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BJP does not need enemies
November 11, 2004
During the heady days of the run-up to the 1996 parliamentary election, when the end of Congress hegemony over national politics seemed imminent, the BJP found itself in a quandary. Disgusted by the obnoxiously avaricious cash-and-carry government over which P V Narasimha Rao had presided without lifting his little finger, people were loath to vote for India's "natural party of governance". But neither were they sufficiently enthused about voting decisively for the obvious alternative, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Lal Kishenchand Advani, who was president of the BJP, and his colleagues knew that the 1996 election was the most crucial the party had faced till then: power was within easy reach, but not near enough. For a party that had spent five decades in the Opposition benches, and hopped and skipped in the less than a decade from a paltry strength of 2 MPs in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to 89 in 1989 and 119 in 1991, the parliamentary election of 1996 posed the stupendous challenge of taking a long enough leap that would catapult it to power.
Yet, that was easier said than done. The Congress had broken free of its socialist past and taken a sharp right turn, adopting an economic agenda whose main principles of free market, liberalisation and private enterprise the BJP had been espousing for long. So much so, there was little to distinguish the BJP's agenda from that of the Congress, thus depriving the former of issues that had fetched popular support from India's burgeoning middle class in previous elections.
In December 1992, the Babri Masjid structure in Ayodhya had been demolished by kar sevaks enraged by government apathy and Muslim intransigence and a temporary temple had come up at the site which Hindus believe is Ram Janambhoomi. In a sense, the demolition marked the high point of Hindu disquiet; post-12/6, that disquiet had rapidly given way to other concerns entirely divorced from religious sentiments and civilisational angst.
The BJP was, therefore, at a loss as to how to fire the popular imagination and capture the space vacated by the Congress. Advani came up with the slogan of "Su-raj" -- good governance -- and pledged his party's services to meeting the rising aspiration level of the masses. Ideology, he said, would provide the cutting edge.
In the event, the BJP won the race in 1996, emerging the single largest party, but lost the game of numbers in a hung Lok Sabha to that master manipulator of parliamentary arithmetic, Comrade Harkishen Singh Surjeet of the CPI-M. Instead of the BJP's promised "su-raj", the country had to contend with the ineptitude of first H D Deve Gowda and later Inder Kumar Gujral.
By then, the BJP had reconciled to its inability to get a majority on its own in a polity fractured by casteism and fragmented by regionalism, and had floated a loose rainbow coalition that was to be later christened National Democratic Alliance. Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerged as the national choice: he commanded both trust and respect. In 1998, power came the BJP's way and it was able to retain it in the mid-term poll of 1999. Only to lose it in 2004.
Through the three crucial elections -- 1996, 1998 and 1999 -- it was the promise of good governance, backed by ideological commitment to Hindutva, that had carried the BJP forward. Hindutva by then had become more than a synonym for the Ram Janambhoomi agitation, abrogation of Article 370 and the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code. Hindutva, for most of its votaries, especially in urban India, had become the symbol of a modern day Hindu renaissance; the BJP was expected to facilitate its flowering.
That was not to be. Instead of nursing India's vast majority that subscribes to conservatism anchored in ethics and moral values, and has scant regard for left-liberal balderdash, but aspires for a better deal, the BJP chose to redefine its political purpose. Those who sat at the high table of BJP politics during the six years when the NDA was in power, instead of ushering in the Hindu renaissance anticipated by its supporters, chose to seek legitimacy from its detractors.
The BJP's pseudo-liberalism supplanted the pseudo-secularism of the previous Congress regimes. Conservative India was aghast by the unscrupulous ease with which the BJP began to subscribe to those very falsities that it had battled with conviction for decades. Rectitude in public life, which had set apart the BJP and made it a party with a difference, was given a clamorous burial. Morality and ethics were set aside by taking recourse to the expedient means of citing "dharma of coalition politics".
It was, therefore, not surprising that 90 sitting MPs of the BJP were booted out in the last parliamentary election and the NDA as a whole came a cropper. The defeat in Maharashtra was a natural corollary.
Regaining lost ground in politics is never an easy task. Least of all when popular concerns record a radical change, as they have in India. It is an entirely new constituency that the BJP has to address: innately, this constituency continues to be socially conservative, it continues to hanker for a better deal and it continues to look for an agent of change that will transform India through individual prosperity and social mobility.
The obvious task for the BJP is to reinvent itself, and redefine the contours of its ideology, to address the concerns of this new India. An ideologically committed right-of-centre national party, anchored in morality and traditional values, whose firm views are not marked by emotional highs but mature equanimity, and which can deliver a better quality of life, is not only the required counterfoil to a Congress held hostage by a discredited Left, but also the natural choice of the new generation of voters, whether in cosmopolitan India or in our rural backyards.
Advani dealt with the immediacy of this task in his address to the National Council of the BJP after taking charge of the party formally. But before he could get down to the task of re-inventing the BJP for the 21st century, friends of the party have struck in a pincer move whose immediate fallout has further weakened a party hobbled by electoral defeat and demoralised cadre.
The first blow has been struck by the VHP whose leadership recently made a public spectacle of going into a big sulk because it believes the BJP has abandoned the Ram Janambhoomi issue after making political use of it. The VHP appears to be increasingly adding to the distance between its perception of what the Hindu masses aspire for, and what the Hindu masses actually aspire for.
In today's India, nationalism is not defined by emotionalism of the kind unleashed by the Ayodhya movement. Young India wants to be seen as a powerful nation, economically, militarily and geo-strategically. This India has battled and exorcised the ghosts of the past; it now aspires to win the challenges of the future. This India is overwhelmingly Hindu, it is spiritually inclined and its sense of morality and traditional values is probably as strong, if not stronger, than that of India of the 1990s.
The VHP has a choice: it can become a powerful social force spearheading reform -- Hindu society needs it -- by strategising a new role for itself in today's new India, or it can become increasingly irrelevant by refusing to move on and be reduced to akhada politics. The language of unbridled belligerence no longer inspires communitarian response, sustained and subdued community activism does. This simple truth appears to be lost on the VHP leadership.
The other assault has come from within the BJP. The obscenity of power hungry senior leaders slinging mud at their colleagues may delight their camp followers, but it lowers the stature of the party and puts a big question mark on the authority of the party president. More importantly, it raises the all-important issue of credibility: can a party that cannot run its own house, be trusted with the task of running the affairs of the country?
The BJP could learn more than one lesson from the Republican victory in the USA. It could also learn from why the Conservatives continue to lose elections in the UK.