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In search of an agenda

BJP is desperate to shed its ‘party with differences’ tag and live up to its role as the nation’s main opposition party, reports Shekhar Iyer.

delhi Updated: Feb 16, 2010 00:41 IST
Shekhar Iyer

Hundreds of white tents and saffron-and-green flags flutter on a 90-acre plot near the Dewas bypass, 10 km north of Indore.

The scene could be mistaken for the sets of a historical film.

But as you go closer, you realise it’s a political jamboree of a party fighting to stand on its feet.

An annual affair for the 30-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), this year’s party conclave — from February 17-19 — will see around 5,000 party functionaries — from the district to the national level — assemble near Indore.

India’s main opposition party wants to reinvent itself after a year of electoral drubbing and internal wrangling.

The party’s main agenda: ratifying the election of its youngest president, Nitin Gadkari.

The February 13 terror attack in Pune, an imminent resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue and inflation are some of the issues the BJP will try to pin the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government down with.

“This conclave is (more) about checking the arrogant ways of the UPA government than about our ideology, which is known to all,” BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.

Gadkari has insisted on attendance of BJP leaders from a wide hierarchical pool. Invites have gone out to 218 members of the BJP national executive, 543 national council members, 159 BJP MPs, 250 defeated MPs, 904 MLAs, 510 state office bearers, nearly 300 heads of municipal bodies, 2,093 district-level leaders, six BJP chief ministers, three deputy chief ministers and leaders of the opposition from Congress-ruled states.

The conclave presents Gadkari the first opportunity to put forth his agenda to revive the beleaguered party.

“We will work to show that the BJP remains a viable alternative, when the government’s policies have led to problems such as inflation and shortage of food items,” said Gadkari, who will be flanked at the conclave by the party’s leaders in Parliament, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.

L.K. Advani, who bowed out as leader of the opposition in December, will don the role of a mentor.

Gadkari, who turns 53 in May, was reportedly chosen by the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to take over the reins from Rajnath Singh in December.

However, as BJP delegates troop into Kushabhau Thakre Parisar — the venue named after the late party chief — the big question on their minds will be: Can Gadkari deliver?

In his first 45 days in office, Gadkari has not revealed his cards. But wrangling in the party has stemmed; his seniors, who fought one another, are offering him help, with big brother RSS watching.

Gadkari has spoken to BJP leaders from across the country to get a grip on what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. But he hasn’t spelled out his “short-term” or “longer-term” plans –– as he put it the day he took over.

His team has to take shape too.

“If you want a post, you have to perform. A position is not a perk but a job to deliver,” he said. “But it (the team) is going to be a blend of youth and experience.”

Gadkari wants the conclave to focus on “politics for development”. The BJP has openly differed with its Maharashtra ally, Shiv Sena, on the issue of “Mumbai for Mumbaikars only”.

But the BJP is taking a familiar strident line on Pakistan, and wants Islamabad to deliver on terror before engaging in talks. With the latest attack in Pune, the party’s voice has got louder.

“What happened in Pune is a grim reminder to all of us of the fragility of our security and the adventurist traps we are walking into,” said BJP leader Arun Jaitley.

The BJP’s political revival remains the larger issue for the party.

Though party stalwarts won’t admit it, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s forays in various states have them worried.

The BJP wants to increase the party’s vote share by at least 10 per cent. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the party polled only 18.8 per cent votes, down by 3.4 percentage points since the 2004 elections.

An internal BJP document has concluded that the party must woo both rural and urban India that is “aspiring, assertive and impatient”.

“Today’s 14-year-old will vote in 2014” is the message the party wishes to convey to its cadre.

As the Indore venue fills with BJP leaders from all parts of the country on Wednesday, many will turn to the new party chief for answers, with the party’s electoral setback in 2009 still on their minds.

“Defeat is not when you fall down,” Gadkari said. “It’s when you refuse to get up.”