Into the political twilight?

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

L.K. Advani. - V.V. KRISHNAN

L.K. Advani. - V.V. KRISHNAN

After L.K. Advani's capitulation to RSS pressure to quit, the BJP's ideological-political-organisational crisis has deepened. The party could go into a tailspin despite minor recent gains in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, and potentially higher gains in Bihar's coming elections.

IF proof were at all needed that the Bharatiya Janata Party can no longer summon up a half-way cogent response to major events of the day, then recent developments provide it in ample measure. India's vote for a resolution censuring Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency constitutes a decisive, paradigmatic break with a half-century-long foreign policy orientation. It marks India's defection (more charitably, shift) from the Non-Aligned Movement into the United States camp. The vote has exposed India's nuclear double standards. It will greatly narrow the country's policy options in the neighbourhood and the world.

The Left parties have launched a powerful attack on the government's policy shift - despite being the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA's) supporters. The government is clearly out of sync with public opinion on the issue and vulnerable to criticism. Yet, the main Opposition party has no unified response which either opposes or endorses the Vienna vote, with qualifications or caveats.

Former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha criticised India's decision in strong terms: "By abandoning Iran, the UPA has made India a client-state of the U.S." But the next day, Jaswant Singh, his predecessor as External Affairs Minister, and Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, made an ambivalent statement. He asked the government to "come clean" on the vote's rationale and not "hide behind officials when the decision is fundamentally political". He termed the vote "totally unacceptable", but did not explain what makes it so. Rather, he proceeded to ask the government seven, largely pedantic, questions.

Evidently, the BJP is deeply divided on these important foreign and security policy issues. But its confusion is not limited to this question. Take its response to the fairly successful nation-wide strike called by the Left in protest against the UPA's economic policies, particularly privatisation. Instead of taking a stand for or against the strike, BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley said the agitation was against "non-existent", "not visible" policies. It is "shadow boxing" or a "mock fight", with an eye to the Left's constituencies in Kerala and West Bengal, which face Assembly elections next year.

This is a complete non sequitur. The UPA policies have largely followed the orientation of its predecessor's, barring the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. The government's macro-economic approach, its taxation policies, resource mobilisation and allocation priorities, emphasis on foreign investment, commitment to globalisation and to public sector divestment, all remain unaltered. The Left opposes these policies unequivocally. It is simply disingenuous to accuse it of indulging in a "mock fight" - no matter whether one agrees or disagrees with UPA policies.

The BJP's contradictory and anomalous stand arises from the fact that it is itself partial, if not committed, to a pro-U.S. position and economic neoliberalism. Indeed, it launched India on a brazenly right-wing policy course, sealing a "strategic partnership" with the U.S. and opting for the crony-capitalist form of privatisation, through "strategic sales". Yet, being in the Opposition, the BJP feels it must criticise these policies, or the way they are implemented. At best, it falls between two stools. More usually, it is utterly contradictory.

The BJP's growing policy incoherence is one component of a much larger and multi-dimensional crisis which grips the party as it reels under a serious tussle with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which delivered it a major blow by prevailing upon party president L.K. Advani to announce his resignation on September 18. This crisis is as remarkable and dramatic as the BJP's meteoric political rise from the mid-1980s on, itself unparalleled by any other political formation.

There is a big difference, though. Earlier, the BJP was part of a larger religio-political movement centred on the Ayodhya campaign. The movement's buoyancy, and the party's own growing proximity to national power, helped it build all kinds of social coalitions and alliances both within the Sangh Parivar and without. Today, those arrangements are disintegrating. The BJP's dual character - as political party and part of a movement - has greatly eroded. Then, nothing succeeded like success. Now, failure follows failure.

The BJP's crisis has many components or dimensions. There is, first, the crisis of political strategy. The BJP has neither a clearly defined line of march, nor an imaginative programmatic perspective. In the recent past, it has consistently failed to judge the popular mood (witness "India Shining"), or raise issues which would help it regain its eroded credibility. The BJP has no handle on the political situation. It has lost its status as an initiator of political agendas, which calls the shots. Consequently, it no longer acts as a strong pole of attraction for other Opposition parties, many of them its allies. It does not know what to focus on and how to mobilise people politically.

Bereft of strategy, the BJP boycotted and rowdily disrupted Parliament for much of the past year. When it returned in the monsoon session, it did not play the role of a responsible Opposition. It focussed on personalities and alleged "scandals", all of a trivial nature, skirting larger issues. It reneged on its promise to support one-third reservation for women, diluting its original stand of nominating one-third of party candidates from among women.

The party faces a crisis of eroding popular support. At its peak, it commanded a little over a quarter of the popular vote, with significant support in two-thirds of all 27 States. By 2004, it lost in 18 States. Its solid support-base got confined to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, especially their tribal belts. The erosion was particularly severe in the heart of the Gangetic plain, and only slightly less so in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

More important, the BJP's base among Dalits, other backward classes (OBCs) and other marginal groups has shrunk, according to surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. These groups were vital to supplementing the BJP's core-support among urban upper-caste Hindus, and to forming the "critical mass" necessary to win elections. Many such groups were drawn to the party when it was in the ascendant and promoted a "pan-Hindu identity" through the militant, if negative, self-assertion of the Ayodhya movement.

The BJP faces a serious ideological crisis. During its six years at the Centre, it added economic conservatism of the neoliberal variety to its established social conservatism - exclusivist politico-religious Hindutva. The BJP has found it difficult to amalgamate the two. It is under pressure from votaries of both the second current - the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in which its cadre training and education is rooted - and the first tendency, which dominates its parliamentary wing.

The BJP is at sixes and sevens when subjected to the pull to demonstrate continuity with its past and its RSS roots, and the push towards modernisation. Thus, its own president has oscillated between two contradictory explanations for its rout in 2004: the BJP lost because it sacrificed it "core constituency" (Hindutva and the Parivar) at the altar of "pragmatism"; secondly, and contradictorily, because it was not "pragmatic" enough!

The BJP's leadership crisis and its organisational crisis are both grim. The party tried an awkward, unsuccessful transition to second-rung leadership. M. Venkaiah Naidu was a disaster and had no option but to quit after the 2004 debacle. The electoral defeat brought a myriad power tussles out into the open: among second-generation leaders; between them and State-level bosses - only a couple of leaders such as Pramod Mahajan and Uma Bharati, have strong regional bases - and between the party and the VHP, and increasingly, the RSS.

Advani took over from Venkaiah Naidu last year - without consulting the RSS - amidst rosy hopes that he would firmly control dissidence, give direction, and revitalise the party. He miserably failed. The VHP launched vitriolic attacks on him and boycotted meetings where he might be present (for example, the 2004 Haridwar conclave). Uma Bharati defied him, was expelled, and then readmitted. Advani's authority, in tatters by early this year, received a body blow when RSS sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan publicly asked him in April to step down.

THE RSS-Advani confrontation got intensified after the BJP chief maladroitly chose to sing the "Jinnah-as-great-leader" song. Even the BJP sharply disassociated itself from his remarks (Frontline, July 1). Then, lesser leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati, and later, Madan Lal Khurana, Pyarelal Khandelwal, Jana Krishnamurthy and Bangaru Laxman, took pot-shots at him. Openly attacked by Khurana, Advani expelled him from party membership for six years. But within three days, Advani backtracked. Behind the Khurana drama lurked a bigger power struggle: between Advani and Vajpayee himself. Vajpayee had rescued Advani from an RSS assault in July. But Advani regrouped his cronies and started behaving as if he were the boss. Vajpayee resented this lack of "gratitude". Their clash of ambitions became increasingly public.

It was tragic (at least for the BJP), yet inevitable, that the confrontations in which the BJP president found himself ended with a sordid personal squabble between the party's two "tallest" leaders. This was first highlighted two years ago when Advani protege Venkaiah Naidu denigrated Vajpayee as vikas purush, while glorifying the loh purush. Other skirmishes followed, leading to periodic resignation threats by Vajpayee, followed by the assertion that he neither was "tired" nor had "retired".

Both men used parivar surrogates to needle each other. By the time of the Chennai national executive - embarrassingly postponed by two months - Advani was so isolated that he received no applause for his protest against RSS "interference" in BJP affairs. The sour irony is that Advani himself gained handsomely - and the most - from the RSS' "interference". He could not have become Deputy Prime Minister in 2002 without its help.

Advani is now a lame-duck president. The succession process will be messy. Each second-generation leader will run down or defy the others. An "internal" opinion poll was reportedly commissioned by Advani, conducted by C-Voter, with a sample of 15,000 covering 136 Lok Sabha seats. According to it, Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley have an acceptance rating of under 10 per cent among BJP members. Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje rate at 2 to 3 per cent. Sushma Swaraj scores at 40 per cent and Pramod Mahajan at 20 (The Telegraph, September 23). Given such wide differentials, the RSS is likely to play a much larger role than before in selecting the next president. It may well back a dark horse like Bal Apte. There is little likelihood that the new president will command political weight or authority comparable to Advani's.

The BJP faces a crisis of coordination within the Sangh Parivar. Its relations with the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (which mobilised valuable tribal support for it in the central Adivasi belt) are badly strained. The party is seriously toying with the idea of splitting fronts like the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad away from the Sangh and bringing them under its own umbrella. This is likely to further embitter the Sangh and weaken whatever cohesion is left within the Parivar.

BJP-RSS relations will prove the trickiest issue to handle. For about a week after it was made, not a single BJP leader full-throatedly backed Advani's call for a "debate" on relations between the two. Vajpayee has since given it weak, tentative support. No endorsement has come from any second-generation leaders. The RSS might well seize the initiative at its October 21 working committee meeting at Chitrakoot. Its spokesman Ram Madhav says that while the BJP alone will select its next president, the RSS "naturally" wants "its ideological commitment to be reflected in all Sangh Parivar organisations".

LAST, but not least, the BJP faces a crisis of erosion of, and dissidence within, the National Democratic Alliance. Besides the loss of the Tamil Nadu parties, the NDA has suffered erosion of "outside" support from the once-doughty Telugu Desam Party. Some of its present/former allies, such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, the National Conference, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Indian National Lok Dal are trying to form a separate bloc or grouping. After the Bihar elections, they hope to rope in regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal. The BJP's sole ideological ally, the Shiv Sena, stands split with Narayan Rane taking away a substantial chunk of its Konkan and Mumbai base, its longest-standing source of core support.

The NDA's fate hangs in the Bihar balance. If the Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance loses that election, the NDA may not survive. Even if the alliance does well, it will still be an uphill battle to breathe life into the NDA. The BJP has made limited, but impressive, gains in the Kerala local elections thanks to the Congress-led United Democratic Front's collusion. It has also raised its vote in the Andhra Pradesh local polls from 2.5 to 8.5 per cent. But such gains will neither be easy to replicate, nor ensure a big upturn in the party's fortunes.

It is not easy to see how, and through what stratagems or devices, the BJP can resolve its multiple crises. It does not seem well-placed even to exploit the UPA's weaknesses. It has tried all kinds of issues, from the temple to the tricolour, and from petroleum prices to the Mitrokhin disclosures. Nothing has worked. Unless popular disillusionment with the UPA sets in big, the BJP will find it difficult to stitch together a credible opposition. The Advani era is ending - not the BJP's crisis.

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