In Gandhinagar, at a sombre conclave, the BJP weighs its problems and prospects - and looks for change.
PARIVARTAN NAGAR. The Bharatiya Janata Party chose this name for the venue of its National Council meeting in Gandhinagar on May 3 and 4, the first since it assumed power in New Delhi, apparently to announce its transition from an Opposition party to the party in government. The change (or parivartan), party leaders asserted, would not be just political; they said the party was committed to bringing about social and economic changes as well. Yet, the euphoria that marked the party's plenary session in November 1995, when L.K. Advani assumed office as party president for a second term, was clearly missing. There were no slogans, and the response of the 2,500 delegates (elected representatives and office-bearers at all levels) to the installation of Kushabhau Thakre as the new president was lukewarm.
The reasons for this were not far to seek. At the National Executive meeting held on May 2, ahead of the National Council meeting, outgoing president Advani had spoken about the circumstances that deprived the party's Government a period of honeymoon. He said: "The first six weeks of being in power have been a sufficient reminder of the extremely challenging situation we are faced with. The birth pangs of the 'new' emerging from the womb of the 'old' have not been inconsiderable. But, perhaps, we should be grateful to the Almighty that he has tested our mettle in our infancy, and taught us the lessons of vigilance and survival early in life. The trials and tribulations of the first six weeks have steeled our resolve to stabilise and strengthen ourselves. We shall overcome. We shall do so by virtue of our performance in government under the leadership of Vajpayee."
What Advani meant was not difficult to fathom. The periodic threats from the BJP's southern ally, Jayalalitha, the resignations of "tainted" Union Ministers such as Sedapatti R. Muthiah of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Buta Singh and the de facto Deputy Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Sukh Ram (of the Himachal Vikas Congress), and the slanging match between AIADMK leaders and Union Ministers Ramakrishna Hegde and Ram Jethmalani have embarrassed the party and tarnished considerably the image of the coalition Government. Predictably, this situation was uppermost in the minds of the delegates. Several members requested Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, to ask the allies, particularly the AIADMK and the Lok Shakti, to express their differences at the coordination committee meetings and not at public forums.
The outgoing National Executive approved the Government's response to Jayalalitha's demand on the exit of the Ministers. There was considerable appreciation of the fact that the Prime Minister sought legal opinion on the status of the cases against Hegde and Jethmalani. The ministers had given their replies to the Prime Minister after Jayalalitha made certain allegations against them.
Thakre took over amidst the chanting of Vedic hymns. The implication of the transfer of leadership was clear from the speeches of Advani and Thakre. Advani, making his last speech as party president on May 2, attributed the party's phenomenal growth to its ideology of nationalism. He referred to the struggle against the Emergency (by the party's earlier avatar, the Jan Sangh), and the campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, which he considered was a commitment to the concept of cultural nationalism, "without which not only the meaning of secularism but the very identity of India remains undefined". The other factors that helped the party's growth, he said, were the campaign for the full integration of Kashmir with the country (read the demand to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, which confers special status on Jammu and Kashmir), the espousal of samajit samarasta (social harmony), insistence on swadeshi, and the struggle against corruption in high places.
Curiously, Advani did not even make a passing reference to the demand for a uniform civil code. At the National Executive meeting held in New Delhi in April, he had talked of a "new BJP" to address the demands of governance. He later clarified that the call for a "new BJP" did not mean jettisoning the BJP's stand on core issues such as Ayodhya, Article 370 and uniform civil code. The party leaders then interpreted the statement as meaning that the party would not press these issues, at least until it had the requisite majority in the Lok Sabha.
In contrast, Thakre, in his first presidential address to the National Council, did not refer to these issues. "There is no need to repeat our stand on these three issues on every occasion" was the response of some National Council members when asked whether the omission of these issues in the new president's address signified a change in the party's approach. The total absence of any mention of these issues in Thakre's speech has, however, surprised political observers and heightened speculation about the party's real intentions.
Thakre devoted a large part of his 32-page address to other issues. He sought to dispel misgivings that the BJP was remote-controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, saying that all organisations inspired by the RSS were free to take their own decisions because the idea of centralised control was non-Hindu. Having said this, he stated: "The RSS expects us to devote ourselves to the service of the nation. It expects us to lead a simple life, not an ostentatious life. It expects us to be men and women of character and principles, fired by idealism." This remark, coming as it did from a man who has all along led a simple life, was apparently intended as a warning to those persons in the party who lead lavish lives and enjoy the levers of power.
Thakre warned: "Now that we are in power, we should not think that our work is over. That would destroy the organisation. We have before the us example of the Congress fading away because of such an attitude. The organisation should not become a part of the establishment."
Thakre also outlined the party's role in the new circumstances: one of providing the Government with direction and perspective, and serving as a bridge between the Government and the masses. "The party must become a vehicle that can carry to the Government reliable feedback. If Ministers use party organisation as an alternative source of information, then not only will they get a perspective different from that provided by the bureaucracy, but it will make bureaucrats more alert."
Thakre spoke of "positive secularism" arguing that the state cannot be irreligious, in the sense that it must have a dharmic base, neither should it be seen to be biased in favour of or against any religion, he said. He accused the BJP's opponents of having twisted the meaning of secularism either to suit their perception that the state should be irreligious or to camouflage their vote-bank politics. He urged the minority communities to judge the BJP not by what its detractors said, but by what it did.
On internal security, Thakre said that the Tamil Nadu Government appeared to be unable to cope with the problem of terrorism posed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. He asked the Centre to identify the culprits behind the incidents of terrorism in the country and make the facts public. He appreciated Advani's promise to introduce multi-purpose identity cards for all citizens.
On external security, he appealed to the Government not to succumb to Western pressures on the production and deployment of the Agni and Prithvi missiles. "It is our duty to resist any form of international blackmail that concerns national security," he said. He warned that by test-firing the Ghauri intermediate range surface-to-surface ballistic missile, Pakistan had reminded India that history could be repeated. (Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri was the first Islamic invader to attack Delhi in 1191.)
Thakre enunciated the principle of samanvay ("harmonisation" and "integration") saying that this would help both India and the BJP grow. "Samanvay should not be seen as merely a prescription for accommodation and hence the path of the weak," he added. India, he said, could realise the strength of its diversity only when it recognised the underlying unity. "It is equally important that no section of the people should adopt a dog-in-the-manger attitude," he warned.
The political resolution passed at the meeting described the BJP as the principal and stable pole of Indian politics. The other pole, it said, was the Congress and in the new political order, alignments could take place only around these two poles. The National Council resolved to expand and consolidate further alliance. The party should create awareness and mobilise mass support for the National Agenda for Governance, the resolution said. It called upon the Government to make swadeshi and swavalamban (self-reliance) the twin keys to India's economic revival. It urged the Government to allocate 60 per cent of Plan funds for agriculture and rural development.
It appealed to the minority communities to take a decisive step and break free of the practitioners of vote-bank politics and join hands with the BJP. The resolution urged the Government to inquire into the cases of corruption that have shaken the "collective conscience of the nation" and punish the guilty without further delay. The National Council called upon all BJP Ministers to declare their assets and liabilities. "Ours is a party with a difference; let our Government also be a Government with a difference," the resolution declared.