The Bharatiya Janata Party's game plan to transform itself into an effective Opposition force with a cogent agenda and an action plan goes awry as its Hindutva-centred campaigns fail to evoke mass support.in New Delhi
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley, An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain For promis'd joy.- Robert Burns
A MONTH is often adequate to bring about stark and dramatic changes in the political climate and the fortunes of political players. The time is also enough for the best-laid plans of parties and politicians to go awry and spread distress and dismay instead of success and satisfaction. The Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been going through a similar experience in the past one month.
In the last week of August and in early September, the Hindutva combine sensed a great opportunity for a political revival and embarked on an intensive plan and action mode. Different segments of the combine launched agit-prop initiatives on several fronts covering a broad spectrum of political and ideological issues. The instruments used ranged from mass campaigns - the Uma Bharati-led Hubli-Jalianwala Bagh Tiranga Yatra, the `Andaman Satyagraha' led by Sushma Swaraj and the anti-price rise protest marches in all districts headquarters - to legislative and administrative interventions - the conclave of Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled States, the call at the conclave to formulate alternative "anti-terrorist laws if the Central government repeals the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) - and public debates on issues such as the alleged steep rise in the minority population in the country. An extremist Hindutva element was also thrown in in the form of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) agitation aimed at demolishing the tomb of Afzal Khan, a 17th century Muslim general, at Pratapgadh in Satara district of Maharashtra.
So vast was the array of topics and campaign formats unleashed by the combine that the Sangh Parivar and many political observers believed that the BJP and its theoretical mentors had finally struck upon a comprehensive Opposition game plan against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. But hardly a month into the agit-prop phase the BJP and its associates no longer seem to share this conviction. In fact, some of the BJP leaders seem to be so disillusioned with the components of the game plan that they have made a volte-face on the issues the game plan has highlighted. They have gone on record as saying that the "campaign issues may not have a decisive and positive impact in terms of popular appeal".
The single most important message of this contrasting mood and perception within the Sangh Parivar leadership is that the BJP has not been able to rectify its track record as a dithering Opposition party. It underlines the fact that the woes of the BJP and its ideological patrons in transforming themselves into an effective Opposition political force with a cogent agenda and an action plan continue unabated.
Two events that happened in a span of three weeks and involved senior BJP leaders Uma Bharati and Pramod Mahajan highlighted the change in the mood and perception of the Sangh Parivar leadership. The first event was Uma Bharati's campaign, where the mood was one of confidence, even elation, at having identified a "potent subject" to carry the Hindutva combine's political agenda forward. The second was an interaction between Pramod Mahajan and mediapersons in Delhi, which was marked by a realistic, almost dispirited, estimation of the campaign and its limitations.
On August 24, Uma Bharati after resigning as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh boarded a train in Bhopal with the stated purpose of surrendering before the magistrate's court in Hubli, Karnataka, in connection with a 10-year-old rioting case. Her departure was preceded by high drama with hundreds of slogan-shouting BJP activists thronging the railway station, some of them even lying on the track in a fervent show of support.
What gave the Sangh Parivar leadership's confidence a boost was not just the emotional show of support, but the issue on which she was going to surrender. The court had issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Uma Bharati in connection with a 1995 incident involving the hoisting of the national flag at the Idgah Maidan in Hubli despite a ban and making a provocative speech. The action, the court had pointed out, led to a riot and the death of four people in police firing.
A senior Hindutva ideologue, who spoke to Frontline a few hours after Uma Bharati began her journey, said the issue and the long-term campaign that would unfold would impart a new and decisive dimension to the Opposition politics played by the BJP. "The Congress-led government in Karnataka", he said, "has virtually given us on a platter an issue that not only helps us score major political points over the UPA but also resolve our own confusions on the Opposition agenda." This perception was shared by those at the helm of the Sangh Parivar and there was as much emphasis on resolving the confusion within as on scoring political points over the UPA.
Until the Uma Bharati case came up, the constituents of the Hindutva combine had divergent views on what should constitute the central theme of the Opposition agenda. The BJP had, from the early days of the UPA government, focussed on the issue of "tainted Ministers" in the Manmohan Singh Ministry and made the demand for their removal its main campaign theme. Three months into the campaign, the party had scored a success of sorts by compelling Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) leader Shibu Soren to resign from the Ministry.
Yet, the Sangh Parivar realised than the campaign and the manner in which it was carried out - by continuously disrupting proceedings in Parliament - had failed to evoke mass support. In this context, sections of the Hindutva combine, including the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), raised the demand that the BJP should go back to Hindutva-related, communally sensitive issues in order to whip up popular support. Sections of the BJP, particularly the moderate elements guided by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were not convinced about the efficacy of this tactic.
The Uma Bharati case, in the view of the Sangh Parivar leadership, resolved this conflict - it facilitated the pursuit of the "oust the tainted Ministers" campaign and the Hindutva agenda at the same time. Uma Bharati claimed the high moral ground by resigning after she had been charge-sheeted. This example, it was felt, could be cited to bring pressure on the UPA to drop its charge-sheeted Ministers. She was also a Hindutva icon known for her fiery activism during the Ayodhya temple agitation, which led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.
Uma Bharati, on her part, went into the campaign with a unique nuancing of the Hindutva agenda. She claimed that the Congress government had revived the case against her essentially because the party was opposed to the hoisting of the national flag at the Idgah Maidan. The reason: Congress president Sonia Gandhi was a "foreigner who had no respect for Bharat and its national flag". Deshi-videshi ki samajh khatm ho gayi hai (People have become oblivious of the fine line between national and foreign), was one of her favourite one-liners throughout the campaign. And now it was her mission to set this right.
That this was not an off-the-cuff remark of a maverick politician became clear when senior BJP leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani came up with a new exposition of Hindutva as nationalist fervour or Bharatiyata. In short, the BJP and its associates saw the Uma Bharati case as a turning point in the development and implementation of an Opposition game plan.
The days following her August 24 trip to Hubli witnessed the unravelling of several initiatives in quick succession, all of which underscored the themes of Bharatiyata and the political, moral high ground that the BJP and the Hindutva combine sought to take. These included a conclave of BJP Chief Ministers, the renewed campaign to "protect the honour of the late Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarakar and the debate on the Census 2001 data.
INDICATIONS from the Sangh Parivar during the early stages of these agit-prop initiatives pointed to a firm conviction that it has carved a politically perfect script. In organisational meetings, leaders of the BJP and other organisations raised visions of recapturing the spirit of the Hindutva campaign of the early 1990s, when the Ram temple agitation was at its peak.
But as the campaign progressed the realisation dawned that 2004 is not 1990. Uma Bharati's Tiranga Yatra after her release in Hubli was a far cry from Advani's Rath Yatra in 1990. Politics, some leaders of the Parivar admitted in private, seemed to have undergone a dramatic transformation in 14 years. It was this realisation that came out predominantly when Pramod Mahajan interacted with the media in Delhi on September 17. He made it clear, as the leader in charge of the BJP's campaign in the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, that the issues raised in the new "national campaign" would not figure centrally in the electioneering. Mahajan asserted that the BJP's principal focus would be on development issues and the "misrule of the Congress-NCP government in the State".
Of course, Mahajan did not say that the attempt to string the "oust the tainted Ministers" campaign and the Bharatiyata agenda together was a failure. But it is a natural question, why the party and its associates chose not to highlight these themes after such a high-profile campaign across the country. The question is all the more pertinent because the Maharashtra elections is the first major political battle of the BJP after its shock defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. If a national campaign brings no tangible benefits in terms of real political battles, what is the point in launching it in the first place? This is the question sections of the Sangh Parivar ask, but there is no clear answer. For the moment, however, the BJP and its associates are going through the motions of carrying on with Bharatiyata agenda and the Tiranga Yatras and the Andaman Satyagraha.