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BJP's leadership fissures
June 17, 2003
Until recently, a major attraction which the Bharatiya Janata Party held for many of its supporters used to be its image as a relatively cohesive, unified and disciplined party driven not just by the lust for power, but by ideology and a sense of purpose too.
In its five year-long rule at the Centre, this image, already tarnished by the 1996 hawala scam, has been repeatedly dented. The party has become notorious for its devotion to opportunistic alliances. Its leaders are driven by venality and vaulting ambition. It has developed a stake in big-time corruption and sweetheart deals. Its state-level bosses work at cross-purposes. And its own sister organisations oppose its policies. Indiscipline is rampant in the parivar.
Despite this, the BJP's top-level leadership has managed until now to present a fairly coherent profile -- thanks largely to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's persona. Even this has taken a serious knock owing to party president M Venkaiah Naidu's too-clever-by-half attempt to project his mentor L K Advani along with Vajpayee as the BJP's 'twin mascots' in the coming elections. The abject manner in which Naidu withdrew the vikas-purush and loh-purush formulation is equalled only by the wickedness with which it was made -- during Vajpayee's absence from India.
It would be just as wrong to view this as a storm in the teacup as to credit Naidu with innocence in executing a big departure from the BJP's long-standing slogan, Vajpayee ka naam aur Vajpayee ka kaam. The crisis passed only after Vajpayee threatened to 'retire' (in the Der Spiegel interview) and then resorted to blackmail by declaring that Advani would lead the party to victory in the next election.
Such extreme methods, and Advani's long, red-faced silence, the RSS' intervention, and Murli Manohar Joshi's reprimand to Naidu (for reducing Vajpayee to a mere vikas-purush -- and without the party executive's authority) have shaken the BJP and highlighted sharp personality fissures in its leadership.
Ultimately, Vajpayee prevailed. Naidu ate humble pie, and the Advani camp -- of which he is a leading member -- beat a retreat from its crude attempt to stage a silent, smooth palace coup. The party bosses realised that Vajpayee is indispensable for the National Democratic Alliance's survival and the coming elections. Advani may be a solid apparatchik (organisation man). But he's no vote-catcher. His elevation to Vajpayee's level isn't acceptable to NDA constituents. The Telugu Desam and Shiv Sena say their support is limited to an NDA led by Vajpayee. He is the BJP's sole acceptable public face.
The 'two mascots' formula was an extraordinarily blatant attempt to alter inner-party power balances. This isn't the first time the Advani group has tried this. Last year, it got Advani promoted to deputy prime minister and Naidu to party president. The group almost totally controls the party apparatus and the BJP-RSS liaison function. Advani's followers have become predatory on the NDA's non-BJP parties and strengthened Hindutva elements in the Cabinet. The most eloquent testimony for this comes from the latest Cabinet reshuffle, discussed two weeks ago in this column. Then the Advani group hijacked what was meant to be an 'NDA-centric' reshuffle to induct hardliners like Chinmayananda and Prahlad Patel.
Over the years, Vajpayee has yielded ground to the Advani brigade partly because he lacks the stamina to handle day-to-day party affairs. But he has never conceded that there's any room at the top for more than one person. He is the government's unquestioned Numero Uno. He won't even name a successor. Advani can rise in importance -- but only at Vajpayee's pleasure. This is a classic paternalistic relationship typical of the Sangh Parivar, which sets great store by ekachalak-anuvartitva -- the RSS 'principle' of authoritarian, despotic, absolute rule of a single leader.
Vajpayee and Advani are both deeply rooted in RSS culture. They have a personal equation of sorts, but it's totally skewed. Both need each other, but not to the same extent. Both are under pressure from their respective loyalists to outflank each other and demand their 'rightful' share of power. According to people who have been privy to personal conversations with their respective supporters, neither hides his ambition nor his (sometimes unflattering) opinion of the other. Ultimately, however, they know they need each other for the sake of party and government. This long-term interest sometimes clashes with short-term moves dictated by ambition and power calculations. That's what happened on June 2.
It's futile to try to understand the Vajpayee-Advani relationship through party-factional dynamics. Accurately speaking, they aren't faction leaders at all. The BJP isn't democratic enough to have factions based on ideology, social base or regional affiliation. Many party managers see the BJP in pre-modern terms as a Hindu Undivided Family, in which the paterfamilias holds absolute power. For most of them, that figure is Advani. It's to him that they turn for 'guidance.' They feel extremely uncomfortable, even demoralised, when the family karta's authority is challenged. When internal differences arise, they deny or cover them up. So they blame Vajpayee for losing his temper and threatening the party and plunging it into a crisis. For them, he is the loser.
In place of factions, the BJP has power-centres based on patronage and personal loyalty, jostling for influence. Vajpayee's preferred method of dealing with the jostling is to sulk or threaten to quit -- as he did for instance in March 2001 or April 2002. When threatened, Advani gives in, but creeps up to a higher level of influence through the party.
Vajpayee is an extremely insecure man -- poetic pretentious notwithstanding. Whoever has confronted him in the Jana Sangh/BJP has been brutally punished -- right from Balraj Madhok in the 1960s to Govindacharya and Kalyan Singh in the recent past. Vajpayee is vindictive, just as Advani is cunning. Thus, when Kalyan Singh -- the BJP's biggest-ever asset in Uttar Pradesh -- called Vajpayee a 'tired leader led by retired bureaucrats,' obliquely referring to Brajesh Mishra, he was expelled. Govindacharya was axed for saying off-the-record that Vajpayee is merely a mukhauta (mask). He is now out of the party altogether -- despite having crafted the OBC co-opting 'social engineering' strategy which brought the BJP many handsome gains.
It is supremely ironical that the RSS, of all bodies, should warn the BJP against the 'cult of personality' and remind it of the Sangh's ideology and 'principles.' The RSS bases itself on that very 'cult', in which the sarasanghachalak's word is sacrosanct. The Supreme Leader, modelled after the Fuehrer, is literally worshipped. All former and current swayamsevaks annually pay him gurudakshina. In this secret society-like organisation, there are no elections; all appointments are made from on top, starting with the karyakarini (executive).
Yet, 'cult of personality' describes the BJP's -- and the NDA's -- culture rather accurately. Nobody dare speak less than reverentially about Vajpayee. His face must appear on all party posters and hoardings. In this, the BJP imitates the Congress in its worst dynastic phase. A particularly obnoxious feudal-style ritual Vajpayee revels in is the lining up of the whole Cabinet to see off and receive him on his overseas tours. Nehru discouraged this in the 1950s when international air travel was far less frequent and much riskier. Such practices sanctify rigid hierarchies; they are repugnant to a democratic culture.
Internally, the BJP cannot easily deal with tensions exacerbated by power struggles of the kind seen in the vikas-purush episode. It is scared of differences and cannot debate them freely. Its cadres obediently take their cue from what the top bosses say. Take the Gujarat massacre, which sent shock-waves through India and created unease even within the BJP. It wasn't seriously debated in the party. Many BJP leaders probably picked up hints dropped by Vajpayee when he called the killing a 'black mark' on April 4 last year.
Exactly eight days later, in Goa, Vajpayee exonerated Narendra Modi and vilified Muslims. No BJP leader questioned him. Indeed, many leaders were probably relieved that he endorsed Modi's vile, violent Hindutva. If internal reconciliation of differences is difficult, then external mediation is no less so. For decades, the RSS played this role. A key to it was the distance it kept from the nitty-gritty of politics. But today, the RSS soils its hands with day-to-day politics to the point of taking sides in BJP power-tussles. Thus, its BJP liaison-man Madan Das Devi tilts heavily towards Naidu.
Riven by unresolved differences, rancour and bitterness, the BJP is headed for more turmoil and political incoherence. Its cadres cannot come to terms with the kind of aggravated tensions which are likely to surface when it decides on the strategy for the coming state elections. An immediate bone of contention is whether the BJP should have its own manifesto with its 'distinctive' (that is, divisive) demands. With loss of coherence, what will certainly take a beating is the BJP's political credibility.