The blame game in Mumbai

Print edition : July 16, 2004

The BJP calls its National Executive for an analysis of the electoral debacle based on "sound principles", but the session yields little more than an exchange of innuendoes among senior leaders.

in Mumbai

L.K. Advani leaving the venue at the end of the National Executive meeting.-

THE Bharatiya Janata Party is in a state of disarray and confusion. More than a month after losing power at the Centre, its leaders are still to figure out what led to the historic electoral setback. The search for the answers to the `riddle' of Elections 2004 continues within the party, even after its National Executive, the top policy-making body, met in Mumbai for three days from June 22 to analyse the results. At the meeting various perceptions were aired on why the party was routed, forcing party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and other senior leaders to defer serious analysis until the committee constituted to do a comprehensive review of the results submitted its report.

However, four mutually conflicting `macro' interpretations emerged despite Naidu's efforts to keep the introspection and analysis rooted in certain sound principles. But as the meeting progressed, the principles gave way to an exchange of innuendoes among senior leaders, and the inference was that the party could do nothing much to correct the `distortions'.

In what appeared to be an admission that projecting Vajpayee's personality was a mistake, Naidu said: "The virus of individualism has to be got rid of. Each one of us must realise that we are what we are because of the party. It is the party consciousness, party personality and party identity with which we should align our own individual consciousness, individual personality and individual identity." This philosophical underpinning of Naidu's latest catch-phrase, "Nation first, party next, self last", however, hardly helped to paper over the embarrassment of projecting Vajpayee's leadership against what he had described as "question marks" in the non-BJP combination of parties.

Whether by coincidence or by design, at the June 22 press conference of party spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the huge banner in the backdrop carried no pictures of Vajpayee, Advani and Naidu. Instead, the only pictures on it were those of former presidents of the Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

Naqvi admitted that the party had no option but to project Vajpayee's personality, as he was the party's prime ministerial candidate. For the record, the party sees no contradiction between Naidu's current campaign against individualism and its celebration of Vajpayee's leadership before the elections. Different situations call for different responses, which need not necessarily be contradictory, implied Naqvi. "The party continues to consider Vajpayee as its tallest leader," Naqvi hinted in response to the misgivings created by Naidu's speech. But this perhaps should not dissuade the party from reflecting on the merits of having run a campaign predominantly on the personality of Vajpayee as its trump card, relegating other issues to the background. Although Naidu made these remarks in a different context - while referring to organisation building - the emphasis he added to these remarks led to the inevitable inference.

Vajpayee and party president M. Venkaiah Naidu at the opening of the session on June 22. "The virus of individualism has to be got rid of," Venkaiah Naidu said, apparently hinting that the projection of Vajpayee's personality was a mistake.-VIVEK BENDRE

Naidu cleverly avoided being specific about his own role in the party's rout. He had promised that he would remain party president only until the accomplishment of Mission 2004 - the party's grand strategy to ensure success in the general elections - and would not accept any post or responsibility thereafter. With the Mission not accomplished Naidu found an excuse to continue as party president. He told the delegates at the meeting: "As the president of the party, I have to admit my responsibility not only for my individual actions, but also for the performance of the party as a whole." If one thought that resignation was the natural corollary of admission of responsibility, the BJP seemed to have no space for such lofty principles.

Naidu continued: "I sincerely thank my leaders as well as my colleagues for the confidence they continue to repose in me. I pledge to work with redoubled energy and strive my utmost to fulfil the high responsibility placed once again on my shoulders." Naidu did not specify how and in what manner he failed to fulfil his responsibility as party president, which leading to the debacle. "Each one of us, at an individual level, has to examine our own decisions and actions and weigh their contribution to the overall outcome of the elections," he told the delegates. Had Naidu, who once described himself as "everybody's president" in the party, followed his own precept, the party could have been spared the painful process of introspection and the embarrassment over the public display of finger-pointing and a covert blame game.

IT was left to Advani to explain the second significant reason for the debacle. It was, he claimed, the dichotomy between governance and politics. He said the BJP's record in governance and on the development front was very good, but perhaps its political strategy was not prudent. Elaborating, he said, the BJP neglected two types of constituencies - geographical and ideological. The fact that 50 per cent of the sitting BJP MPs lost showed, mostly, that they were remiss in their work and did not nurse their constituencies well. Their lack of coordination with local party units and activists resulted in the absence of enthusiasm and a common resolve among party workers to get them re-elected, he said.

Vignettes from the National Executive. Shahnawaz Hussein, Sushma Swaraj, Shatrughan Sinha and Hema Malini at the concluding session.-

The BJP's ideological constituency, according to Advani, includes its activists, the Sangh Parivar, and its social support base. "Somehow our political strategy and conduct during the past six years were not oriented to strengthening and enthusing our karyakartas (activists), our ideological parivar, or our social support base. Indeed, there was a sense of alienation in our Parivar and a weakening of the emotional bond with our core constituency," Advani told the delegates. He then pointed to this irony to drive home his thesis: The Parivar and the BJP's cadre, thus, did not recognise the government as the "Hindutva government", even though it was described so by others, including the BJP's adversaries.

Advani referred to the `dual membership' issue, which rocked the Janata Party government and resulted in its downfall in 1979. The leaders of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh, which had merged with the Janata Party, were accused of having dual membership, in the party and in the RSS, and, therefore, dual loyalties. The leaders rejected the suggestion to leave the RSS and this led to the birth of the BJP in 1980. Had the BJP leaders compromised on the issue and abandoned its core constituency for the sake of power, the BJP would not have been born, Advani suggested.

General secretary Pramod Mahajan and party vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi with BJP workers.-

Advani did not go into the specifics of the BJP's alienation from its ideological constituency. That job was left to his close followers. An Advani loyalist in the party offered this example: "In order to please Arundhati Roy and those who admire her public interest activism you cannot displease the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), which is part of our ideological parivar." Does it mean the BJP ought to have tried to appease people like Pravin Togadia and Ashok Singhal and cater to their divisive communal agenda even at the cost of the unity of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)? Neither Advani nor his loyalists were ready to rebut this inference at the Mumbai meet.

A senior BJP general secretary explained: "What Advani meant was that you should not go out of your way to please a constituency from which you do not expect any substantial electoral gains, at the cost of a core constituency, whose support is crucial for your political survival." This was the same strategy Narendra Modi appeared to have followed with success in Gujarat. Modi, the general secretary suggested, was conscious of the need to be sensitive to the Gujarati press but gave a damn to the English media because he believed it catered to very few Gujaratis, and even they were not BJP supporters. As the Gujarati press reflected the concerns of the BJP's core constituency, Modi's strategy was in tune with what the BJP's supporters wanted - a majoritarian bias in governance and politics. The BJP was reluctant to follow Modi's strategy elsewhere because of the misgivings it created among its secular allies. But with the party no longer in power at the Centre, it faces no such compulsion.

Newly appointed general secretary Rajnath Singh, Naqvi and Gopinath Munde.-

Advani perhaps believed that VHP and RSS cadre, and the BJP's social support base did not contribute sufficiently to the party's electoral performance because of the `alienation' caused by the compulsions of being in power. Clearly, it was a great turnaround for Advani, who had once suggested that large areas of governance have nothing to do with ideology. Although Advani has argued that the BJP should not be apologetic about its ideology, he always sought to maintain a subtle distinction between governance marked by the compulsions of managing a coalition and the pursuit of ideology. Now, it appears, he realises that such a distinction is inexpedient in electoral politics. Naidu's oft-repeated slogan `Ek haat me BJP ka jhanda, doosre me NDA ka agenda' (The BJP flag in one hand and the NDA agenda in the other) was thus given a quiet burial.

Advani's formulation was in direct contrast to how Vajpayee was perceived by vast sections of people - as a moderate and a liberal, he was considered the leader best suited to lead a multi-party coalition, by keeping the hard-line sections of the Sangh Parivar at bay. This perception helped Vajpayee stay on despite his failure to contain the 2002 Gujarat carnage. The mask of a liberal that Vajpayee wore has perhaps outlived its utility for the party.

Advani admitted that his analysis could be interpreted to mean that he was against the principle of rajdharma and the need for a government to treat all its citizens equally. He said: "In the given situation, however, we should have balanced our focus on governance and development with an equally sustained political focus on our core constituency - through constant dialogue at various levels. Individually and collectively, we did not pay as much attention to our core supporters as we should have."

Navjot Singh Sidhu with other leaders.-

Vajpayee praised Advani for his incisive analysis at the Mumbai meet. He confined his attack to those like party general secretary Pramod Mahajan, who believed that an election campaign run exclusively on the mass media and on a `scientific' basis by employing the principles of modern communication and management could help a party win. Thus, while the BJP ran a `high-tech' campaign, transmitting Vajpayee's appeal to the electorate through telecommunication channels such as the telephone and the mobile phone, the Congress had its ear to the ground.

Vajpayee spoke disapprovingly of Mahajan's electoral strategy without naming him. Vajpayee also felt that the two major achievements of his government trumpeted by the party - the telecommunication revolution and the building of national highways - did not really touch the poorer sections of the electorate. In the November 2003 Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the BJP spoke the language of the people - bijli, sadak, pani (electricity, roads and water) - and made significant gains. However, in the Lok Sabha elections such people-centric issues were relegated to the background, he felt.

Vajpayee could perhaps have added what he told party workers at the party's chintan baithak (brainstorming session) in Mumbai last year. Political power, he had said, had an intrinsic quality of reducing people's trust in rulers. Therefore, the party's conduct in government and as functionaries of the ruling party should be such as to neutralise this trust-eroding quality of power. However, as the delegates at the National Executive session, held in a seven-star hotel in Mumbai, discovered, there was very little they could have done to neutralise it, as they were so used to their luxurious lifestyles, far removed from the reality of the poor standards of living of the people with whom they were expected to build a rapport.

There was also the fourth factor, ably articulated by a party general secretary, who did not wish to be identified. He claimed that the BJP lost because it ran a `positive' campaign on the basis of the achievements of the NDA government. A purely positive campaign, he felt, was unlikely to fetch the party favourable returns in an election. He pointed out that the BJP won the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections because of a negative campaign, that is, by harping on the negatives of the Congress governments in those States. To sway the electorate, the party should focus on the `negatives' of its opponents rather than on its own strengths, he reasoned.

His analysis was in conflict with what Naidu stated in his address to the meeting. Naidu denied that the BJP would give up its focus on development, which the party had made an important plank in its campaign. He appealed to the activists to give overriding importance to the development-related issues in their "political and practical activities".

The committee set up by the party to examine the reasons for the debacle has a difficult agenda, balancing these conflicting perceptions. The committee has general secretary Sanjay Joshi (from Gujarat) as its convener and general secretary Shivraj Singh Chauhan (Madhya Pradesh), Sushil Kumar Modi (Bihar), Ananth Kumar (Karnataka) and Sudheendra Kulkarni, secretary to the party president, as its members. Whatever the findings of the committee, the direction of the party will be determined inevitably by the perception that secures the party's endorsement. If the mood in Mumbai is any indication, Advani's line is sure to overshadow other perceptions.

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