The mailed fist is showing

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Cabinet reshuffle and the BJP's organisational recasting represent a strong shift to the Right; Hindutva is no longer a "hidden agenda".

JULY 2002 will go down in India's history as a period when power equations in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) significantly shifted in the Bharatiya Janata Party's favour, and its Right wing consolidated its grip over the party apparatus. By opting for a hardline Hindutva-based strategy, the BJP has narrowed its differences with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the 200-odd front organisations that are said to compose the Sangh Parivar. But it risks narrowing its social base and electoral appeal, thus reducing its ability to push its own agenda within the framework of coalition politics. It risks political decline.

First, consider the biggest Cabinet change: the elevation of the hawkish Lal Kishen Advani as Deputy Prime Minister. It does not merely "formalise", as Advani says, his de facto status during the past three years; it alters the balance of power inside the Cabinet. Until recently, there were other potential contenders for the de facto Number Two slot, including Defence Minister George Fernandes. The fact that Fernandes himself advocated Advani's elevation changes this situation. Advani will now play an increasingly competitive role vis-a-vis Vajpayee in giving policy direction to the NDA and in dealing with the nuts-and-bolts management of the Cabinet - for the details of which Vajpayee has neither the inclination nor the aptitude.

Even if Advani does not set up a separate Deputy Prime Minister's Office, as rumoured, he will tend to supplement and later supplant Vajpayee's unique hub-and-spokes relationship with the NDA's non-BJP constituents. In this relationship, Vajpayee matters to each one of them more than they matter to one another. Two years ago, or after the Tehelka expose, and even when the Gujarat pogrom broke out, various NDA leaders would cite Vajpayee's leadership of the Alliance as the reason for their staying on within it despite the communal BJP's dominance. This held true in the case of George Fernandes, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Mamata Banerjee or Sharad Yadav. Today, Vajpayee's unique role has eroded. All NDA constituents must contend with Advani too - all the more because of Vajpayee's failing health, poor attention-span, and lack of sensitivity to detail.

After the reshuffle, there is only one senior BJP Minister left who could be considered personally loyal to Vajpayee rather than to Advani: Jaswant Singh. He has been shifted from a portfolio where he had relatively greater freedom (and in which he invested heavily) to one where he is constrained by a host of demands and pressures and where, going by all economic indicators, he will be hard put to succeed. BJP politicians who come from the party's organisational wing hold most other Cabinet portfolios. Advani has always had far closer relations with them than Vajpayee. Indeed, it would be fair to characterise Advani as the "organisational man", and Vajpayee as the leader of the BJP's governmental wing. Advani's elevation thus raises the weight of the organisational wing, which is itself closely, organically, linked to the RSS.

This marks an appreciable change in intra-BJP and intra-NDA power arrangements. Until recently, Advani's elevation to the post would have been unacceptable to most "secular" allies of the BJP who set much store by Vajpayee's "soft" image and regarded him as the NDA's USP (unique selling proposition). Advani's promotion would have normally been negotiated over a period of time through informal consultations amongst NDA constituents. The fact that there was no pretence of consultation shows how little respect the BJP has for its "secular" allies. It treats them with considerably greater contempt today than it did six months ago.

The principal reason for this is the pusillanimity of the allies in the face of the Gujarat massacre. They retreated from their own demand for Narendra Modi's dismissal. Once the "secular" allies turned tail over the worst pogrom in independent India's history, the BJP knew that it could dictate terms to them. This is precisely why the allies accepted Advani as Deputy Prime Minister without a murmur and why Mamata Banerjee's tantrums have failed to elicit a strong response from Vajpayee.

This is also the reason why the very first announcement made by M. Venkaiah Naidu upon being nominated party president was that the BJP would emphasise its "distinct" identity - through the Hindutva trident of the Ram temple, Article 370, and the Uniform Civil Code. On July 6, Venkaiah Naidu declared that the BJP would not be "apologetic" about marching with the trident in one hand and the NDA agenda in the other. He was addressing party cadres on the birth anniversary of Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.

A secondary reason for the shift in the BJP-allies equation is the growing erosion of joint decision-making. These days NDA meetings typically exclude regional leaders such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's M. Karunanidhi, the Akali Dal's Prakash Singh Badal, the Biju Janata Dal's Naveen Patnaik, and to an extent, the Telugu Desam Party's Chandrababu Naidu. They are composed largely of the members of the Council of Ministers, who are far more concerned with their governmental responsibilities than their individual parties or State constituencies. Here too, the "secular" allies have allowed themselves to be marginalised by the BJP, despite its disastrous performance in recent elections, and its growing crisis of credibility, especially post-Gujarat.

The BJP is now sharply demarcating itself from the rest of the NDA. It is determined to contest the coming elections to 10 State Assemblies largely on its own. One of its senior leaders has been quoted as saying, "Self-interest is paramount at this point. If the BJP doesn't win at least half the States, it will be left with no bargaining capacity vis-a-vis the NDA..." No NDA leader has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the BJP.

The reorganisation of the BJP's team of office-bearers reflects its intention to acquire a new hardline political image. The office-bearers' composition reflects the strong stamp of the party's core Hindutva-based approach with some degree of tokenist plural representation of social groups. Thus, three general secretaries' posts have gone to RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshi, and former Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leaders Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley - all known for their tough Hindutva positions. Of the other two posts, one bears a Muslim face (Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi) and the other a feminine/Dalit visage (Anita Arya).

The key men to watch among the secretaries and vice-presidents are relatively young people such as Shivraj Singh Chauhan, L. Ganesan and Gopinath Munde, besides RSS veterans such as Pyarelal Khandelwal and Kailashpati Mishra, who had to be accommodated for regional or factional considerations.

In general, Venkaiah Naidu's team bears the strong impress of the new-generation RSS swayamsevaks and former pracharaks, many of them with an ABVP background. Among the key RSS men who have been "officially" appointed to the BJP are Bal Apte and Sanjay Joshi. The key role in selecting the team, say close Sangh watchers, was played by Madandas Devi and Advani. Devi is not only the RSS' official liaison man in the BJP; he is emerging as a contender for a bigger job within the RSS itself.

Thus, the recast of the BJP leadership duly reflects the organisational dominance of the RSS. The evolving policy orientation of the BJP, and its political mobilisation strategy also mirror the same influence. At this fundamental level, the long-established role of the RSS as the Jan Sangh-BJP's ideological mentor, political master and organisational gatekeeper remains unchanged. But this does not mean that the BJP has no relative autonomy in day-to-day matters. It does. It also does not imply that the RSS top bosses can order Vajpayee or Advani to do whatever they want. There is a certain hierarchy among ex-pracharaks/swayamsevaks. Vajpayee is senior in the hierarchy to K.S. Sudarshan and to most other Sangh leaders barring Rajendra Singh. Besides, there is some jockeying for influence between the RSS and the BJP. They can differ on specific issues. A major example is Jammu and Kashmir, on whose trifurcation the two have divergent positions, which might create rivalry on the ground should the RSS's plans for a pro-division "front" in Jammu and Kashmir fructify.

Differences notwithstanding, the BJP-RSS relationship remains unaltered in its foundational aspects. Belying the wishful predictions of some BJP supporters, the BJP has not severed its umbilical cord with the RSS, or "Congressified" itself, nor become a "mainstream" centre-right party. On the contrary, it has yielded increasingly to the RSS pressure to adopt a pro-Hindutva line, exerted partly through the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Neither the growing flabbiness and opulent lifestyles of its cadres-turned-Ministers, nor their deepening involvement in shady deals, nor their advocacy of globalisation and ultra-conservative neo-liberalism, has prevented them from remaining Hindutva zealots.

The brazen defence by BJP leaders of the Gujarat massacre and of Narendra Modi (witnessed in Goa in April, especially among the younger leaders) bears testimony to this. As does Venkaiah Naidu's new slogan of marching with two different agendas in two hands, which will effectively mean playing up the "divisive issues" that supposedly separate the BJP from the NDA.

The BJP is likely to go into electoral battle with a saffronised self-image, which will remain undiluted by the token presence of a few Muslims, women, members of Other Backward Classes and so on. This is likely to erode whatever remains of its appeal among the plebeian classes while strengthening its votes among the upper-caste upper class, primarily urban, strata that constituted the classic constituency of the Jan Sangh (which, at its best, only managed to get about a third of the seats that the BJP commands).

The BJP is probably underestimating the degree of unpopularity that it has courted through rampant misgovernance: poor economic performance, combined with confrontationist politics, a bad law and order situation, the mess in Kashmir and the northeastern region, corruption and inefficiency, and callousness towards ordinary people. The NDA's is undoubtedly the most conservative government in independent India's history. Its burden of incumbency is so heavy that the BJP has just lost three municipal bodies to the Congress in central Gujarat - precisely the region where the anti-Muslim violence was at its worst and polarised society communally.

Contributing to the BJP's likely political decline is the internal tension between those who stand for the shop-worn Jan Sangh agenda, and those who (like Jaswant Singh or Pramod Mahajan) want to promote rapacious and grossly unethical forms of capitalism through predatory globalisation and privatisation. This unresolved tension will grow as the economic situation worsens, as is likely, aggravated by external factors such as the grim global corporate crisis following the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

THREE developments could conceivably save the BJP from likely decline: an early election in Gujarat which it wins and touts as Hindutva's vindication while calling mid-term elections nationally; a national-level alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which can transfer Dalit votes to the BJP outside Uttar Pradesh, as well as within; and another confrontation with Pakistan that almost leads to war, in which the Vajpayee government can claim victory.

The Gujarat situation is far from conducive to free and fair elections. The people have not recovered from the pogrom. The State is marked by extreme communal polarisation, intimidation of the minorities, widespread insecurity and rampant lawlessness. Those responsible for the massacre of 2,000 citizens are still at large. The State machinery, under the control of rank communalists, continues to terrorise further the pogrom's victims. The voters cannot possibly exercise a rational choice. Holding elections till normalcy and the rule of law are fully restored and the culprits are prosecuted, will be a travesty of democracy.

The BJP is capable of such a travesty. It must be staunchly opposed by all secular parties, who must immediately send a joint delegation to Gujarat to study the situation there and make a representation to the Election Commission on it. Similarly, they must do everything they can to demand that New Delhi start normalising relations with Pakistan and demobilise the border build-up. The BJP must not be allowed to hijack and distort the national agenda, just as it must be prevented from playing communal politics.

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