BJP's problems and prospects

Print edition : October 08, 2004

An election poster of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Mumbai. If the BJP were tempted to revert to its old ideology and strategy, it would merely isolate itself from the mainstream of Indian politics. - VIVEK BENDRE

Over the years, the Bharatiya Janata Party has diluted its ideology to retain power. If the party is to survive now as the leader of an alternative national formation it has to continue to change, and not revert to its old ideology of an extreme form of nationalism.

THE Congress had scored an ideological victory against its main rival before the battle for Lok Sabha seats started; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began the process of "Congressisation" years ago and stole the Congress' ideological robes to project itself as the real Congress that is different from the one led by a foreign woman. L.K. Advani declared the BJP was what the Congress had been under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and that "Vajpayee was regarded as a natural Prime Minister by the people, as Pandit Nehru was". The moderation in the stand of the BJP, reflected in its manifesto and the speeches of its leaders, was obviously motivated, above all, by an urge for power. Advani conceded that with the ideology of the Jana Sangh, it could not have come to power in a vast country like India and that it had changed its thinking and diluted its ideology to retain power.

This underlines the sobering and liberating role of power, the point that has been missed by eminent political philosophers like M.N. Roy, Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave. They believed that the urge for power was the source of all evil in public life and condemned party politics as a "scramble for power". This school of thought denuded Indian politics of much moral and intellectual talent.

Any party that aspires for power must modify its ideology to suit the Indian reality. The most important aspects of this reality are the country's plurality and diversity. The BJP believed in a homogenised and uniform nationalism, an extreme form of the ideology. This was considered to be a threat to the integrity and democracy of India and hence was rejected in the elections. The party then tried to accommodate all types of diversities in the country, based on caste, religion and ideology. It came to terms, for instance, with the Mandal Commission, which was used by V.P. Singh to check the Hindutva wave of the BJP in 1990. Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), Vinay Katyar and Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and S. Bangarappa in Karnataka, all belong to the Other Backward classes (OBC), which makes the BJP the most Mandalised national party of the country.

The BJP realised, more than its rivals, the reality of caste in Indian society, and tried to woo even castes that were beyond its reach. It made special efforts to win over tribal people in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and elevated a relatively unknown Scheduled Caste leader, Bangaru Laxman, to the post of party president. (He had to resign after the Tehelka episode.) The party, however, took the risk of supporting an unpredictable Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as Chief Minister of U.P. and invited her to campaign for the party during the elections to the Gujarat Assembly. Despite the acrimonious way in which it split with her, it made desperate attempts to keep things neutral when it could not win her and her party. Another departure from the concept of homogenised nationalism was the recognition of the fact, as Advani put it, that regional aspirations could not be overlooked and ignored. The party "established links with different regional political parties to cement the federal structure" - which "the Congress had weakened". From being a votary of a strong centre, the BJP came to believe in granting more powers to the States and accommodated regional parties that demanded autonomy, such as the Akali Dal, the National Conference and the Dravidian parties. Vajpayee admitted that the party used to have faith in the unitary form of governance in the Constitution, which it "gave up in favour of federalism". Its ideological flexibility extended not only to cover regional nationalism, but also regional parties from the Shiv Sena to be socialists and apolitical and non-ideological personalities. It claimed the legacy of Congress leaders who fought for freedom. Homage to Gandhi became a part of the morning prayers of the shakhas of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), accused of being responsible for his murder.

What facilitated the BJP's efforts to appropriate all secular and socialist nationalist leaders is the change in the definition of nationalism. During the days of Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh, nationalism was defined as being opposed to British imperialism. Subsequently, Pakistan replaced British imperialism as the main enemy of Indian nationalism. The BJP could play an anti-Pakistan role with more ease than its rivals, and tried to work on building mass hysteria, giving a call for aar paar (decisive) action against Pakistan and full-scale mobilisation of its armed forces on western borders. However, it soon discovered that it earned more dividends, in terms of international goodwill, by a peace initiative towards Pakistan. The response of popular opinion within the country to this was unexpectedly warm. In his characteristic style, Vajpayee tried to sell to his countrymen the U-turn in his Pakistan policy. This encouraged him to attempt a breakthrough in Kashmir and initiate talks with Jammu and Kashmir's separatist conglomerate, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, on what Advani called decentralisation of power, thus reversing the process - of integrating the state with the Union - a process initiated by the Congress leadership under Nehru. The APHC reportedly wished for the return of the Vajpayee government in the elections. Muzaffar Baig, a Minister in the Jammu and Kashmir government, was so convinced of Vajpayee's popularity in the Kashmir Valley that he invited him to contest the elections from a Muslim majority constituency such as Srinagar. The BJP for the first time contested all the three predominantly Muslim seats in the Valley. Armed with support from Kashmir and Pakistan, where Vajpayee was hailed as a man of peace, the BJP made another bold bid to enter a field that to date was forbidden to it, wooing Muslims of India.

This has been a long journey for a party that had its roots in the anti-Muslim ideology. Starting from the RSS-Jamiat-e-Ulama-I-Hind (a close ally of the Congress during the freedom movement) dialogue, Vajpayee and Advani separately addressed Muslim groups, wooing them with promises. Vajpayee offered two lakh jobs for Urdu teachers and handsome grants for madrassas. Despite its past hostility to Christians and secessionists, the BJP, alleges the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya, has gone out of its way to accommodate "Christian secessionists" in the northeastern region. In its issue of December 7, 2003, it gives details of the BJP's collusion with "militant and secessionist" Christians groups for "political gains". Panchajanya reports that the BJP is a member of the ruling Democratic Alliance in Nagaland, which came to power with "the help of the militant organisation, the NSCN-IM (National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) and is known for funding church activities for the last many years".

The BJP also takes credit for the decision of P.A. Sangma, a prominent Christian leader from the northeastern region who has been a campaigner for the right to eat beef, to join the NDA. The BJP's attempts to earn the goodwill of Christian militants in the northeast and Muslim secessionists in Kashmir, in particular, as well as Muslims in the rest of the country, are relevant to the debate about secularism versus communalism, although it is a part of the wider issue of a homogenised and uniform notion of nationalism versus a pluralist nationalism.

While the BJP has achieved notable gains in other fields, its policy towards Muslims is still handicapped by its ideological and political baggage, which it has been unable to shed. BJP leaders have been wooing Muslims on the claim that the government led by it has improved India-Pakistan relations. In its election campaign in Muslim dominated areas of U.P., it displayed portraits of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali (who has since stepped down) hugging Vajpayee. Whatever the positive impact of improvement in India-Pakistan relations on Hindu-Muslim relations, the synonymity of the two, presumed by the BJP leaders, implies that Muslims of India are influenced by Pakistan. It needs to be remembered that the BJP and the RSS have been against Muslims not because of the way they worship or the theological beliefs they hold but because they were supposed to be not patriotic enough to treat India as a holy or sacred land and because they were not sufficiently anti-Pakistan. The traditional view of the BJP-RSS is that Hinduism or Hindutva is not a religion but a nation (rashtra). It is religionised version of Indian nationalism of which the most revered goddess is "Bharat Mata". The party has not done enough rethinking on this concept of nationalism and has not defined the status of religious minorities such as Muslims, who do not worship this goddess.

However, the party must have realised by now that it cannot mobilise the Hindu majority on an anti-Muslim platform and that even the support of Hindus depends on the softening of this platform. It has learnt that Hindus are not a monolithic community. It must also learn that neither are Muslims. They have urges other than religious, too, some of which they share with non-Muslims.

Despite its obvious handicaps, the BJP was able to rope in some Muslim personalities and groups. The process was helped by the lack of adjustments among the secular parties and their attempts to play the soft Hindutva card. Thus Advani could chide the Congress for raising the issue of cow slaughter in Madhya Pradesh when the BJP had based its election campaign on the issue of development. Further, he attributes the Ayodhya campaign to the opening of the locks of Babri Masjid by Rajiv Gandhi (BBC interview, April 5), though he admitted that the demolition of the Babri Masjid hurt his party's interests in the elections.

In fact, most of the advances that the BJP made were precisely in those fields that were vacated by its secular rivals. The Congress campaign in 1999 was more against the so-called parochial identities based on caste, region and language than those based on religion (defined as communalism) and more against the coalition system than the BJP. Its Panchmarhi resolution facilitated the task of consolidation of non-Congress parties. Thus the BJP tried to adopt the Congress agenda, its policies and its earlier broad-based character, minus the Congress. In the recent election, it was left with no issues to take on the Congress. Hence its exclusive emphasis on the foreign origin of the Congress leader. Lest the BJP should be accused of macho-nationalism, the Congress spokesperson Kapil Sibal said that Vajpayee had always been a perpetual dove who had opposed making a nuclear bomb during the Janata government in 1978. He also accused the NDA government of reducing the Defence Budget to its lowest ever percentage of the GDP without bothering about lower allocations on social services.

The Congress under Gandhi and Nehru represented a concept of nationalism, which was cosmopolitan, humane, plural, federal, secular and democratic. It was opposed by narrow and aggressive forces, which believed in a majoritarian, uniform, homogenised and centralised concept of nationalism. In popular usage, the conflict between the two concepts of nationalism was translated as secularism versus communalism. It is a tribute to the strength of the Gandhi-Nehru heritage that the opposing forces gradually came to terms with the democratic traditions, institutions and diversities of the country though it is far from easy for them to make adjustments with their ideology and tactics; Hence contradictory voices within the Parivar and contradictory statement by the same leaders. Vajpayee may be adept in the art of ambivalence but this could not cover all the contradictions within the Parivar and the allies. While Pervez Musharraf's name was used to win over Muslims of U.P. for the party, Narendra Modi directed his campaign against "Mian Musharraf" and "Begum Sonia". The party invited Modi to U.P. soon after Vajpayee launched his campaign to befriend Muslims. This caused confusion not only among Muslims, but also the party workers. Meanwhile the Congress unshackled itself from the Panchmarhi resolution and went out in a big way to seek possible alliances to accommodate multiple type of diversities, including religious, regional, caste and political. Its understanding with the Left, which had never wavered in its belief in the pluralist character of Indian nationalism, gave the Congress valuable ideological and at places organisational strength. In an electoral battle on a ground that was more familiar for the Congress, the BJP cadre, according to Ram Madhav, RSS spokesman, were handicapped as they had diluted their own ideology.

If, however, in a defeatist mood, the BJP were tempted to revert to its old ideology and strategy, it would merely isolate itself from the mainstream of Indian politics. It would mean opting out from the race for power and resuming its old agitational role. It could profitably learn from its experience in Gujarat - which is the model of its original ideology and where its strength in recent polls almost halved - the limitation of jingoist and militant Hinduism. So far the prospects of power and Vajpayee's leadership have kept the BJP's allies together. But if the party is to survive as the leader of an alternative national political formation, it has to continue to move in the same direction as it did from the Jana Sangh to the BJP (via Janata) to the NDA and to Congressisation.

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