New offensive

Print edition : October 07, 2011

L.K. ADVANI ADDRESSING the media on June 6 after a delegation of BJP leaders met the President over the police action against Baba Ramdev and his supporters at the Ramlila Grounds. - V.V. KRISHNAN

Having tasted blood through the Anna Hazare campaign, the Sangh Parivar is launching an all-round attack on the Manmohan Singh-led government.

LAL KRISHNA ADVANI, probably the world's longest-standing Prime-Minister-in-waiting, and certainly the longest-serving Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) member to occupy a prominent place in a major party, has announced yet another rath yatra, this time against corruption. Advani is evidently undeterred by the failure of four of his five previous attempts at winning public sympathy for Hindutva politics by riding across India in a Toyota van souped-up to look like a Bollywood version of a chariot used by mythical Hindu deities.

The one successful exception was his Somnath-to-Ayodhya yatra of 1990, which left a trail of blood and infused a heavy dose of communal poison into Indian politics and led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and eventually catapulted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national power.

The 84-year-old has lost none of his ambition or, less charitably, greed for power either. He is bent on promoting himself as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the event of a midterm election despite having been rejected decisively in 2009 by the electorate (which reduced the BJP's Lok Sabha tally from 138 to 116 seats) and despite having been rudely prevented by the RSS two years ago from holding a high position and told to make way for younger leaders.

The fact that Advani announced the yatra plan with Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the Leaders of the Opposition respectively in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, by his side, and after having only desultorily consulted party president Nitin Gadkari speaks of the power balances within the BJP. The issue of succession of second generation leaders has not been settled fully in the BJP although Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has emerged pre-eminent and become a Sangh Parivar hero after the September 12 judgment of the Supreme Court, grossly distorted by the BJP as giving him a clean chit. Advani presented the RSS and the Parivar with a fait accompli by telling them that he expected to be the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) candidate for the Prime Minister's job.

The BJP still cannot claim it has another leader of a stature comparable to Advani's, leave alone Atal Behari Vajpayee's. Younger BJP leaders continue to kowtow to Advani even when he crushes their own ambitions and claims as he unambiguously did while announcing the yatra. The second generation lacks the self-confidence to chart out a course independent of Advani (and the RSS). Announcing the yatra was also Advani's way of further undermining the already weak and inexperienced Gadkari, who recently asserted that the BJP would project no one as its candidate.

In effect, Advani has staged a virtual coup in the Sangh Parivar, calculating that the RSS would have no option but to back him given the increased vulnerability of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government after the Anna Hazare-led mobilisation by India Against Corruption (IAC), which attracted large numbers of people and badly shook the government. It would be a surprise if the Parivar, which has always looked for a putsch-like shortcut to power, and which exploited the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s to propel itself into the national political mainstream, does not try to build up similar campaigns, directly or through groups such as the IAC or Anna Hazare's team.

In fact, there is growing evidence that the movement centred on Hazare's fast was heavily infiltrated by the Sangh Parivar. (Some of this has been documented in the September issue of HardNews magazine, quoting Parivar sources.) RSS involvement in the Hazare campaign was frankly acknowledged by Sushma Swaraj in Parliament on August 17 and confirmed by RSS pracharak-ideologue K.N. Govindacharya's August 26 statement in which he said that at least one-tenth of those present at the Ramlila Grounds were RSS volunteers.

The RSS has long tried to tap into the popular sentiment against corruption. Three years ago, it roped in Hazare and Baba Ramdev into an anti-corruption initiative. It got Ramdev to set up the Bharat Swabhiman Trust under Govindacharya's tutelage. Ramdev's vast network sustained the IAC logistically before and through Hazare's Jantar Mantar fast in April. No wonder Ramdev turned up there to claim ownership, with RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav in tow. But Ramdev's own fast in April following Anna's proved an embarrassing fiasco, and the RSS zeroed in exclusively on Hazare.

It goes without saying that Hazare's social conservatism expressed in his support for the caste system as the natural order of things, his militant and chauvinist nationalism, his strident advocacy of strong-arm methods (including whippings) to deal with petty infringements of despotic rules against consumption of alcohol and tobacco and his naivety perfectly suit the Parivar's ends.

A movement of which Hazare is the figurehead, but which is controlled externally and clandestinely, has the potential to destabilise the government from the Right. Govindacharya put it eloquently: I want to tell both Anna and Ramdev that they shouldn't be apologetic and should not bother about the colour of the cat till it catches the mice. We are ready to provide both tacit and active support.

Destabilisation effort

Advani's rath yatra plan must be seen in the context of this mobilisation as a supplement to and a political auxiliary of a destabilisation effort. True to type, Advani plans to launch the yatra from Gujarat according to reports, probably from Karamsad, the birthplace of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to whom this parody of an Iron Man likes to compare himself. The yatra's convener is likely to be former RSS activist and BJP general secretary H.N. Ananth Kumar, with well-known corporate connections.

However, the BJP's credibility on the issue of corruption, on which the yatra is to be centred, is deeply suspect, if not laughable. Its record at the Centre and, more important, in the States where it holds power, particularly Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, belies its claims to be opposed to corruption. It bears recalling that some of the biggest and earliest of India's privatisation scams and cases of bribery in roads and highways projects and 2G telecom licence allotments occurred under the NDA's rule at the Centre from 1998 to 2004.

In Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa took corruption in mining, land deals and award of all manner of contracts, licences and environmental clearances to previously unknown heights. The Loyayukta's report on the Reddy brothers' pillage of the exchequer is a scathing indictment of the BJP's monumental misrule. The party will also find it hard to live down the Yeddyurappa family's involvement in shady trusts. In Karnataka, the BJP surpassed the heights of corruption reached in some of the most corrupt Congress-ruled States such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Ultimately, Yeddyurappa had to go because a statutory authority held him to be colossally and brazenly corrupt.

In Uttarakhand, Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank has been dropped because of his monumental corruption in the award of hydroelectricity power projects 56 of which had to be scrapped after a public uproar over numerous breaches of tender conditions allotment of land to factories, defalcation of funds for the Kumbh Mela and even disaster relief, and rampant bribery from the pettiest to the highest levels. Nishank had a reputation for taking a cut from every procurement order, every infrastructure project, every single school-building contract: nothing was too small for him. It would be far too risky for the BJP to have him lead it in the elections next year.

In Gujarat, Modi failed to appoint the anti-corruption ombudsman that his party clamoured for. In Punjab, the BJP recently sacked three of its Ministers in the Prakash Singh Badal Cabinet because their corruption proved to be a great embarrassment ahead of the coming elections. In Chhattisgarh, corruption in government contracts is scaling new heights, according to senior civil servants. The anti-naxal operation is proving a gold mine for corrupt bureaucrats and police officers. Such examples can be multiplied from other BJP-ruled States.

So Advani's anti-corruption crusade could well prove to be a farce. He probably also misinterprets the middle-class mood on the corruption issue, which has fused seamlessly into disdain for the political class as a whole, not just distrust of the UPA. Many of those who recently got politicised through the Anna Hazare campaign will probably turn rightwards, but they are unlikely to be drawn to the rath yatra. Hazare's campaign had a sympathetic, indeed hyperactively supportive, media, as did Advani's 1990 rath yatra, because of middle-class sympathy for the then popular minority appeasement argument. This is unlikely to hold true of the new yatra.

However, the BJP is going for broke in its confrontation with the UPA government. That alone explains why Advani in Parliament brazenly defended the well-televised cash-for-votes sting operation of July 2008, owned up responsibility for it, and challenged the government to arrest him. He believes, as he put it on September 8, that the UPA's credibility is over, its mandate has been exhausted.

The BJP seems to have made one more calculation. A significant section of Indian industry is disappointed with the UPA because it is not delivering on second generation reforms such as yet more reckless privatisation of public enterprises, further tax breaks for the super rich, other measures to revive the sluggish or falling capital markets, and labour law reforms (read, dismantlement of such minimal labour protection as exists today so as to promote crude hire-and-fire policies).

Many captains of industry have convinced themselves that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has surrounded herself with Left-leaning intellectuals and activists such as those represented in the National Advisory Council. In reality, the present NAC's composition is far less Left-leaning or liberal than its previous avatars, and many of its recommendations, for example, on food security, have been virtually overruled. But perceptions matter. And many in Big Business see the UPA as hesitant to do what they want. Some businessmen are resentful that they have very little direct access to Sonia Gandhi or her inner circle, unlike under the NDA.

Some of this dissatisfaction is reflected in a letter written in January by 14 industrialists, including Keshub Mahindra (Union Carbide India's former chairman), Jamshyd Godrej and Deepak Parekh, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, complaining of a widespread governance deficit and pressing for an independent anti-corruption ombudsman. Since then, even the London-based industrialist S.P. Hinduja has held forth against corruption and the need for a Lokpal. Strongly pro-corporate media groups were in the leadership of the Jan Lokpal campaign.

It is no coincidence that some of this same category of people had earlier pleaded publicly for second generation reforms and warned that Indian industrialists would invest overseas rather than at home unless the domestic climate improved with state encouragement to industry (read, yet more concessions and tax breaks for the super rich). Clearly, industrialists are divided on supporting the UPA, and a strong faction of them is probably looking for right-wing alternatives.

It would be a miracle if the BJP does not do its utmost to cash in on this resentment by promising exactly what this vocal group of industrialists wants and demands. If that helps destabilise the UPA government, so much the better. The Sangh Parivar sees the present conjuncture as a godsend to corner and besiege the government, no matter what the cost to democratic norms and to such things as political decency for which it anyway has scant respect.

Many in the UPA, particularly conservatively inclined leaders such as Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P. Chidambaram, would be tempted to respond to the Sangh Parivar assault by rolling out concessions to Big Business and reneging on their aam aadmi commitments and promises of inclusive growth.

There would also be pressure on the government to further drag its feet on pursuing investigations against Hindutva extremist groups and key individuals, such as the RSS national executive member Indresh Kumar, despite strong prima facie evidence of their involvement in a series of recent terrorist bombings, including the attacks in Malegaon and on the Samjhauta Express.

Succumbing to such pressure would be a grave blunder. The UPA must realise that it was re-elected because of its aam aadmi commitments and promise of reaffirming secular principles through real action, including bringing the preachers and perpetrators of extremist violence to book, no matter of what religious stripe. Its legitimacy crucially depends on this. It must put the Sangh Parivar on the defensive by launching speedy, fair and purposive investigations into these bombings.

The UPA's best bet lies in taking such action and deepening its commitment to the poor and regaining their confidence through Left-leaning programmes and policies, resolute measures against corruption, and energetic efforts to promote participatory and emancipatory governance. Ultimately, it is not the middle class, leave alone the industrial elite, but the common toiling people whose votes will decide the victor of the next general election whenever it is held.

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