Home > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai
BJP back on downswing
March 09, 2003
It was characteristic of the hubris-driven approach of Law Minister and former BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley that he should have 'strategised' an assured victory for his party in Himachal Pradesh through what he called 'carpet-bombing:' namely, bombarding the electorate to saturation with campaigning by the party's top guns. It was also typical of Mr Jaitley to imagine that the BJP would overcome its unpopularity (from five years of corrupt governance) by roping in Hindutva firebrand Narendra Modi. Mr Modi, he believed, would repeat the Gujarat 'experiment' by uniting the Hindus as Hindus, cutting across caste, class and regional divides.
That, and Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's vigorous campaigning, would produce a near-magical victory; this would dress up the Himalayas in saffron and confirm that India has decisively moved into the mould of ultra-conservative religion-based politics.
In the event, 'carpet-bombing,' quite simply, bombed. The electorate heaped humiliation upon the BJP, reducing it in the assembly to half its earlier size: 16 seats of the 65 counted. By all available indications, the BJP lost in all regions (barring snow-bound Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur, where the elections, to be held in the summer, usually produce a victory for the party ruling in Shimla). By contrast, the Congress bagged 40 seats. If its eight rebels are added to the total, the Congress' victory goes beyond two-thirds of the total. This is especially impressive because over 90 percent of Himachalis are literate, not easily swayed by religious appeal, and judge parties by their performance. They found the BJP badly wanting.
'Anti-incumbency' cannot explain the crushing quality of the BJP's defeat. Only voter revulsion at its poor governance and corruption, and a strong rejection of Hindutva can. Thus, even Mr Vajpayee failed to evoke a favourable response despite raking up Ayodhya and cow slaughter in his remarkably sectarian campaign. In any case, 'anti-incumbency' is not some constant which can be detached from governance or party performance.
The BJP is putting a brave face on the Himachal debacle by attributing it to 'internal weaknesses,' especially the factional feud between Chief Minister P K Dhumal and Mr Shanta Kumar. This is part of the blame-game only expected of a vanquished party anxious to cover up its basic failures. In reality, the BJP's factionalism was less severe than the Congress'. Mr Dhumal had also wooed the tribal Gaddis and Gujjars by extending reservations to them. The BJP's real failure probably lies in malgovernance and erosion at the national level of support for politics based on primordial identities.
A hawkish pro-Hindutva mood has not crystallised all over India. The BJP's Gujarat victory was an aberration from the national trend explained by its cynical exploitation of the Godhra carnage and the whipping up of base sentiments of revenge in a state which has witnessed India's worst-ever communal polarisation.
This is certainly the rational conclusion emerging from the three other state assembly elections and seven byelections too. Thus, in Meghalaya, the Congress emerged as the largest party and has formed a coalition government (what happened to 'anti-incumbency'?), excluding the Nationalist Congress Party. As many as 13 of the NCP's 14 seats came from the Garo Hills, which reduces Mr P A Sangma's stature largely to a leader of the Garos, not all of Meghalaya (which comprises the more numerous Khasis and Jaintiyas too).
In Tripura, the Left Front romped home with 41 seats. The Congress had planned to rout the Left by allying with the ethnic Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura. The strategy came a cropper: 12 of the Congress' 13 victories came from non-tribal areas. Its sole tribal winner scraped through with a single-vote margin. In Nagaland, the BJP opened its account with seven seats by joining the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland. But its showing does not reflect its own support-base or popularity. It is largely attributable to the peace process centred on the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M), which quietly campaigned for DAN.
The BJP piggybacked on this. Yet, the Congress has emerged as the single largest party, with 22 seats.
The BJP lost all the seven assembly byelections in the six states where they were held. It even lost an assembly seat in Maharashtra which it had held for 15 years. In Karnataka, the Congress reversed its recent electoral downslide. But it is in Uttar Pradesh that the most important trends for the Hindi heartland are discernible. In Gauriganj, which falls within Ms Sonia Gandhi's Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, the Bahujan Samaj Party scored over the Congress. And the BJP lost the Haidergarh seat, last held by Thakur leader Rajnath Singh, to the Samajwadi Party, and itself fell to third place. This means that the upper castes are shedding their hostility to the SP and can favour it over the BJP. The BJP is clearly paying a price for allying with Ms Mayawati, by way of losing some of its upper-caste support.
UP appears to be moving towards the Tamil Nadu model, in which two regional parties are dominant, around which the national parties form alliances.
There is a big lesson for the Congress in this. It is futile for it to believe it can score well in UP, without a tactical alliance with a party like the SP. It has (perhaps irretrievably?) lost its traditional Muslim and Dalit base; its upper-caste support too may be rapidly eroding. Nor should the Congress fall into the trap of opposing the Left by whatever means, adopting 'soft-Hindutva' or by aligning with the INPT, widely thought to be linked to the extremist National Front for the Liberation of Tripura. In eight months' time, the Congress will face a tough test in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where its Chief Ministers are busy playing cow politics -- and right into the BJP's hands. It must change course.
The Congress did relatively well in this round of elections because the BJP couldn't drum up a 'national security' scare, as it could in Gujarat thanks to its cynical 'Miyan Musharraf' campaign and the Akshardham episode. The Congress would be disastrously ill-advised to let the BJP create a security hysteria and project itself as the nation's sole guardian. This means the Congress must actively counter the crazed anti-Pakistan-anti-Bangladesh rhetoric which the BJP has manufactured, which blames all of India's internal problems upon our neighbours' machinations, to the point of torpedoing the SAARC process.
The Congress must evolve and project a sober, sensible understanding of the security issue and promote reconciliation with our neighbours. And it must firmly reject 'soft-Hindutva' and take a principled secular stand, whether on Ayodhya, cow protection, the Mahakaal temple or Bhojshala.
The lesson for the BJP is that the Hindutva horse isn't worth flogging beyond a point and that the Gujarat 'experiment' cannot be replicated. Yet, deeply entrenched as it is in primordialist irrationalism and communal politics, the BJP won't easily resist that temptation. All recent trends -- including the raking up of the Ayodhya issue, resort to disinformation on the 'Vedic sciences,' systematic distortion of India's multicultural history and heritage, maligning of Muslims, including the charging of 123 people in Godhra under POTA, and the unveiling of Sarvarkar's portrait in Parliament -- point to just the opposite.
Of these, the last is particularly insidious. The real issue is not even whether Savarkar made clemency petitions and pledges of 'loyalty' to the colonial state, as he undoubtedly did, repeatedly. Savarkar was less a freedom-fighter than the founding ideologue of the pernicious 'Two Nation' theory, almost two decades before the Muslim League embraced it. Evidence that Savarkar played no role in the freedom struggle after 1913 comes not so much from Left-wing historians, but from the homespun 'nationalist' school. RC Majumdar's Penal Settlement in the Andamans amply documents this.
Evidence of Savarkar's role in Gandhi's killing comes from none other than Sardar Patel who cannot be accused of a soft corner for the Left or antipathy towards Hindutva. On February 27, 1948, less than a month after Gandhi was killed by Godse, Patel wrote to Nehru: 'It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through' (pg 56, Volume 6 of Patel's correspondence, published in 1973).
The BJP is trying to suppress this and glorify Savarkar by putting his portrait right next to Gandhi's and Tilak's. This is a brazen attempt to concoct a 'nationalist' icon and give respectability to the core ideology of the Sangh, which like Savarkar's Hindu Mahasabha, believes in 'unifying the Hindus' and 'militarising Hinduism' -- to promote Hindu supremacism, by whatever means. The results of that supremacist 'experiment' became sickeningly evident in Gujarat.
The BJP will try to replicate the experiment elsewhere with the same anti-Constitutional means and the same violence -- unless it is challenged ideologically and stopped. The menace of Hindutva won't disappear on its own. It must be consciously combated.