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Diagnosis of the debacle
June 29, 2004
The Indian media having moved away from its traditional preoccupation with politics, it is no longer a matter of surprise that the activities of the prime minister and his council of ministers have ceased to be top of the mind.
This is more so in the silly season, the period of the school holidays, when the heeled escape to more temperate climes and bizarre events like the Mittal wedding become subjects of drawing room conversation.
This silly season, it would seem, was marginally different. True, Manmohan Singh maintained the pretence of being the invisible prime minister. However, politics made a dramatic entry through the convulsions within the main opposition party. Despite being out of power at the Centre, the BJP has maintained its impressive track record of being able to grab the proceedings of the front pages.
The bouts of Catholic-style confessions that have marked the BJP's re-entry into the opposition are both healthy and amusing. Healthy because the proceedings of the parliamentary board and the National Executive suggest that vibrant political debate is alive and kicking.
Although the real story of what exactly transpired within these closed-door sessions remains to be told, there is enough meat in the official disclosures to indicate that the party activists are not content to leave the post-mortem to the wisdom of the ubiquitous high command. The litany of confessions, including the game of hide and seek being played by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, makes interesting reading, regardless of whether or not you agree with the diagnosis of the debacle.
At the same time, the confessions are amusing because they often skirt embarrassing questions. L K Advani, in his role as Leader of the Opposition, made, from all accounts, the most pointed intervention at the Mumbai National Executive. He located the BJP's failure to win the general election to the disconnect between the NDA government on the one hand and the BJP's core constituency. He identified skewed priorities and arrogance as reasons for the deep alienation from the government. The soul of the party, he implied, wasn't sufficiently motivated to work for the BJP's victory.
Advani, it is well known, enjoys a formidable reputation as a political analyst. BJP leaders will swear by Advani's ability to cut through the haze of details and come to the heart of the matter. This is what he did in Mumbai and his assessment of the defeat addressed many of the concerns felt by thousands of party workers all over the country. Yet, there was a significant omission. While Advani addressed the symptoms of the BJP malaise, he did not answer the deeper question: Why did the BJP in government lose sight of its moorings?
To my mind, the question is not a postscript. If a party that fought its way to the top lost sight of the ladder by which it made the upward journey, it suggests a very serious malaise. Either the ideological props were not as profound as the party imagined or, alternatively, there was a moral failing that diverted the attention of the leadership into trivial pursuits. The implications of the latter is more serious because it punctures the claim of the RSS to have created a moral leadership committed to a Hindu renaissance.
If, put to the test, the politicians nurtured in the Sangh tradition, fall prey to baser temptations and become apologetic of their political origins, there must be something deeply flawed in the RSS claims of moral superiority.
I presume that these, and associated questions, will be discussed threadbare in the chintan scheduled for next month. For the moment, however, a few preliminary points are in order.
First, Advani's admission of the NDA government's drift away from the BJP's social and ideological constituency is not new. They were raised at various points in the past five years. Why were these people who questioned the political direction of the Vajpayee government spat upon and regarded as dangerous heretics during the past five years? Did these demands for
unquestioned loyalty nurture a culture of sycophancy, to the extent that the first edition of the BJP's Vision Document had over 50 photographs of Vajpayee?
Secondly, there was a frenzied bid by the BJP stalwarts to embrace a new and "socially respectable" constituency that was seriously at odds with its core base. The exercise was accompanied by bouts of ideological juggling and the cooption of disreputable individuals who fought factional games on behalf of rival power centres. The media, in particular, became a player in a strange exercise aimed at showing that everything about the BJP was rotten except the prime minister. Will the guilty individuals who became rebels for the Czar at least admit their follies or will the lapses be conveniently papered over because they are too embarrassing to dissect and involve too many important people?
Finally, the term of the NDA government coincided with some outfits of the Sangh parivar conducting their affairs in a reckless and uninformed way. They added to the confusion within the ideological family and created needless difficulties for the government. If the VHP was responsible for wild utterances, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch became an instrument of corporate lobbying. Will the adventurism of these Sangh outfits be curtailed in future?
The defeat of the BJP wasn't merely the outcome of tactical lapses and the lack of dedication. They also stemmed from a needless and unilateral bid to reinvent the party and transform it into something alien to its instincts. Unless this political failure is addressed and rectified, the BJP conclaves will end up as meaningless bouts of circumnavigation. For the party to learn from the past, there has to be some spilling of blood.