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BJP waiting for Sep 26?

August 31, 2004

Whichever way you view it, the past fortnight has been terrible. A national Budget passed without any meaningful discussion, the asides of Mani Shankar Aiyar on Savarkar elevated to national policy, a chief minister forced to resign and then jailed for a 10-year-old political case involving the hoisting of the national flag, and the prime minister charged with being discourteous to an Opposition delegation. Add to the list the soaring rate of inflation, the rash of strikes, the unattended fires in the North-east, the humiliation at Athens, and you may even appreciate the delicious irony behind MPs being lectured on democracy by a Communist Speaker whose party swears by Stalin.

That there is something rotten in the state of India is increasingly apparent. Manmohan Singh may not have been wilfully rude to the NDA delegation that called on him but he was undeniably curt and irritable. Who can blame him? Since being nominated to the top job by Sonia Gandhi, the prime minister hasn't had the luxury of a political honeymoon. With crisis accompanying crisis and the attacks on him getting more and more shrill, it is sometimes easy to forget that the shy and self-effacing economist has been in office for just 100 days. And, apart from moving house from Safdarjung Road to Race Course Road and being photographed doing a namaste to Master Vadra, he has very little to show by way of achievement. The poor man wasn't even accorded the privilege of making an intervention on the Budget in the Lok Sabha.

No wonder he appears frazzled. In his place, Indira Gandhi would have been downright offensive. She may even have refused to meet the Opposition leaders.

On its part, both the body language and the rhetoric of the Opposition suggest it is going for the jugular. The campaign of disruption and boycott of Parliament may have begun on the tainted ministers issue but its scope has been enlarged so much that no one remembers why it began in the first place. L K Advani, for example, in an interview to Aaj Tak on August 28, suggested the problem had something to do with the attitude of the government, its arrogance and its belief that the Opposition is extraneous to democracy. These are important observations but the problem in Parliament didn't begin with a set of attitudinal skirmishes. It centred on a concrete issue and then meandered its way to cover other areas.

For reasons that aren't entirely convincing, the BJP has moved from playing the conventional Opposition role to declaring war on the government. It has gone against the instincts of its middle-class base -- indeed, alienated them -- and injected extra-parliamentary boisterousness into parliamentary democracy.

By upping the stakes so high, the BJP may be guilty of political adventurism. Despite the growing unease with the UPA government's performance, particularly the downward slide of the economy, there is absolutely no evidence that the public mood has turned to anger. Manmohan Singh's honeymoon with the electorate may have been non-existent or remarkably short-lived, but that does not imply that the people have initiated divorce proceedings. Unless something cataclysmic happens, three months is just too short a time for a radical U-turn in the public mood. Having given an anti-NDA verdict in the general election, the electorate would rather exercise a little more patience before it admits it was wrong to force Atal Bihari Vajpayee into overdue retirement.

This is as true for Hindutva issues as it is for bread-and-butter concerns. Resignation from the chief ministership has undoubtedly made Uma Bharati a cause celebre but it would be rash to say that the tricolour issue has led to the country realising the pitfalls of having Sonia Gandhi as the de facto ruler of India. In any case, the choice of Babulal Gaur as the new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh -- a good man with zero charisma -- would indicate that Uma is not looking at the likelihood of being away from the chief ministership for too long. Even she knows that an attempt to make raising the tricolour issue a national campaign would be somewhat contrived.

Likewise, the shameful insult of Veer Savarkar has certainly incensed the faithful but the insolence of Mani Shankar Aiyar is yet to become a mass concern. My own experiences suggest that Savarkar, unfortunately, is not too well known outside Maharashtra. Most educated people who are under 40 may have just about heard of him but they know precious little about him. This is an issue that will, at best, reinforce the conviction among the die-hard that the UPA has to be fought relentlessly.

At best, both issues have a therapeutic value for the BJP. They provide both the space and the opportunity to the leadership to reclaim the Hindutva it so willingly abandoned while in power. The two controversies have the potential of rekindling the fires of Hindu nationalism within the BJP. However, to presume that they can excite India in the same way as Ayodhya did between 1989 and 1993 is far-fetched. The mood has changed not because the issue has changed. Hindu passions have subsided considerably because the BJP leadership was seen to have used Hindutva as an instrument of social and
political climbing.

Politics is as much about patience and focus as it is about hyper-activity. The BJP had the opportunity of using the Budget session to put the Manmohan government on the mat -- a process that need not have stopped at the gates of Parliament House -- on issues ranging from the economy to national security. In going for an agitational over-kill, it allowed the issue of the UPA's colossal ineptitude to be subsumed by seeming lofty concerns for the future of parliamentary democracy.

The party leadership may not like it but the Congress propaganda about a bunch of old men being bad losers is beginning to stick. In treating the first overs of a five-day Test like the slog overs of a one-day match, the BJP is giving the impression of being in an unseemly hurry to turn astrological prognoses into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I guess the country will have to wait till September 26, when the constellation of stars and planets settle down, for more normal politics to return. For the BJP, the first 100 days of the UPA was a time the leadership allowed itself to be hijacked by the pressures of astrology.

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Swapan Dasgupta

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