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January 9, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

If BJP leaders are aware of the pitfalls of changing tracks midstream, they are doing just that with nary a concern

Power, or to be more precise the prospect of power, makes asses out of men. And worse out of political parties.

Witness the convenient amnesia exhibited by the Bharatiya Janata Party veterans who, in their keen anticipation of the elixir of office have chosen to jettison significant portions of the party's basic ideology. One could now be excused for failing to see the difference between the Congress and the BJP, so similar are they in basic outlook. The only point of difference between them, circa 1998, is that one is on the way down and the other ascending.

The pitfalls of a cosmetic exercise on the eve of an election are too well known, especially to the apparatchiks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who preside over the destiny of their political outfit in rather the same way as the cricket selectors do over the game whose interests they are sworn to further. If the outcome in both cases is ruinous forgive them -- for, theirs is the error of omission not commission.

Just cut back to the late 1980s, the time of the shilanyas, of Vishwanath Pratap Singh and the slow death of the Congress. The question then was to who will occupy the space vacated by the ruling party. The two horses in the fray were the Singh-led formation and the BJP. By logic, it should have been the former which should have moved into that territory, given its left of centre and pro-poor orientation. But surprise, surprise! It was the latter who, despite having only two members in the previous Lok Sabha, that nosed ahead.

Singh's failure was attributed to the lack of an efficient organisastion to convert appeal into votes. But the real reason lay elsewhere. It had more to do with Singh's own turnabout. He may have had compelling reasons to jettison his moral high-horse and espouse social restructuring, but it was not his exclusive domain -- in this he had to vie with others more expert than he. The outcome is the sorry plight of not only him but his creed as well.

That anyway is the more recent example of what happens when a political party alienates itself from its established principles. The Congress is a more historical case. Its demise in the political arena is being attributed variously to the absence of charisma, but even that was only a veil meant to conceal the hard reality that there was no ideology.

Again, if its reasons for abandoning its pro-poor and socialist image were all that compelling, then there was a breakdown in communicating it to its constituents pejoratively referred to as votebank. The examples of the Congress and V P Singh highlight the pitfalls of changing tracks midstream. And if the BJP is aware of this, its leaders are going about doing just that with nary a concern about the future.

This is not to say that the BJP must go back to being Muslim-bashers or mosque-breakers. On the contrary, those two references are to the ugliest face of the party now waiting in the anteroom, and are well done away with. The BJP may have had to resort to anti-stances in order to overcome the initial inertia, but having done that it wisely decided not to pursue that line of action. Even without these, there were programmes on its manifesto that set it apart from the competition. Reasons that readily endeared to a growing section of the populace.

Now the confusion is not only among those who were lured in by the difference in approach but even among the party's own rank and and file. How do you not focus on things that you have always parroted, never mind if the occasion was at a martyr's memorial or a shashtiapta poorthi?

In the coming days, this dilemma will be enough to stretch the party's resilience to its limit. Does the party still stand for the abrogation of Article 370? Does it still stand for the Common Civil Code? Does it still believe in lower direct taxes?

The BJP is obviously on the horns of a dilemma. The proximity to power is rather tantalising, and it knows this time if it fails there will be no comeback with the electorate. No one backs a loser for ever. The party knows that its main programmes and principles have the appeal to bring in only this many voters, which is clearly not enough to breast the finishing line. So what it has done in its zeal to recruit more voters is to soften its stand on all such issues which have the potential to alienate someone or the other. Heaven knows there is no reason why the Muslims should oppose the abrogation of Article 370, but anyway out it goes… And likewise with the others. If there is a possibility that the diehard voter may not like this soft approach and take his ballot elsewhere, if there is even a remote possibility that for every new voter gained there will be a voter lost, the party has chosen not to consider this at all.

The Congress changed tracks, and found it was on a slow track to nowhere. As did the Janata Dal. Today it is the BJP, which so often in the past proclaimed its distinctness in a political arena replete with copycats, that is attempting a change of image, that is trying to throw overboard its chief attractions.

The other two parties lost the experiment because one, there was poor communication accompanying the exercise, and two, the turnabout was too thorough. The BJP brass obviously believe they have it made, and if they are aware of the failings on the way they are not showing it. But even assuming they come to power on the new-look agenda, it is only a question of time before the past and the present clash. Experience shows that the party normally suffers when this happens. So why should the BJP be any different?

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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