Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta
The BJP seems tired
August 09, 2004
With inflation touching 7.5 percent, new taxes and duties souring the consumerist boom, the Indo-Pakistan talks going nowhere, jihadi terrorism making a comeback in Kashmir and a modest prime minister out to confirm he has much to be modest about, it should have been we-told-you-so time for the BJP.
Instead, after one national executive session in Mumbai, a RSS Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagpur, countless informal parleys and a long weekend in Goa, the BJP is still overwhelmed by despondency and confusion. The pre-election cleverness and certitude of the leadership which so impressed the chattering classes have given way to a cacophony of unfocussed fulminations, lots of grandstanding and cryptic put-downs.
The BJP's strategic paralysis is surprising. The deliberations in Mumbai, Nagpur and Goa resulted in a remarkable convergence of views on the causes of the election defeat. There was broad agreement that the party erred in neglecting both its ideology and the interests of its social base.
The NDA government, it was felt, was either chasing an elusive social respectability or being mindlessly led by bureaucrats who lacked political moorings. Although it was not posited in individual terms, the deliberations constituted an indictment of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, in particular, the coterie around him.
The RSS also chipped in with its unconcealed disapproval of the ethical lapses and lifestyle distortions of many BJP leaders while in power. The so-called Congressisation of the BJP, in image terms, has been a matter of concern for the stalwarts of the RSS, not least because the disease could spread to the parent organisation.
Finally, it was agreed that the party, and particularly L K Advani, miscalculated in believing that 'good governance' and the leadership of Vajpayee alone would give the BJP campaign an incremental boost. Electoral strategies, it was agreed, must also include a strong dose of negativism and, in the case of the BJP, a distinct Hindu appeal.
It is not necessary to concur with the BJP's self-diagnosis of its defeat. Was the defeat a consequence of the party's failure to galvanise its existing social coalition or was it a predictable result of the anti-BJP forces ganging up more successfully than in 1999? These questions will continue to preoccupy analysts. The Congress, the Left and pollsters too have very different conclusions about Election 2004 and it is impossible to say who is more correct.
A political party, however, isn't in business to set the historical record straight but to prepare for the future. How the BJP rationalises its defeat is important only in terms of understanding its future strategies.
On this count, there is a convergence of views. It was agreed that Hindutva (or its other euphemisms) must play a role in defining the BJP's self-identity. Unlike the editorial classes, the BJP has not been unduly concerned with the label attached to its core beliefs. Nationalism, cultural nationalism and Hindutva, it has been clarified many times by the leadership, are perceived to be co-terminus. The preference for one term over another is a matter of convenience and, sometimes, even expedience.
The real issue is the message behind the label. On this count, there is very little by way of disagreement within the BJP.
However, since ideology alone can't win elections, it was necessary to blend distinctiveness with political alliances. In short, nothing must be done to jeopardise the NDA. It was understood that while the BJP could not revert to undiluted Hindu nationalism, it could afford to be less defensive about its beliefs. Short of resurrecting Ayodhya, there are enough Hindutva
issues -- jihadi terrorism, Muslim reservation, history textbooks, etc -- the BJP felt, could be highlighted, without unsettling the NDA.
The wariness of the more secular-minded of the NDA constituents centred on Ayodhya, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code. As long as the BJP steered away from these three symbolic issues, there was absolutely no reason for the likes of George Fernandes and N Chandrababu Naidu to cavil.
Simultaneously, enough secular causes -- inflation, criminalisation, multiple power centres, foreign policy blunders, etc --were identified to fulfil coalitional impulses.
The BJP's new road-map is a new blend of ideological positioning and anti-incumbency, plus, organisational rigour. There is absolutely no guarantee that the new brew will ensure a grand political revival. No theoretical exercise can accurately anticipate the minds of the voters. What the many deliberations suggest is that the organisation has sufficient resilience to introspect dispassionately, without recriminations and arrive at a working plan for the future. Yet, despite this, why does the BJP convey an impression of listless disorientation?
The answer lies in the inability of some BJP stalwarts to reconcile themselves to both the reality of defeat and a prolonged spell in Opposition. Beginning from the mystifying attempt to make Narendra Modi the scapegoat for the defeat, there is a minusculity that sees the possibility of a realignment of forces in the 14th Lok Sabha, a realignment that could even herald the return of Vajpayee as prime minister. Though there is a suggestion that this approach rests more on astrological optimism than political calculation, it has succeeded in conveying an image of confusion to the BJP workers.
If the defined objective of the party is to create dissensions in the UPA, wean away the likes of the DMK from the clutches of the Congress and exploit Amar Singh's perceived humiliation at the hands of an imperious Sonia Gandhi, the BJP has no choice but settle for a further dilution of its ideological personality. It must pretend that Hindutva is a no-no, it must sacrifice
Narendra Modi because that is something Mulayam Singh Yadav can flaunt and it must peremptorily ditch J Jayalalithaa because she has less MPs than the DMK combine.
But even with all these compromises, it is impossible to see how any non-Congress-Left formation can command a majority in the 14th Lok Sabha. Unless, of course, the idea is to have Vajpayee made prime minister with the BJP supporting such a government from outside. If such a hare-brained scheme is allowed to go ahead, Sonia Gandhi will be laughing all the way to the 15th Lok Sabha with a two-third majority.
If, however, the BJP wants to abjure adventurism and settle for a long haul, it is the Goa deliberations that take priority. To this must be added the necessity of a generational shift in the party. As things stand today, the BJP leadership seems tired and unable to come to terms with a new young India whose social assumptions are very different.
Today, the BJP is confronted with a stark choice: transforming defeat into defeatism or settling for ideological honesty and a touch of modernity. Unless this fundamental question is resolved, confusion will persist and all the chintan sessions will be in vain.