Frontline Volume 21 - Issue 26, Dec. 18 - 31, 2004
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COLUMN

Rudderless and in steep decline

PRAFUL BIDWAI

The BJP faces its gravest-ever crisis and it is clueless about how to deal with it. Its resort to the "divine", and to rabid communalism and crude nationalism will only accelerate its decline.

SANDEEP SAXENA

BJP president L.K. Advani.

EXACTLY one year ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemingly got its second wind. After suffering a series of routs in State elections over four years (barring post-pogrom Gujarat), it scored impressive victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Although its gains were magnified by the appearance of virtually straight fights against the Congress, in reality they were modest to moderate except for the tribal belts of the three States. Some of them were attributable to splits in the Congress' vote - caused, for instance, by the Gondawana Gana Parishad in Chhattisgarh, and the "Jat factor" stimulated by the promise of job reservations for that not-so-backward group in Rajasthan.

It is undeniable that straightforward anti-incumbency, especially related to "BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] issues" - bijli (power), sadak (roads) and paani (water) - influenced the elector's choice. But the BJP was quick to appropriate the BSP platform as its trademark identity and link it to "development". It claimed that the voter not just in Central India, but the whole country, would strongly support it and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners because they could be better trusted to tackle the `BSP' issues than the Congress and the Left.

Today, the BJP faces the public's wrath in the same three States on these very issues. In Rajasthan, a steep hike in electricity rates, coupled with faltering supply, has upset farmers and divided the party. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, discontent over the state of the roads and increases in water tariffs has taken the form of inner-party factionalism and bitter fights. The BJP seethes with rancour and strife whenever it is in power. Where it is not, it stands demoralised, confused and directionless.

Simply put, the "second wind" has run out. The BJP is tired and exhausted, if not quite spent. It has entered what could turn out to be a long period of serious decline - historic decline. Optimistically, this decline should be terminal.

Three characteristics of this decline stand out. First, seven months after the results of the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the BJP has not quite accepted, absorbed, or reconciled itself to them. It continues to be in denial mode and seems to regard the United Progressive Alliance as some sort of interloper or usurper. This signifies a grave leadership crisis. As argued in this Column (November 9), the party's bosses have no rational explanation as to why it lost the elections. Most of their explanations, after a number of chintan baithaks, are tautological or question-begging ones - we `deviated' from our (ideological) roots; or we ignored the Sangh Parivar or seasoned karyakartas (read, pracharaks). Some concentrate on tactical or contingent issues like overpitching of the "India Shining" advertising blitz, while minimising the serious, structural causes of the BJP-NDA's defeat.

Second, the BJP's social base has eroded virtually everywhere. The erosion has been especially severe in the Gangetic belt. In Uttar Pradesh, the party has been pushed to the number four or five position, and in Bihar, it is merely a little urban upper-caste rump, perhaps the smallest among the big to medium players. Elsewhere too, perhaps barring Karnataka, the BJP's base has shrunk. The "novelty" factor and the anti-Mandal sentiment on which it capitalised in the 1990s are no longer working in important States. The lack of oxygen once provided by power at the national level has seriously weakened the party as a whole.

A third feature of the BJP's decline is the greatly reduced - and still-fading - appeal of Hindutva. Going by the national voting pattern, the people have rejected sectarian politics based on religion and ethnicity and opted for inclusiveness and pluralism. A change of mood is perceptible even among the upper middle class, sections of which had embraced Hindu chauvinism as a fashionable ideology or in other ways trimmed their sails to the pro-BJP wind over the past six years.

This is admittedly a personal, subjective assessment, but it is corroborated by the fact that the BJP's attempts to create a furore over the sacking of partisan Governors or Sangh appointees in countless educational and cultural institutions have comprehensively failed to evoke sympathy. The long-overdue, slow and still-incomplete cleansing of bodies like the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) of communally tainted appointees has not shocked the intelligentsia, as the BJP hoped it would. There is a significant change even in the media, particularly in the north, which till not long ago glorified Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a great statesman and the virtual equivalent of Nehru, no less!

There is not much of a "normal" immediate prospect of the BJP being able to stem and reverse its decline. The electoral route is unlikely of help here. The BJP's chances in the coming elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu are not bright. And without a major, convincing or clinching victory of, say, the BJP-Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, it is likely that demoralised cadres and members will quit the party.

The BJP, it bears emphasis, is not quite a replica of the Jana Sangh as a tightly knit cadre party. Not only is it bigger and broader-based, it has recruited a lot of flotsam and jetsam - who are no cadres. The Jana Sangh functioned like a right-wing pressure group or a collection of small regional blocs. The BJP has national ambitions and something nearing an all-India presence, although that presence is not even remotely comparable to that of the Congress or the former Janata Party and its many avatars.

The BJP expanded rapidly in the Hindi belt beginning with the anti-Babri Masjid mobilisation of the 1980s. All manner of political entrepreneurs, operators and racketeers joined it because it was a growing force. Significantly, the party attracted, for the first time ever, non-upper caste groups, including Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and even tiny sections of Dalits thanks to its past success in conveying a pan-Hindu appeal and thus meeting some of these groups' "Sanskritisation" aspirations. The greatest surge in support for it in Uttar Pradesh came through the anti-Mandal sentiment prevalent among the savarnas (upper castes).

Now, the OBC-Dalit base has all but vanished except in pockets of Madhya Pradesh. And even the savarnas are deserting the party in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is especially true of the Rajputs who feel let down by the BJP's complicity in its ally Mayawati's treatment of Raja-bhaiya. The BJP has no agendas through which to begin to recoup any of its past social support-base.

THE Hindutva party's crisis then, is grave and multi-dimensional, ranging from ideology to strategy, and from leadership to organisation. Today's crisis is far worse than in 1984 when the BJP was reduced to a pathetic two Lok Sabha seats. The very fact that it had to drop its president and appoint Lal Krishna Advani after the Maharashtra election debacle speaks of panic, desperation and leadership bankruptcy.

Advani may be the last pious hope of some BJP leaders but he does not enjoy even half the moral authority that, say, M. Venkaiah Naidu or Bangaru Laxman wielded at the beginning of their presidential terms. The very first organisational initiative that Advani took turned out a complete fiasco. The so-called office-bearers' meeting saw Uma Bharati openly defy Advani and attack her "second-generation" colleagues. Advani had to suspend Bharati - an act of weakness on the part of a retreating, diffident leader.

Yet now, he may have no choice but to re-admit her into the BJP despite all her shenanigans, the drama she staged over accepting the position of general secretary, her many threats and acts of rebellion, her sulking visits to the Himalayas, and her latest letter allegedly against Pramod Mahajan. Readmitting Bharati, largely under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, would be an act of abject cravenness on Advani's part. (What a fate for the "Iron Man"!)

However, that will resolve little. Bharati will continue to create trouble and thumb her nose at the party's central leadership and its State bosses while claiming that she alone among the second-rank leaders has mass appeal, the support of party loyalists (at least in Madhya Pradesh) and, above all, an OBC identity.

It is indisputable that the rest of the second-rankers have no mass appeal or base. But Bharati's own claim is extravagant. Some people might attend her rallies out of curiosity about her fiery rhetoric, but it is doubtful if she has any stable support-base anywhere. None of her recent meetings has attracted large audiences. When she passed through Bhopal by train on her way to Chennai to see the Sankaracharya in early December, just a day short of the anniversary of her swearing-in as Chief Minister, only a handful of BJP workers came to see her at the station. Bharati felt so insulted that she sent them back. So much for mass following!

Devoid of leadership or political strategy, the BJP has taken refugee in two things: stunts of various kinds, and more menacingly, rabid Hindu communalism, with a return to the most vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Sangh's 80-year-long history. The stunts, including daily confrontations in Parliament over all kinds of issues, a contrived agitation over rising prices (mainly attributable to high oil prices), and the hurling of charges at the UPA of "appeasing" the minorities, and compromising the national interest through troops reduction in Kashmir and through repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and so on. None of this has struck a chord with the public. In fact, the BJP sounds like a shrill broken record. Nor has harping on Hindutva enhanced the BJP's appeal or acceptability to anyone. Just the contrary.

From the larger democratic perspective, the BJP's retreat into a hardline posture represents a terrible retrogression. It is a pity that India's largest Opposition party today is downright communal and Hindu-majoritarian. Worse, the BJP is increasingly passing into the grip of the RSS. This means that the Sangh will use it as a pawn to intrude illegitimately into politics without reconstituting itself as a political organisation or a proper party that is answerable or accountable to the public in some way.

The BJP will be increasingly tempted to use the more despicable methods in its bag of dirty tricks to mobilise political support - through prejudice, hatred, abuse, calumny and violence, directed primarily at Muslims and Christians. A foretaste of its approach is found in the RSS organ Organiser (December 12), where the editor has under his byline launched a particularly nasty attack on Muslims and the UPA's "Muslim-centric priorities". He chides Muslims thus: "Is there something wrong with the community that generates poverty, or the rulers who make only pronouncements, without bothering to implement them? Either way, the community is being laughed at and taken for a ride by politicians ... " He accuses the UPA of lacking "an unhealthy competition to beguile the minorities and to irritate the majority".

Such talk befits rank communalists. It is likely to become the preferred idiom of the BJP's routine discourse in the coming months - no matter whether the party uses Hindutva, Bharatiyata or "cultural nationalism" to describe its core ideology. It is unlikely that all the NDA allies will stomach this. They risk losing their image as parties that believe in pluralism and in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious India. The Alliance will probably split or disintegrate. They are already signs of this happening in States such as Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Haryana. Only the George Fernandes faction of the Janata Dal (United) might stay with a truncated, sickly, thoroughly communalised NDA.

The turn to hardline Hindutva will cost the BJP the loss of not just of allies, but its own credibility. Advani has already begun the process by claiming that the BJP is the "chosen instrument" of the divine to bring about India's "development" into a Great Nation. Politically, this discourse takes the party right back by half a century to Far Right fringe groups like the Rama Rajya Parishad (which soon become extinct). Conceptually, it is an even greater retrogression - of trying to derive authority from some "divine right". This should be repugnant to any modern, contemporary, forward-looking mind. It spells the BJP's retreat into the ultimate refuge of the super-nationalist - God. God help the BJP!

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