If the outcome of political marathons were determined by the quality of parliamentary interventions, the BJP would easily sprint across the finish line. Whether it’s Sushma Swaraj — with her fiery, passionate and powerful oratory or Arun Jaitley — whose cerebral and intellectually robust arguments strike a high bipartisan note — the party indisputably packs a punch on the floor of the House. The knockout opening assaults by the two always manage to make a beleaguered UPA government look even more on the defensive.
But unlike in a presidential form of government, sheer force of personality cannot carry elections in India’s complex parliamentary democracy. This is where the BJP is beset with an ironic problem. It looks much more effective, cohesive and in command inside the Parliament than it does outside it. And on the battlefield that lies beyond the boundaries of Parliament and TV studios, a potent mix of leadership, governance, ideology and caste arithmetic come together to determine the outcome of national politics.
In the crowded, constantly-evolving world of realpolitik, the BJP has attempted to position itself as a modern centre-right party. But in truth — as the party struggles to escape the ideological bigotry of its more extreme sections on the one hand and avoid a centrism that would make it too similar to the Congress on the other — the BJP is still to find its own ideological equilibrium. In fact, a recent headline in the Economist written for the Republican Right of America could well have been scripted for the BJP’s travails. “Although the presidency is theirs for the taking, America’s Republicans are in danger of throwing it away,” said the magazine, as it explored how the party was in danger of becoming “extreme and backward-looking” and throwing away the natural political advantage that Barack Obama has provided them on a platter. The same holds true for India’s only major right-wing party. With the UPA frittering away the mandate of 2009, the BJP should have already been poised as frontrunners for the next electoral race. Instead, an ideological muddle, an absence of clear leadership, misplaced priorities and the shadow of old-world extremism stand between the party and its future.
If you observe the campaign of the Republican contenders in the US and their comments on gay rights, abortion, gun control or immigration, there are interesting lessons to be learnt for the BJP — about the perils of being pulled further and further to the right. The BJP’s mistake may lie in veering away from its right-of-centre ideological mooring when it comes to economics but remaining perilously right-wing on societal/religious issues. In modern India, it should be the other way around.
As election results have proven, good governance has the potency to trump identity politics. It’s ironic, for instance, that one of the BJP’s most successful chief ministers — Shivraj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh — who has won two terms because of the performance of his government should expend so much energy to draw up punitive laws that can send beef eaters to prison for seven years. But when it comes to an issue such as foreign direct investment in the retail sector, the BJP has abandoned its natural instincts and responded like a party perennially condemned to the politics of antithesis. The BJP forgets that to be a “party with a difference” it must draw its distinctiveness from a muscular and modern strength of vision and not from social orthodoxy.
There is a reason that poll after poll still records AB Vajpayee as one of India’s most loved PMs. It was his ability to be a gentle consensus-builder while being a proud nationalist and his willingness to take imaginative risks that are worthy of a strong leader. It’s not as if the BJP lacks that brand of leadership today. Several of its second-generation leaders represent a modern way of thinking. But they are being boxed in by a mistaken reading of the writing on the wall. And thus the party ends up opposing many of the policies it created while in power — from a new strategic relationship with Washington to an innovative, if risky, peace process with Pakistan.
As the clock ticks down to 2014, the BJP will soon have to make up its mind on a prime ministerial candidate. In itself, the multitude of options within the party may be healthier than the pre-ordained script of the Congress. But this will happen only if the BJP can prevent its problem of plenty from becoming a factional war that could devour its political gains. Already, the battlelines within the party have been drawn over the suicidal induction of Babu Singh Kushwaha, a prominent OBC leader who was a minister in the Mayawati government till she threw him out on charges of corruption. Reading between the lines, bringing in Kushwaha has more to do with an internal tug-of- war between the Uma Bharti camp and those opposed to her re-entry in the party. But the factionalism has cost the party its upper hand in the national debate on corruption.
The BJP needs a leader who is socially liberal and economically modern. And it needs to have the courage to project that leader and philosophy without being apologetic. Two decades after Ayodhya, the BJP needs a new idiom for 2014. There is no doubt that a government in disarray has provided the BJP with a natural and strong advantage. But it needs to address a much wider audience than the right-wing’s online evangelists who spew venom and hatred against Muslims and have nothing in common with the legacy of Vajpayee. Perhaps the BJP needs to look back a bit to look ahead.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal