End of `social engineering'

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

Uma Bharati's expulsion from the BJP represents the collapse of `Mandir-plus-Mandal' politics and the `social engineering' strategy. This will cost the BJP heavily. Its sole Hindutva ally, Shiv Sena, is in even worse shape with the Raj-Uddhav rift.

JUST when the Hindu Right seemed poised for a comeback following the election results from Bihar, it has been wracked by serious political and organisational convulsions. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has expelled Uma Bharati after pulling out the rug from under her bid to return as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. A furious Bharati, who had combatively defied the BJP's top leaders, is now lashing out at them for having reduced it to a party without "ideology" or "principles". The parting of the ways with Bharati is likely to inflict heavy political costs upon the BJP - and not only in Madhya Pradesh.

At the same time, Maharashtra is witnessing a crisis of unprecedented ferocity as the Shiv Sena teeters on the brink of a split. Raj Thackeray, the Senapati's nephew, has unfurled the banner of revolt against his cousin and Bal Thackeray's heir-apparent Uddhav by quitting Sena posts. All attempts at conciliation between the rivals have failed. It would be a miracle if Raj Thackeray does not set up a parallel Sena, delivering a heavy blow to the parent party.

Both events have a strong personality-based component. Bharati is infamous for her tantrums, and her abrasive style and often abusive language. Raj Thackeray competes with his uncle in angularity and intolerance. But underlying the organisational rifts are major political processes, including serious crises of strategy. These fateful changes spell the Hindutva Right's political decline.

Of the two, the Shiv Sena's crisis is much the easier to understand. It comes on top of two successive defeats of the Sena-BJP alliance in the Maharashtra Assembly elections, an erosion of the Sena's influence in numerous municipal bodies, a significant loss of its OBC (Other Backward Classes or intermediate and low caste) base in Marathwada and Vidarbha, and the recent expulsion of its sole leader with a well-defined political base - former Chief Minister Narayan Rane, who is rooted in the coastal Konkan region. But the proximate cause of Raj Thackeray's disaffection - the Sena's shock defeat at Rane's hands in the Malvan byelection in November - is far less important than the long-term or structural causes of the Sena's predicament.

Malvan, in which the Sena candidate lost his deposit, showed that Bal Thackeray is, or on the way to becoming, a spent force. But of far greater importance is the increasing ineffectiveness of the measures the Sena leadership took to stem the rot after its four-year-long spell in power ended in 1999. In that election, the Sena-BJP coalition was replaced by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, a remarkably effete and unstable combination. But the Sena-BJP failed to put the alliance on the defensive. Its basic survival instincts had become blunted. It lost the 2004 election too.

It is as if the Sena-BJP's 1995-99 spell of success in Maharashtra was destined to be ephemeral, largely premised as it was upon the Sena's polarisation of politics along communal lines through the instigation of the terrible post-Babri Masjid demolition violence in Mumbai. Once that momentum ran out, the Sena contented itself with enjoying the gains amassed in its years in office through the award of crony contracts, and individual leaders' investments in real estate, the film industry, and other shady activities.

There is another way of looking at the Sena's historic decline. The Sena was created in 1966 and forged as a repressive and undemocratic instrument by powerful cynical business groups in Mumbai. They deployed it against a growing militant trade union movement. A small group of industrialists mentored and tutored Bal Thackeray into working for a range of right-wing causes - from defeating V.K. Krishna Menon in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections at the instance of the Mumbai Congress strongman S.K. Patil; supporting the Congress Syndicate against Indira Gandhi in her "radical" phase of the late 1960s; building up the cult of Sivaji and thus buttressing Maratha power; and creating a climate of intense parochialism and "sons-of-the-soil" chauvinism in industrial Mumbai.

This "anti-outsider" campaign was directed primarily at semi-skilled Left-leaning South Indians, who had recently migrated to Mumbai and become highly effective unionists in technologically advanced industries like electrical engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Sena goons targeted them, accusing them of snatching jobs away from Maharashtrians. They disrupted union meetings, beat up activists and smashed union offices. In all this, they had the full support, not always tacit, of the State government, whose leaders were hand-in-glove with Mumbai's increasingly belligerent industrialists. The latter had persuaded Congressmen like V.P. Naik that if Mumbai were not to go Kolkata's way with its bandhs, industrial unrest and capital flight, they must ensure industrial peace by repressing the Communists who were a growing force. The Sena would play the key role here.

By the mid-1970s, scores of Left-affiliated and independent plant-based unions had been considerably weakened and demoralised. The pro-employer Bharatiya Kamgar Sena had spread its tentacles into many factories. A measure of "containment" was thus achieved - but at an enormous cost to democratic freedom, labour rights, fair industrial relations practices, and multiculturalism, and harmony between different linguistic-ethnic groups.

The Sena's historic role was not confined to repressing the working class movement. It extended to spreading xenophobic ideas, communalising politics with the able assistance of the BJP, and reversing the gains of the 150-year-old social reform movement in Maharashtra of which Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar were the greatest representatives and products. The profoundly reactionary Sena set society and politics back by decades. It is impossible to comprehend the intolerance, parochialism and criminality that Maharashtra has witnessed in recent years - including the burning of books, attacks on institutions of higher learning, physical assaults on dissident journalists, and cultural policing - without referring to the Sena's predations.

Once it lost State power in 1999, the Sena concentrated on business. Intense rivalries appeared in the party. Its leadership got restructured along personal and family lines. In 2001, Thackeray appointed his son as executive president. Rane and Raj were increasingly marginalised as the Senapati's ways became more paranoid, arbitrary and authoritarian. Today, the Sena seems to have politically reached the end of the road. Its supporters are likely to split three ways - two of them being Raj and Rane. The Sena will probably cease to exist in its present form.

The setback to the BJP from Uma Bharati's expulsion will appear minor to those who emphasise her maverick and erratic character, her megalomania, her mercurial temperament, and her appetite for melodrama. She might also appear unpardonably naive in espousing crass communalism centred on Ayodhya and Islamophobia.

However, the Bharati phenomenon is more complex. She represents that unique amalgam between "Mandal" and "Mandir" or "Mandal" and "Kamandal" (OBC-Hindutva politics), which catapulted the BJP to pre-eminence in the Hindi heartland and eventually to power nationally. The BJP's purpose in creating this amalgam was to appeal to two important issues that energised the Hindi belt during much of the 1990s - majoritarian communalism, and the "Forward March of the Backwards", or OBC self-assertion.

To reconcile the inherent tensions between the two agendas, the BJP devised what it called "social engineering". It would give prominence to leaders from the intermediate and low castes in campaigning for Hindutva. This would at once help the BJP to free itself from the confines of its traditional identification with upper-caste Hindus, sink roots among the OBCs, and further an ideological-political vision drawn from the savarna tradition.

"Social engineering's" chief ideologue was K.N. Govindacharya who persuaded the BJP to promote leaders like Kalyan Singh, Vinay Katyar, Narendra Modi, Sushil Modi and Bangaru Laxman, besides Bharati. Only two of them produced "magic moments" for the BJP in the shape of handsome electoral gains: Kalyan Singh and Bharati. In Bihar, Sushil Modi could not capture the OBC banner in the face of strong claims from Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi emphasised his militant Hindutva identity virtually to the exclusion of the caste identity, especially during the pogrom of 2002, in which the dominant participants were upper-caste Patels and Banias.

"Social engineering" was a noteworthy achievement for the BJP. But it did not last. Some BJP leaders, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were always suspicious of it. Kalyan Singh lost the Uttar Pradesh elections in 1999. He was progressively marginalised in the party and expelled. He returned to it as a much-weakened leader. Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit, became party president, but had to quit after the Tehelka expose which showed him collecting money. (The BJP did not defend him as strongly as it defended George Fernandes, a non-party member.)

Govindacharya incurred the party's wrath for his remark about Vajpayee being a mukhauta (mask). He was stripped of all his powers. He quit the BJP altogether. For the past three years, he has concentrated his energies on building the swadeshi (self-reliance) platform in economic and foreign policy. He speaks a radical language but locates that radicalism firmly within Hindutva.

Govindacharya is Uma Bharati's principal adviser and can be expected to prescribe a version of "social engineering" with emphasis on Hindutva, which in any case comes naturally to her. He brands the BJP a "corporatised" party, which has sold its soul to Big Business. A "nationalist" people-centred alternative should be built to it. He has now floated a "steering committee" of the "Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan", including former Jharkhand Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, Shailendra Mahato and others to correct India's currently "lopsided foreign policies".

Remarkably, Uma Bharati pitches her criticism of the BJP along caste, class and gender lines - which are eminently compatible with the "social engineering" approach. She says the BJP leadership is hostile to the OBCs, the working poor, and to women. (Sushma Swaraj is only a "token" feminine presence in the leadership.) Bharati accuses the parliamentary board of being "unrepresentative" of 90 per cent of the people, including OBCs, Dalits, peasants and women. She has declared, in unison with Govindacharya, that the BJP "experiment has failed"; it is time to "relaunch" the party.

It is reasonable to expect that Govindacharya and Bharati will attempt to do just this - in Madhya Pradesh, and more important, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar, where he has old contacts with RSS karyakartas. They will also try and win over a section of the Sangh Parivar hardliners, especially from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, besides the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, which is close to Govindacharya.

At the moment, neither the RSS nor the VHP is supporting Bharati. Whether Bharati and Govindacharya succeed remains to be seen. But they could give the BJP leadership a hard time. There is a fair amount of sympathy for Bharati in the party's Madhya Pradesh unit because she is seen to have been unfairly denied the State's chief ministership after being discharged by a Hubli court which had issued a warrant against her in August 2004. The party leadership deliberately prolonged the tenure of the "temporary" Chief Minister, Babulal Gaur - leading to Bharati's famously televised intemperate attack on Advani on November 10 last year. In November, It appointed Shivraj Singh Chauhan as Chief Minister.

This was seen as unfair by many in the BJP because Bharati was primarily responsible for the November 2003 election that produced a three-fourths majority for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. This sympathy, and the fact that Bharati is drawing crowds during her Ram-Roti yatra to Ayodhya, might draw them close to her.

Where does all this leave the BJP? The party has more or less abandoned the "social engineering" strategy of political mobilisation. But it does not have a half-way coherent alternative strategy which can help it expand its base outside of the traditional savarna confines. It is in extremely poor shape in Uttar Pradesh, where large numbers of karyakartas have left its ranks. In Bihar, the BJP has undoubtedly made gains, emerging as the number two party, with 55 seats, compared to the Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) 54. But these gains are largely attributable to its alliance with the Janata Dal (United), which managed to consolidate both Most Backward Castes and "upper-caste" support.

Unless the BJP somehow expands its base in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there is a serious chance that it will be confined to the periphery of the Gangetic plain - with its base limited to the Western States of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. As things stand, the BJP leadership does not seem to have the energy, imagination or enthusiasm to innovate a strategy to rejuvenate itself through another significant electoral victory. The Hindutva movement's crisis of strategy stands significantly aggravated.

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