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What is the BJP all about today?

The problem with the BJP and the reason why it gropes for old issues to blow up again and again is that it is a party with no core beliefs. Nobody is really sure what it stands for any longer. Vir Sanghvi examines.

columns Updated: Aug 26, 2009 20:48 IST
Vir Sanghvi

As the BJP begins post-mortems of its defeat in the General Election and tries to institute a generational change in its leadership, many suggestions have been put forward about how it can recast itself.

The first suggestion — made by Arun Jaitley in an article in the Indian Express — is that the party must abandon shrillness because voters prefer moderation.

This sounds sensible enough but the problem is: can there be a BJP without shrillness? Its chosen persona is of the Hindu with a grievance. And a party of grievance can hardly mumble its complaints.

<b1>In the Eighties, when the BJP sprang to national prominence, it tried a dual approach. LK Advani would wring his hands and pretend to be the mild-mannered fellow who had been driven to anger by the injustices that had been heaped on Hindus. But even as Advani was doing his impression of RK Laxman’s common man, the message was being hammered away by a host of others who were shrill, almost by definition: Uma Bharati, Pramod Mahajan, Sadhvi Rithambara etc.

Since then, the BJP has always been shrill. Over the last few years, Advani himself has abandoned the mild-mannered fellow impersonation and revealed a nasty, combative side, attacking Manmohan Singh with needless viciousness.

During the last campaign, the defining characteristic of the BJP was pointless shrillness. Forget about Narendra Modi, what about the rest? Jaitley himself wasted his own time (and everybody else’s) by going on about the threat posed to Indian democracy by Ottavio Quattrocchi, massively exaggerating the significance of a 25-year-old scandal that most people had forgotten. Other spokesmen echoed this line (“this is a dark day for Indian democracy”: Sudheendra Kulkarni).

When the BJP talks about ‘shrillness’, it means Narendra Modi’s speeches during the campaign. But Modi was not their only problem. All of them — including Advani — were shrill.

And frankly, I don’t think they know how to conduct a debate in any other way.

The second suggestion, made by Swapan Dasgupta in The Times of India on Thursday, is that the BJP should play down its Hindutva agenda. Dasgupta has long rejected the Hindu basis of the BJP’s agenda and argued that the party’s best hope lies in recasting itself as a modern, right-of-centre, internationally-minded grouping.

This is an interesting suggestion but it does not belong in the real world. There may or may not be room for such a party within the Indian political system but that party is not the BJP.

To ask the BJP to recast itself in this fashion is akin to asking the CPI(M) to transform itself into the party of free speech, pro-Americanism and private enterprise. In other words: good idea; wrong party.

The BJP without Hindutva is like Pizza Hut without the pizza. Most of the BJP’s cadres are committed to some form of Hindutva. The party’s bosses in Nagpur are only interested in promoting a Hindu agenda. And much of the BJP’s support base likes the party because of its Hindu agenda.

A third suggestion, which first surfaced during the campaign itself, is that the BJP’s problems are the consequence of a leadership crisis. Halfway through the campaign, sections of the BJP began talking about Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister, even while Advani was still fighting for the job.

Now, the BJP is open about the leadership problem. When leaders say “we missed Vajpayee’s leadership” what they really mean is “Advani wasn’t up to the job.”

Proponents of this view argue that new leaders will revitalise the party. Perhaps they will. But who will these leaders be?

It is now clear that Advani wants Sushma Swaraj to succeed him because a) she is a mass leader, b) she is not Murli Manohar Joshi and c) she stood by him during the campaign when his other protégés rushed off to embrace Modi.

But is Sushma a 21st century leader? It is not unlikely that Rahul Gandhi could be the face of the Congress during the 2014 campaign. Is Sushma going to be effective in countering all the things that the Congress will claim that Rahul represents: youth, a forward-looking approach, empathy with the Kalawatis and other disadvantaged people of India etc?

It is hard to say. Certainly she will have to transform her persona from the xenophobic, rolling pin-wielding middle class housewife she now represents. And with Sushma at its head, the BJP will more or less have embraced shrillness as its tone of voice, regardless of what Jaitley wants.

But if not Sushma, who? Arun Jaitley perhaps. But does he have the electoral credentials any mass leader will require? Narendra Modi? Could be, even if the current mood is against him.

But do any of these people strike you as having the ability to lead the BJP in the way that Vajpayee did? Rahul, on the other hand, strikes most people as being quite capable of following in his mother’s footsteps.

Which leads us to the real crisis of the BJP.

The problem with the BJP and the reason why it gropes for old issues to blow up again and again is that it is a party with no core beliefs. Nobody is really sure what it stands for any longer.

We saw this in the campaign. It’s all very well for Arun Jaitley to call for moderation and an end to shrillness but for many years now he has been Narendra Modi’s ambassador in Delhi. He has consistently defended Modi’s behaviour during the Gujarat riots, has attacked anyone who dares question Modi and during this campaign, he sang Modi’s praises.

Or take the Varun Gandhi case. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the BJP should have stripped Varun of his ticket.

But the only people in the BJP who spoke out against Varun were its token Muslims (Shahnawaz Hussain and MA Naqvi). Other leaders either helped Varun’s legal defence or portrayed him as a victim, railing against the Election Commission.

When such leaders talk about the need for a moderate BJP, what credibility can they possibly have?

Then, there are the economic issues and the nuclear deal. The Vajpayee government would have grabbed the nuclear deal — we know this because Brajesh Mishra has said so. Yet Advani found pretexts to oppose it, before hurriedly re-arranging his position once again during the campaign.

So it is with liberalisation. Where does the BJP stand? Is it the party of the global economy? Or is it the party of the bania who wants no regulation for himself but regulation of all his business rivals?

We still don’t know.

For me, the defining moment of the campaign came when Yashwant Sinha went on TV. Yashwant is an old friend from the 1980s, an essentially decent and moderate man who finds it difficult to live it down that political circumstances drove him to the BJP just months after he had attacked the party in Parliament over the Babri Masjid demolition.

He was asked about Modi. I waited for Yashwant to give a reasoned or evasive reply. Instead he declaimed, “Narendra Modi is our most popular leader. He has all the qualities required to become Prime Minister of this country.”

I knew then that the game was up. The BJP had become a party full of people who stood for nothing except for political opportunism.