Party with differences

Print edition : August 17, 2002

In its quest to appear as a party with a commitment, the Bharatiya Janata Party ends up exposing the contradictions within itself and the coalition it leads at the Centre.

"YES, We are a Party with a Difference; and Ours is a Government with a Difference," proclaims the cover of the 'Delhi Pledge', released by the Bharatiya Janata Party, at its National Council meeting held in New Delhi on August 3. The meeting was called to ratify M. Venkaiah Naidu's choice as party president. Indeed, this in effect has been the BJP's election campaign theme ever since it started posing a serious challenge to the Congress(I) and the other political formations in its bid to rule from New Delhi.

BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani at the party's National Council meeting in New Delhi.-

The party's determination to fulfil its commitment to be different at a time when Lok Sabha elections are due only in 2004 and Assembly elections are not round the corner except in Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir - the two States where the slogan is of little political value to it - is obvious. The poor public perception about the party's performance in office has begun to haunt its leaders.

The Delhi Pledge claims that the people consider the BJP to be a party with a difference in terms of ideology, idealism, leadership and behaviour. It is the same faith of the people in the party and its leadership, more than any other cause, that brought the BJP, along with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to power in March 1998 and also helped them win a renewed mandate in 1999, the Pledge explains.

Having thus explained the reasons for the BJP's electoral victory, the Pledge, however, skirts the question whether its performance in office has matched the people's expectations. Observers may agree that the BJP is different from the other parties (with the sole exception of perhaps the Shiv Sena) in espousing the cause of Hindutva openly; but it has never been able to claim distinction with regard to the other qualities of idealism, leadership and behaviour.

The Pledge partly acknowledges this when it outlines five major tasks before the party, one of which is the removal of weaknesses through honest introspection and prompt self-correction; but ironically, it blames the Congress(I) and other parties for its own degeneration. It says: "The BJP has to perforce function in an environment that has, over the years, been polluted by a culture of scandals, and power games promoted by the Congress and other parties. We are aware that some of these negative traits and trends have also peripherally crept into the BJP's organisation and functioning in recent years. Our Party has had to pay a heavy price wherever these have assumed dominant proportions."

Then follows an honest analysis: "Factionalism; internal bickerings for posts, positions and party's tickets in elections, indiscipline; and a lack of adequate consultation with, and participation of karyakartas (party workers) in the party's functioning - these have impaired and imperilled some State and local units of the party organisation from time to time. The damage to the party's image in the eyes of the people is sometimes worsened by the breach of probity by some of our elected representatives."

However, the Pledge boasts that these negative traits have not infected the core of the party organisation and that the party retains the capacity to take remedial action whenever needed. It admits that such negative traits have contributed in a major way to the decline and decay of the Congress(I), but does not propose any remedial action to ensure that the BJP does not go the Congress(I) way. Instead, it leaves it to individual party workers to begin a process of self-assessment, self-discipline and self-correction as the "surest antidote to the ills plaguing the party organisation". Observers see it as a clear strategy of the present leadership to absolve itself of any responsibility for the party's decay.

Blaming the party workers for the ills plaguing the party and goading them to be active, as the Delhi Pledge does, help the BJP to paper over the real factors that have affected it image. These factors were all too apparent at the National Council meeting. There was no clarity in the speeches made by the leaders at the meeting about the strategy needed to bolster itself. Instead, the speakers exposed their eagerness to cut their rivals in the party to size.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who addressed the gathering, was clearly uncomfortable with the incipient demand that the party should go it alone in the next Lok Sabha elections, and win a majority of its own. In the presence of leaders of some of the BJP's allies, who were invited to the meeting, Vajpayee warned the BJP not to ignore the compulsions of consensus politics in its quest to have its own majority in Parliament.

OBSERVERS note that the demand within the BJP to fight the next elections alone is the fallout of the view expressed by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani at the BJP's National Executive meeting in Goa in April that the party need not be apologetic about its ideology, even while being part of a coalition. No doubt Advani in his speech at the National Council commended the NDA experiment as it strengthened federalism, but the subtle differences in the perceptions of Vajpayee and Advani were not lost on the audience. (The meeting was open to mediapersons.) While Vajpayee considered the BJP's quest for parliamentary majority on its own even while being part of the NDA as perhaps harmful to the interests of the coalition and the principle of consensus, Advani seemed to treat the coalition experiment as one more step to enhance the legitimacy and acceptability of the BJP's agenda. Advani also had to make amends for his indiscretion in leaving out Vajpayee's contribution to the party's current phase while chronicling the party's growth. He intervened later in the meeting to "correct" such an impression that his speech had created, and acknowledged Vajpayee's contribution during the current phase.

Other speakers, however, were not too subtle in expressing their differences with one another. Venkaiah Naidu said that the leaders must realise that two lakh villages were without telephone link while they could use mobile phones. Communications Minister Pramod Mahajan reminded Venkaiah Naidu that the government had provided four crore telephone connections in the last four years, as opposed to two crore connections provided since Independence. Mahajan also claimed that mobile connectivity had grown phenomenally. Venkaiah Naidu later denied any differences with Mahajan on the issue, but observers wondered whether Venkaiah Naidu was guilty of not projecting the government's achievements in the proper light. One of the justifications which Venkaiah Naidu offered for the leadership change in the party was that the old party set-up had failed to communicate the government's achievements to the people effectively.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj sought to counter criticism that the official media were not doing enough to project the government's achievements. Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie - in an apparent reference to earlier speakers such as the Finance Minister Jaswant Singh and the Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi - asked the BJP leaders to stop glorifying the country's strength and potential in general terms and instead concentrate on specific details that would make progress feasible.

Shourie also had a dig at Petroleum Minister Ram Naik, who refused to quit following the exposure of petrol pumps allotment affair (see following story) of petrol pumps. "We must prove that we are a government with a difference by our personal conduct", he said. There was no point in explaining away the charges because the Congress(I) had faced worse charges, he suggested, clearly hinting that Naidu's effort to throw mud at the Congress as a reply to the expose would not work. Alluding to Jaswant Singh's rollback of certain tax proposals announced by his predecessor Yashwant Sinha, Shourie said: "The government must not be forced to retract steps that badly needed to be taken. If the party must be a bridge between the government and the people, it must convey the reality before the government".

Although it was held in the backdrop of the petrol pump furore, the National Council meeting, surprisingly, omitted any specific reference to the controversy. The leaders probably felt that since the previous Congress(I) regime was no less guilty of such allotments the scandal was unlikely to cause any major embarrassment to the BJP. This was indicated by Advani. Using the cricket analogy, he said that the bowlers (meaning the Opposition parties) were weak, and if the government got "out", it would only be because of a "hit wicket".

AND signs of a "hit wicket" were available in plenty within the BJP as well as the NDA. With the Union Cabinet rejecting the Trinamul Congress' demand not to bifurcate the Eastern Railway zone, its leader Mamata Banerjee issued a 12-day ultimatum to the government to reconsider its decision, failing which it was apparent that her party would leave the ruling alliance. Expressing shock at the decision, she wondered whether the Prime Minister was in full control of the situation. She accused Railway Minister Nitish Kumar of wangling the Cabinet decision in return for his Ministry holding back the list of passengers in the coach that was gutted at Godhra on February 27.

The Samata Party was equally unhappy with the way its leader, Defence Minister George Fernandes, was being treated in the coalition. His boycott in Parliament by the Opposition parties every time he rose to speak caused him anguish, but the BJP and the Prime Minister appeared not too keen to resolve the issue, beyond expressing their disapproval of the Opposition's tactics. The Opposition parties said they would end the boycott only after the government stated why the Defence Minister was taken back into the Cabinet before the Venkataswami Commission, inquiring into the Tehelka expose, cleared his name. A meeting arranged by Speaker Manohar Joshi to resolve the issue was not held because by then the controversy over the petrol pump scam had overwhelmed parliamentary proceedings.

With the petrol pump scam creating a unity of sorts among the Opposition parties, it seems that Advani's cricket analogy may just be wide of the mark. Not only are there possibilities of a hit wicket (one of the Samata Party MPs, Prabhunath Singh, even demanded the Prime Minister's resignation saying that he should own moral responsibility for a scam of such huge proportions), but the bowlers too appear to have become stronger than ever before.

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