial style of leadership was completely demolished.

Then there was the worst of crony capitalism. The roots of it were sown in Gujarat. I felt his elevation was not a good thing for the BJP. And I wanted to quit. But every single person I spoke to, my friends, my family, everybody, to the last man, advised me against it.

Their argument was that people change—“fair enough, he made a mistake, but he deserves another chance.” Second, that “Delhi is not Gandhinagar. Delhi has the Supreme Court, it has the national media. He would be under scrutiny.” Third, that “when people get elevated to higher positions, their behaviour changes. So, Modi as prime minister would be different from Modi as chief minister.” People, who I trust, gave me all kinds of reasons.

After he was sworn in, within a few months, I realised my fears were coming true. Then, several people in the Congress, who the BJP had previously criticised on charges of corruption, they started coming and joining the BJP, as a protection against prosecution. That in a way became the final straw. I said enough is enough. BJP wanted a “Congress-mukt Bharat”—Congress-free Bharat. They cannot build a Congress-mukt Bharat by inducting all these Congress guys into the BJP. Emptying out the Congress by inducting all these Congressmen.

AC: Did the people who persuaded you to give Modi a chance, continue to be his supporters?
PB: By now, they have all become dissatisfied. But at that time, in February 2015, they were still not sure. But now, all of them have turned against Modi and the BJP.

AC: Often, childhood experiences shape one’s adult and political makeup. So, on a personal note, could you speak to the ideological character of the milieu you grew up in?
PB: My parents were typical Assamese middle-class public servants. My father was a government officer. My mom was a government schoolteacher. And they participated in the Assam agitation. So, there was a strong sense of Assamese nationalism.

But I left home very early. I left Assam at the age of 11, in 1985, to do high school in Dehradun [Rashtriya Indian Military College]. After that, my college was in Delhi University [St. Stephen’s College], my MBA was in Ahmedabad [Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad]. I started my professional working career in Delhi. So, I have had multiple formative influences.

AC: What has been the ideological impact of the RSS-BJP on Assam?
PB: Assam has been hit very hard. There has been an attempt at complete identity transformation, from being an Assamese to being a Hindu.

There is a very strong sense of Assamese sub-nationalism in Assam. Pretty much like a Tamil sub-nationalism. We have our own icons. There has been a very institutionalised attempt to change the character of this identity from a very geographic, cultural basis to a religious basis. And there have been institutional attacks in all spheres. So, it’s a huge battle that we are fighting, it’s not just a political fight.

AC: As for your own party, the Liberal Democratic Party, could you speak briefly to its ideology?
PB: We are liberal, both economically and socially. The Left is economically conservative, socially liberal. BJP is economically liberal, socially conservative. We are liberal in both ways.

The “D” in LDP stands for social democracy. We don’t need to fight for political democracy because that is guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Everyone has the vote, universal adult franchise. But we do need to fight for social democracy, for a more equitable society.

Our vision is to combine liberalism with social democracy. The closest vision we have is the Scandinavian model. The Scandinavian countries are affluent societies. But with far greater equality than perhaps the US or western Europe. In the Scandinavian societies, you are taken care of from the cradle to the grave. So, people don’t mind paying high taxes.

Also, with regard to LDP—HSBC has a tagline: “the world’s local bank.” They say we are a multi-national company but in each country we operate as that country’s local bank. Our vision for the LDP is to build India’s local party—which is centrist and middle-of-the-path. In Assam will be an Assamese party, in Bengal a Bengali party, in Maharashtra a Marathi party, and in Tamil Nadu a Tamil party. Our plan is that one day, very shortly, we will grow out of Assam. Someday, God willing, inshallah, we will be a national party.

AC: What is your party’s position on minority rights?
PB: Minority rights have to be upheld. Absolutely no question about that. The real test of a democracy is how you treat your minorities, your opposition, dissent. Minorities have to be protected, have to be respected, have to be given their space.

We are opposed to Hindutva, and particularly the kind of Hindutva that is being practiced today, what is going on in the name of Hindutva. In Vajpayee’s immortal words, we cannot forget raj dharma.  

AC: Do you and your party support or oppose the construction of the Ram mandir atop the demolished Babri mosque? 
PB: Ram Janmabhoomi has been made problematic now by the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court has now legitimised it. Now, unless you say that we go against the Supreme Court, what do you do? The court says that based on whatever are the legal proceedings, this is what needs to be done. So, we go by it. We go by the Supreme Court judgment. That is our official position.

AC: Theoretically, let’s say that the Supreme Court judgment did not exist. The question of Ram Janmabhoomi then becomes an ideological question, not a legal matter. Does LDP support the claims of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement?
PB: If you had asked me this question before the Supreme Court judgement, I would have told you what we really believed. We don’t exist in a neutral, ideological space. We are a living reality. We operate within the norm. Our stand has always been that we would go by the Supreme Court judgment. I would have given you a very different answer before the Supreme Court judgment. And please understand, I am not trying to take protection under the judgment. Our party’s stand has been that, even before the judgment came out, we said this was a very divisive issue. At the end, we have to achieve closure.

There are multiple ways to achieve closure but the best way is a Supreme Court judgment, because anything else you do, it will be open to charges and counter-charges. So, we said that the best way to achieve closure is a Supreme Court judgment and our party will go by it. And having taken that stand before the judgment, after the judgment I cannot take a contrary stand. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.