There’s a story about Varun Gandhi that no one in the BJP will tell you on the record. It goes something like this. A party leader, who shall remain unnamed, rang the controversial young politician to invite him for a party function. “Varun,” he said, “could you please come to …” only to find that he had been cut off midstream by an irate Gandhi at the other end of the phone line. The 28-year old lit into his senior party colleague and reprimanded him for addressing him so casually by his first name. At the very least, he argued, he should have been called ‘Varunji’ for being the party’s next big hope in Uttar Pradesh. The story gets even better. Despite the drubbing in UP (many BJP leaders privately blame Varun Gandhi’s hate speech for polarising the Muslim vote in favour of the Congress), I’m told that the poet-turned-politician still fancies himself as the main contender for state president.
While the psychological delusions of Varun Gandhi are the subject of a whole different column, the man himself has come to represent all that is wrong with the BJP today. Simply put, the party suffers from paralysis every time it has to deal with its loony fringe. Usually, it dithers for so long on what stand to take that by the time its condemnation is made public, it sounds effete and unconvincing. And then, as the media stomps all over it, the party slips into victim mode and tries to aggressively promote its vices as if they were virtues.
Once the preferred choice of India’s middle class, the BJP is now in danger of losing the big metros entirely (Delhi and Mumbai were swept by the Congress). Its agenda seems woefully out of sync with its own vote base. The opposition to the nuclear deal was a prime example. As a party leader confided to me in a private conversation, “ no party can afford to go against the sentiments of its core constituency.” And yet, by repeating the same mistakes over and over again, the party that had once positioned itself as the robust, rooted and nationalistic political alternative, now looks confused, anachronistic and weak.
Rewind to the Mangalore pub attacks. By the time the BJP decided to condemn them unequivocally, the attackers and the state government were seen to be on the same side. No one was ready to listen to the BJP argument that the Ram Sene was not a partner and had in fact, put up candidates against it in the previous Assembly elections. Ideological obfuscating had made the BJP look like a sympathiser of the attackers, even if it was not.
The Malegaon blasts and the entire ‘Hindu Terror’ issue proved to be another conundrum for the BJP. A party that had designed itself as absolutist (despite the IC 814 and Kandahar barter) on the matter of what it called ‘Islamic terrorism’ could not exactly afford doublespeak if allegations of terror links surfaced on the other side of the religious divide. But once again, the party dithered and dallied endlessly. Eventually, it ended up challenging the integrity of the police officer (Hemant Karkare, who died in 26/11) who was leading the investigations.
So much has already been said about how LK Advani and the BJP chose to handle Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory campaign. But once again, the confused balancing act — disowning the speech, but clinging on to the man who made it — speaks to the essential existential crisis of the party.
Like many others, I believe that Advani is a politician with unimpeachable personal integrity. But more than that, I have always found him a thinking man — with far too much intellectual curiosity — to be at ease with petty bigotry. And yet, on so many key issues, Advani’s public statements seemed to be at odds with his own comfort zone. It was almost as if the pulls and pushes of politics had forced him into positions he was not entirely at ease with. But it also underlined the lack of clarity in the BJP.
The party’s Prime Ministerial candidate was trying to be moderate and extreme at the same time. It didn’t work. Just as Vajpayee missed his moment in failing to push for Narenda Modi’s removal after 2002, Advani’s test as a leader for modern times was how he would handle Varun Gandhi. Both men will have to live with the knowledge that these two decisions have pushed the BJP along a trajectory that may not allow it to navigate contemporary India.
Where Narendra Modi goes from here will probably mark which road the BJP has decided to journey on. The whispers against him within the party have begun. All those rooting for him as perfect Prime Ministerial material have now begun to talk about his ‘shrillness’, his ‘obsessive dislike of the Gandhi family’ and his inability to reinvent himself into a politician with national acceptability. Yes, the verdict in Gujarat was largely status- quoits (with a marginal decline in vote share) but there was absolutely no Modi Magic outside the state. Will the BJP force Modi to apologise for the anti-Muslim riots or will it accept that without that, he will remain a powerful regional satrap and no more?
The most honest critique of the party has come from Arun Jaitley — the man who led the election campaign in 2009. He has written about how New India is looking for ‘moderation’. After an election that has proved that identity politics can travel only so far and no further, the question is whether he will be able to prevail upon his party? Will the right find its centre again? If it doesn’t, the BJP may lose its way permanently.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV