I know it is just coincidence but I always seem to fall sick when Delhi and Islamabad indulge in 'Bus Diplomacy'. I was flat on my back in a Bangalore hospital in 1999, and in 2005 painful toothache kept me in the dentist's chair even as the bus rolled.
'The bus is a good CBM for Kashmiris'
That journey shall doubtless occupy the headlines, but there is some action taking place in Delhi too that should not be ignored, namely the conclaves organised by the BJP and the CPI-M. The two parties will hate this observation but they actually have some things in common.
Both parties can trace their roots to 1925 when their parent organisations were founded -- the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Vijayadashami day, and the CPI in a tent outside the larger enclosure in Kanpur where the Congress was holding its annual session. The BJP has had a more complicated history, with the Jan Sangh being founded with aid from the RSS, merging into the Janata Party after the Emergency, before emerging with a new name in 1980.
The Marxists broke away from the parent party in the wake of the Indo-China War. (I wonder if the CPI-M is finally willing to concede that China was the aggressor in that conflict!) But tortuous pasts apart, the biggest similarity between the CPI-M and the BJP is that both are grappling today with the problems of converting a cadre-based outfit into an organisation that can win votes on a larger scale.
There is a great deal of confusion just now about what exactly the CPI-M and the BJP stand for today. Is the BJP still as committed to building a temple at Ayodhya as it was, say, fifteen years ago? I know that the party president has said so, but this announcement was immediately called into question by a querulous Govindacharya.
BJP meet: A Study in Saffron
There is no point saying that the latter was motivated by a petty desire for 'revenge'; there are many people who have wondered about the same thing. I have often heard the same comment: "If the BJP were serious, why was there no movement between 1998 and 2004?"
The second problem plaguing the party is that of the second rung of leadership. L K Advani is undoubtedly the best man to serve as president of the party just now, with nobody else commanding quite the same respect and affection. But who can take up his mantle? The BJP was led for a quarter of a century by leaders of the stature of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, and the late Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia. Being human rather than angels, they must have had their differences yet those differences counted for nothing when set against the larger interests of the party. Can you imagine a scene like the one on Dhanteras day last year when a furious Uma Bharti stomped out of a meeting, television cameras recording every word and move? Can you imagine a collegiate leadership coming together in the second generation, the kind that the party founders excelled in?
The BJP has been seemingly so busy with its infighting that it has actually done a bad job of acting as the Opposition in Parliament. There is no dearth of issues where the Treasury benches should have been put on the mat. Forget about Goa and Jharkhand, the United Progressive Alliance ministry has got away with murder on inflation.
Why has nobody hammered away at weak points in the Budget such as the cash withdrawal tax? What about the fact that national security was compromised when at least 38 Pakistanis slipped away after the Test at Mohali? Did Delhi demand a reciprocal arrangement after signing the pipeline deal with Iran and Pakistan? (If gas can be pushed through one way, is there any reason why Indian goods should not be transported the other way, say to Kabul and Teheran, on the same terms?) But the BJP has, barring rare flashes, not raised these issues with any passion.
A generational change in leadership is not a problem in the CPI-M, with Prakash Karat taking over the reins from an ailing Harkishen Singh Surjeet. But Karat -- a man in his fifties and whose only electoral success came in his days as a student in Jawaharlal Nehru University -- is not exactly an inspiring character. How does he propose to drag the CPI-M away from the rut of West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura?
CPI-M: Ringing in the new
To an extent, some of the confusion over ideology seen in the BJP ranks is also present in the CPI-M cadre. The party is the largest prop of the United Progressive Alliance ministry in Delhi, but opposes the Congress bitterly in Kerala and Bengal. It makes no sense to say that the Marxists oppose the Congress policy on economic affairs -- pensions, patents, labour, liberalisation -- when the Manmohan Singh ministry can't survive a day without Marxist support.
Disgust with the Congress in Kerala and a strong grassroots base in Bengal will probably ensure the Left Front's victory in the assembly polls, but that is not enough if the CPI-M wants to extend its influence outside the three states which have traditionally supported it. Diluting its stand on basic principles -- or seeming to do so anyway -- cost the BJP dearly in the last general election. Can the Marxists succeed where the BJP failed, winning more mass support without losing the votes of those who always backed it?
Both the BJP and the CPI-M face the same problems whether or not they choose to admit it -- of carving out an acceptable ideological framework and of finding inspirational leadership in the second generation. Confronted with such headaches even the dentist's drill seems less painful!