Saffron deflation

Print edition : January 10, 1998

AS India moves into general election mode with the notification of a strenuous campaign schedule, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems well set to snatch defeat from (what it, and initial media hype and propaganda, projected as) the jaws of victory. Such a defeat would, of course, be not absolute but relative: relative to the strategic objective of winning power at the Centre on the strength of a mild-to-moderate surge plus the assistance of a weird mix of hard core, fair weather, castaway and mostly unreliable friends (anything up to 18 parties or groups by P. Sainath's reckoning: see his contribution to the cover feature). Failure to achieve this objective would still leave the extremist party of the Hindu Right in the position of the principal Opposition party in the new Lok Sabha.

What is clear already is that the BJP will be unable, on its own strength, to reach a threshold 25 per cent share of the national popular vote, a threshold from which it will be able to dictate terms to the rest of the polity. And secondly, it will not be able to manage contradictions with its allies and fellow-travellers in a manner that can suggest even short-term stability. As Sukumar Muralidharan points out in the lead story, the BJP, given its extremism, divisive and disintegrative platform, and overweening ambition, seems to have come up against its chief existential problem: "As in an eccentric dialectical process, every forward movement brings the BJP up against a fresh element of resistance from quarters that are only now beginning to enter its political calculations."

"We are a party with a difference." "We are not opportunist." "We will combat corruption and the criminalisation of politics." "We can offer stability." "Give us a chance." These are the key promises designed to snare tens of millions of Indian voters into making a dangerous mistake. But l'affaire Uttar Pradesh, in the most recent instance, gives the lie emphatic to the first three slogans. The BJP is indeed a party with a difference: not even the Congress can hold a candle to the BJP when it comes to corrupting the democratic system and carrying horsetrading, opportunism and the criminalisation of politics to new frontiers. Sainath's contribution to the cover story, by focussing attention on the far-out opportunism involved in the BJP's search for friends and the rest of its tactics, provides a fresh insight into the nature of the 'stability' the BJP promises.

It would be a mistake to understand communalism and minority-baiting as a political mobilisation strategy to be necessarily fundamentalist. A communal political formation is capable of alterations of strategy, flexibility of course, and quickness of foot that can discomfit its opponents. But since an extremist movement needs moral rationalisation of its actions - both core, predictable actions and those that appear unusual and over the top - all the time to keep its flock together, the BJP gets into trouble as it comes closer to power and its camp becomes more mixed and heterogeneous.

On the one hand, there is no retrograde feature of the present socio-political system in India that is not represented among BJP & Friends: communalism, fanaticism, minority-baiting, high casteism, corruption, criminalisation of politics, opportunism, self-aggrandisement, support from big capital and landlords. On the other hand, the BJP seems unable to make up its mind on what kind of dispensation BJP & Friends will offer India should they make it to power at the Centre. Thus Prime Minister In Waiting A.B. Vajpayee speaks in one voice, party president L.K. Advani in another, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) threatens to do more awful things to places of religious worship, the command centre, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is ready to put into effect its divisive and disintegrative agenda, and BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj proclaims that all partners share the party's political perceptions in some degree, only to invite a stinging rebuttal from the Samata Party's George Fernandes.

The somewhat rattled responses within the BJP to the bare news that Sonia Gandhi, breaking with form, has decided to campaign for the Congress(I) in this general election underscore the point that the communal formation is on edge, its confidence is fragile, the electoral situation is fluid, and saffron euphoria is in a process of deflation.

To speak in terms of a saffron deflation is not to underestimate the menace of the Sangh Parivar. Inducting Sonia Gandhi into the election campaign cannot reverse the historic process of decline of the Congress which has provided the BJP its main chance. Nor can it do anything to restore credibility to the Congress' policies vis-a-vis the people of India. But the development could turn out to be a kind of spanner in the works for the communal formation. The reflexive communal innuendo and the pseudo-xenophobic reaction from the saffron brigade cannot hide the fact that the project it has in mind and store for India is profoundly inimical to its unity and civilised secular democracy.

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