From tragedy to farce

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

The BJP is so deeply mired in crisis that it has fallen back on hardline leader L.K. Advani. This proves its second-generation leadership's bankruptcy and fractiousness and is a recipe for further turbulence and disarray inside the Hindutva camp.

IF the Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to prove through live action the validity of Marx's observation about history repeating itself "first as tragedy and second as farce", it could not have done it better than by appointing Lal Krishna Advani as its president. During his last avatar as the party's head (in two phases, from 1986 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1998), Advani prepared the ground for, or presided over, some of the grimmest tragedies, including ferocious communal violence, that India has witnessed.

Advani's stewardship of the BJP was inseparable from a hardening of the Hindutva line, hate-driven mobilisation around the Ayodhya issue beginning in the mid-1980s, the Ram rath yatra of 1990, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the orgy of killing that followed. Aggressive, militant Hindutva was also the inspiration behind the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 - Independent India's worst, and uniquely, brutal state-supported butchery of a religious minority.

Now, the same man has returned to head the BJP at a time when it stands badly demoralised from, and almost totally unreconciled to, the two electoral batterings it has suffered in five months. The BJP is trying to present this act of panic and despair as a rescue-and-rejuvenation operation. The incongruity of the drums of BJP apparatchiks beating a jubilant beat as the party licks its wounds and its cadres futilely fight total depression will be lost on nobody.

In the low comedy now being enacted, the hero himself barely comprehends what has happened to the organisation, which was so confident of returning to power that it did not even bother to make contingency plans for another eventuality. National Democratic Alliance Ministers saw the Lok Sabha elections as but a short interregnum; they kept old arrangements going in anticipation of returning to power.

Advani's explanation as to why the NDA lost in 24 out of the 28 States, and why the BJP in particular performed badly virtually everywhere, is simply that the party strayed from its core "ideology" and neglected its karyakartas (grassroots workers), and that there was a "disconnect between good governance and electoral victory".

This explanation is question-begging: Why should there be such a "disconnect", even assuming, as BJP leaders later conceded, that the "India Shining" campaign was over-pitched? Does Advani believe that the voter acted irrationally by not recognising the NDA's record of governance and punishing it at the hustings? Why should the NDA be singled out for punishment? More important, the hypothesis detaches governance from the NDA's right-wing policies which became deeply unpopular because of their harmful impact on people's livelihoods and on the quality of democracy. The NDA lost both because its government was insensitive to India's agrarian crisis, growing unemployment and worsening food insecurity, and because it was perceived as Machiavellian and unacceptably manipulative. The BJP was mauled particularly badly in areas where the numerically large middle and lower orders of society rejected it - because it had nothing to offer to them.

Underlying this electoral performance is continued contraction of the social base of the BJP and its principal allies - a "structural" cause that will prove far more damaging in the long run than any temporary ups and downs in voting patterns. Such contraction is revealed in the recent Maharashtra Assembly elections and the byelections in key States too. In most byelections - a notable exception being the two Assembly seats in Gujarat - the BJP did badly or indifferently. In Uttar Pradesh, it lost its security deposit in seven out of 11 constituencies. In the bulk of these contests, it finished fourth or fifth.

There has been a serious erosion in the BJP's support-base in Uttar Pradesh as the Rajputs, who turned towards it in the 1990s, deserted it. State unit president Kesari Nath Tripathi admits as much. In large parts of the State the BJP's core support has been reduced to the Bania caste, with some Brahmins thrown in. More generally, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP has lost the appreciable support it once garnered among the Other Backward Classes especially through the Ram Janmabhoomi mobilisation of the 1980s and the "rainmaker" role of former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh at one time. In Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh did for the BJP what nobody else has been able to do: combine the appeal of Mandal (OBC politics) with kamandal (hardcore Hindutva).

In Bihar too, the BJP piggybacked on "the forward march of backwards" through the leadership of Sushil Kumar Modi and by allying with the Samata Party (stewarded by OBC leader Nitish Kumar, himself a Kurmi) and the Janata Dal (United) of Sharad Yadav. But that trend is now over.

In the Maharashtra Assembly elections, the BJP and its Hindutva ally, Shiv Sena, had a good chance to, and were expected to, better their Lok Sabha performance. (They won 25 seats against the Congress-led Democratic Front's 23.) The D.F. government had a poor record of governance, was marked by corruption, ineptitude and mishandling of drought relief. It changed its Chief Minister midstream, and was scarred by the Telgi scam.

The BJP-Sena managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, more than just reversing the ratio of seats won vis-a-vis the D.F. (119 against 146). Their combined vote lagged six percentage points behind the D.F's. This indicates a decisive rejection of the BJP-Sena. They were unable to break the hold of smaller parties and "independents" (mostly Congress-Nationalist Congress Party rebels) who together polled 24 per cent of the vote.

An analysis of the vote by social class, caste and gender suggests that the D.F. is better implanted among the poorer layers of the population, and among Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis, although the BJP-Sena does have significant OBC support (The Hindu, October 24). (In Marathwada and Vidharba, the Shiv Sena, for instance, emerged in the early 1990s as a major force by virtue of becoming an OBC foil to the Maratha-dominated Congress-NCP.) However, now this OBC base is eroding.

After the Maharashtra debacle, the BJP seems set to enter a period of decline, with few opportunities to recoup its losses. The next round of Assembly elections, due in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana, could result in a further setback to the BJP. In Bihar, Laloo Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress form a formidable combination. The BJP's former ally, the Janata Dal(U), is having serious second thoughts about joining hands with it. Even with an alliance, the BJP camp would find it hard to combat the RJD-Congress alliance. Without one, the BJP will be badly beaten.

In Jharkhand, Shibu Soren's "martyrdom" through his resignation and arrest will work against the BJP. And in Haryana, Bansi Lal's re-entry will help the Congress immensely. It seems fairly clear that Om Prakash Chautala will not ally with the BJP. And in the round that follows in 2006, with elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP is not even in the running!

The NDA is generally in bad shape throughout the country. Advani's reappointment as BJP president has produced disquiet in the already demoralised, rudderless and increasingly fragmented alliance. The very first signals that Advani sent out at his press conference and the National Council meeting of October 27 were strongly of the back-to-the-Hindutva-basics kind: with an emphasis on "trademark" issues such as a "grand" temple at Ayodhya, "unapologetic" defence of the Sangh ideology, attack on Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origins", warnings against a "demographic invasion by Bangladeshis" and the "baneful" influence of the Left, and criticism of "soft" and corrupt leaders inside the party.

Even more telling was Advani's very first trip out of Delhi on taking over as BJP president - to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh headquarters in Nagpur, where he addressed the Vijayadasami rally. Going by reports, Advani and sarsanghchalak Sudarshan discussed organisational matters pertaining to the BJP at length, including appointments to key offices.

Advani is clearly steering the BJP towards the RSS - not from a position of strength, but of weakness, following electoral defeats and the inability of the "second-generation" leadership to manage the party's affairs. These leaders do not lack ambition; they lack a social-political base, long-term vision and, above all, political strategy. They are intensely competitive vis-a-vis one another, align themselves with one of the top leaders, and have no compunctions about sabotaging their rivals' plans. Someone like Uma Bharati, for instance, never accepted M. Venkaiah Naidu's authority as party president and openly accused him of trying to scuttle her Tiranga yatra.

There is growing rivalry between some of these leaders: for instance, Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, or Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati. They all have good PR, and are adept at manipulative politics and shady deal-making like "micro-management" in elections - read, encourage your opponent's opponents to split votes through caste loyalties, and so on. Such tactics worked when the BJP was in the ascendant or had a prior advantage over its rivals. They no longer work. And no BJP leader has a clue as to what might work as a better substitute.

During its ascendant phase, the BJP could rely upon its NDA allies and at times use them to limit the RSS's influence and attempt to chart out a semi-autonomous course for itself. For instance, it told that the RSS it could not pursue "divisive" agendas like the Ayodhya temple, Article 370 and a uniform civil code because its allies would not accept that. Now, the RSS-BJP balance of power has changed. The BJP needs the Sangh desperately to rope in karyakartas, garner the larger Parivar's support, and do door-to-door campaigning for votes. Yet, there is no guarantee that the RSS can rein in Vishwa Hindu Parishad firebrands like Ashok Singhal from openly opposing and attacking the BJP.

Outside the Parivar, the situation is bleak. Several BJP allies and partners, including the Telugu Desam Party, the Akali Dal, and the J.D.(U), are alarmed at the BJP's turn to the temple. Some NDA parties - the Trinamul Congress, for instance - are in a state of disintegration: Many Trinamul MPs are queuing up to join the Congress. The once-mighty J.D.(U) and TDP have shrunk to a fraction of their size. Even the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is not quite comfortable with the BJP.

The NDA probably will not survive another electoral defeat in a major State. Advani is in effect faced with a near-impossible task: of reviving a party which no longer has the support of a social movement (as the Ram Janmabhoomi/anti-Babri Masjid campaign undoubtedly was) or the appeal of a growing force with whom it might be expedient for anti-Congress parties to ally. Six years ago, the BJP was an untested entity with the "novelty factor" in its favour. Now, it has been tried, tested and found wanting.

THIS raises a larger question: Did the BJP grow as it did over the last 15 years because it touched something deep in the "soul of India", and because it successfully combined religious identity and politics by forging social coalitions of diverse Hindu groups? Or did it rise meteorically by capitalising on its opponents' weaknesses and gaining from circumstances of others' making, including larger social and political processes?

This writer has always been inclined to the second hypothesis. The BJP inadvertently became the greatest beneficiary of the erosion of the Nehruvian paradigm and the long-term decline of the Congress from the mid-1980s onwards. It also gained from the global ascendancy of conservative forces following the end of the Cold War. It could capitalise further on one specific Indian phenomenon of the 1990s - the sway of neoliberal policies, the rise of an aggressive, ambitious, elite unburdened by Enlightenment values, and the growth of belligerent forces of nationalism and identity politics.

Now, however, other, more powerful social forces have asserted themselves, rooted among the plebeian layers of the population, for whom the agendas of equity and justice matter more than hollow identity politics based on religion or ethnicity. The Congress is in revival mode and the Centre-Left space in the political spectrum has considerably expanded. All this makes for further erosion of the BJP and greater turmoil within its ranks.

It is doubtful if any BJP leader has the analytical equipment or the theoretical framework to comprehend this and to devise appropriate strategies. Advani certainly has shown no signs that he does. He, and his colleagues, are likely to fall back upon hackneyed formulas and snake-oil remedies, especially Hindutva-inspired slogans which evoke little popular response, as the repeated recent failures of attempts to agitate the temple issue have shown. Tired slogans cannot prevent the BJP's long-term decline

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