The BJP's national executive meeting was expected to define the role of the party of government, but the event only served to highlight a certain identity crisis as it presents itself as a "New BJP".
THE first meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party's national executive since the party came to power at the Centre was held in New Delhi on April 11 and 12. It was the last meeting to be presided over by party president L.K. Advani, who served three two-year terms in that post, the last two successively. Under Advani's presidency, the party witnessed remarkable growth, primarily on the strength of the Ayodhya movement, which he launched and led. The party's strength in the Lok Sabha grew steadily from two seats in 1984 to 84 seats in 1989 to 118 seats in 1991 to 180 seats in 1998. The meeting, therefore, was an occasion for the national executive members to thank Advani for transforming the party and bringing it to power in New Delhi. It also served as an occasion for the party to look back on its ideological strengths and weaknesses, its performance in the recent general elections and its experience so far in heading a coalition Government at the Centre.
However, the meeting, which was widely expected to define the BJP's role in its new incarnation as the leader of a multi-party coalition, only served to highlight the party's identity crisis. In his opening remarks, Advani spoke of a "New BJP". "The New BJP," he declared, "will be guided not by the issues of yesterday, but by the agenda of tomorrow. The New BJP will not only be the party in governance, but the natural party of governance."
Invoking a familiar Hindutva metaphor, he spoke of building a "magnificent Rashtra Mandir", a Temple of Nationhood, "in which all the children of Bharat Mata can live in peace, prosperity, and security, irrespective of their caste, religious or regional affiliations." This, he claimed, was what the BJP had all along been saying during its campaign for a Ram temple at Ayodhya.
In respect of the three controversial issues that are on the BJP's agenda but which were not incorporated in the coalition's National Agenda for Governance - namely, Ayodhya, Article 370 of the Constitution and a uniform civil code - Advani made a key distinction between Government and nation. The Government, he declared, would be guided only by the National Agenda. "However," he added, "as far as the nation is concerned, I feel that the right approach is to continue a peaceful, non-confrontationist and constructive debate and dialogue on the three issues."
Advani also conceded a point that was obvious to many: that "these three issues have been particularly significant in shaping our ideological identity." Ever since it released its manifesto for the recent elections, the BJP had repeatedly claimed that its commitments in respect of the three issues were not particularly significant and that all its electoral promises were equally important for the party.
Having said this, Advani added that good governance in many spheres had little to do with ideology - any ideology - except the overriding principle of national interests. "Indeed, good governance in most spheres of national life becomes possible only when they are de-ideologised and de-politicised," he said. "Thus if any issue, in spite of its inherent validity, acquires a strongly ideological character - in fact, so strong an ideological character as to make coalition governance, and hence stable governance, difficult - it is only proper to leave it out," he said.
Other leaders of the BJP reiterated in private what Advani had said: that the BJP had not abandoned its commitments in respect of the three issues but that as a concession to the party's allies they were not incorporated in the National Agenda.
This, however, does not answer the question whether "good governance" and the core ideological promises made in the manifesto are compatible with each other. Advani seemed to suggest that the compulsions of heading a coalition government had caused the BJP to put these issues on the backburner.
The party, however, is not keen to dwell on what its stand would be if it acquires a majority on its own and forms a stable government at the Centre, or what its position would be if it finds itself in need of allies in future as well. "Who knows?" said Kushabhau Thakre, who was elected the new party president (see separate story). "The situation may change in the coming days, and these three issues may not be controversial at all."
THE political resolution adopted at the meeting, however, did not quite reflect Advani's references to a "New BJP" or his perception that the general elections had yielded a fractured verdict and that the BJP had secured a clear mandate to govern. The resolution said that Verdict 1998 was a positive mandate for "stable government and able leadership", which the BJP and its allies were in a position to provide.
In his concluding address, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee appealed to the party cadre to expand the party's base and reach out to the weaker sections and enable the BJP to come to power on its own. Observers interpreted Vajpayee's statement as an admission that he was facing pressures from allies in running the coalition Government.
The executive reviewed the party's performance in the elections. Although Advani called for a dispassionate analysis of the party's record in various States, the discussion was at times marked by rancour. Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat offered to resign owning moral responsibility for the party's debacle in the State, but his offer was turned down by Advani. Shekhawat reportedly expressed unhappiness over the pattern of distribution of the party ticket, which he said was done at the behest of "hardliners" in the party. On the other hand, his critics in the State unit of the party blamed him for not involving party workers and MLAs in the task of government. Significantly, Shekhawat has been postponing a long-anticipated expansion of his Council of Ministers for fear of triggering dissent.
The executive members felt that the main reason for the poor performance of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra was lack of coordination between the alliance partners; the strategic alliance fashioned by their adversaries too contributed to the combine's defeat, they reasoned. However, the review report of the election, circulated at the meeting, did not identify any deficiencies; instead, it found some comfort in electoral statistics - percentages of votes secured and the proportion of seats.
THAKRE was declared elected unopposed on April 14 as party president. His name was proposed by several leaders, including Advani and Vajpayee. Thakre was Advani's choice for the post, but Vajpayee had some initial reservations about it. According to sources close to Vajpayee, he would have preferred Shekhawat, whose experience in running a coalition Government in Rajasthan for years now would have helped the fledgling Government in New Delhi. Shekhawat too seemed keen, but his chances were rated dim since the party had fared badly in Rajasthan in the recent elections under his leadership. According to observers, electing him president under these circumstances would have sent out the wrong signals; also, setting under way a process of choosing a successor to Shekhawat would have intensified factional rivalries.
Senior vice-president Sunder Singh Bhandari, who has a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background, was another possible contender, but his candidacy did not really take off. Bhandari is considered senior to Thakre, but is known to be candid rather than diplomatic in dealing with party workers and the media.
Although factionalism in the BJP unit in Madhya Pradesh intensified under Thakre's leadership, he built up and strengthened the party not only in his home State, but also in other States whose affairs he oversaw in his capacity as the party's general secretary (organisation) at the BJP's Central Office.
One of the tasks before Thakre after he formally takes over from Advani at the party's National Council meeting in Gandhinagar on May 3 will be to help the BJP-led Government at the Centre survive in office. On April 6, the 18th anniversary of the BJP's founding, party workers took a pledge to cooperate with the Government in "bringing about a change in the social order"; to work to "free India from the scourge of bhay (fear), bhookh (hunger) and bhrashtachar (corruption)"; and not to do anything that would bring a bad name to the Government.
Just how seriously that pledge will be taken is not clear, particularly in the light of rather facetious remarks made at the national executive meeting by Pramod Mahajan, the Prime Minister's political adviser (who, along with Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Jaswant Singh, was administered the oath of secrecy in an unprecedented step to avert a controversy over their securing access to government files without taking the oath).