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Men overboard, abandon ship!

The BJP has became a compromise entity, a condominium of factions — both within the party and the wider Sangh family. This stripped the party’s central leadership of its one critical characteristic: authority. The BJP now resembles a free-for-all. Nobody is in charge, examines Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Jun 23, 2009 21:50 IST

Is the BJP’s principal fault-line indeed that much-contested, little-understood word ‘ideology’? Is the defining concern in the party really on whether or not Hindutva is a ‘geo-cultural concept’?

To those who see politics as a more mundane, down-to-earth business, the issue is not so much about the BJP’s basic philosophy as its ability to give itself an upgrade. It is to make the BJP’s politics, praxis and personality relevant and contemporary.

It is crucial that all those facets be seen together. Changing faces without changing the substance of the party’s rot is not enough. Nor will it do to have veterans well past their sell-by dates advocating change. The transformation in the BJP has to be both ideational and generational. It cannot be piecemeal.

Unfortunately, as the recent BJP national executive meeting made apparent, various party functionaries are attempting to calibrate change to their own convenience. This is not a new phenomenon. It was emergent as far back as 2004 but the party kept postponing any meaningful overhaul.

The BJP became instead a compromise entity, a condominium of factions — both within the party and the wider Sangh family. This stripped the party’s central leadership of its one critical characteristic: authority. The BJP now resembles a free-for-all. Nobody is in charge.

It is facile to see the tussle within as one between pro-changers and no-changers. Things are not quite as clear-cut. There is a continuum between a sense of denial, a cussed refusal to move on, and the inability to give the party authoritative leadership. Take some examples.

First, key people in the party have chosen to remain blissfully, or purposefully, ignorant about the magnitude of the defeat of 2009. True, 2004 was a technical setback, but 2009 was an overwhelming rejection. It was not, as is being made out, a mathematical error, with the fortuitous success or failure of small parties in some states handing the Congress an advantage and the BJP not actually losing at all.

Second, while L.K. Advani’s recession to a non-executive role is non-negotiable, it would not do to replace an 80-something with a 70-something and pass this off as generational change. Unfortunately, that was the crux of the argument made by three leading dissidents over the past two weeks.

Indeed, so hypocritical was their case that it provoked a reaction at the national executive and left the dissidents isolated. Both Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha have been previously accommodated in the Rajya Sabha after Lok Sabha defeats. In 1998, Singh lost the election but was soon given a series of government jobs and cabinet portfolios. The imbalance in ‘parinam-inam’ (result-reward) never struck him then.

Sinha now claims to be a grassroots worker and not a drawing room politician. When he joined the party, he was the ultimate lateral entrant. A resignation was organised to make him an MLA and a BJP leader in the Bihar Assembly. The man who made way for him was Sushil Modi, a party old-timer who had been imprisoned during the Emergency. All this did not strike Sinha as unfair.

Third, the dissident trio has admittedly raised valid points about the degree of debate within the party and the need for internal democracy. It is worth asking if the situation was any different before the election.

Consider the issue that remains a scar on the BJP’s conscience — the Indo-US nuclear deal. The general election was not a referendum on the additional protocol, but the BJP’s opposition to the deal did trigger a reaction among middle India’s fence-sitters. It provoked questions on what the party was all about. The deal did not lose the BJP the election, but the fallout of the attendant controversy certainly worked to the Congress’ benefit.

How was the BJP’s policy on the deal formulated? Was there a structured debate or a vote? Were the views of a substantial number of Lok Sabha MPs, who said their constituency feedback was that the BJP should go easy on the deal, considered? No.

Rather, two or three individuals — now masquerading as conscientious objectors — hijacked party decision-making. When correctives were sought to made, or alternative points of view offered, those who disagreed were abused, vilified as ‘American agents’ and worse.

The harsh truth is that very few senior people in the BJP actually see merit in open debate and genuine policy discussion. Most want to manage the environment. In fact, behind the high drama of the letter writers there lurked an element of low politics, from an altogether different address.

Goldfinger, James Bond’s infamous adversary, had an unfailing principle: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” The three letters fell into this pattern. Who was the mastermind?

For the BJP, there is no quick route out of the mess. A start can be made by insisting on a rigorous, transparent internal election to choose the next president. Let candidates tour the country, canvass among MPs and state units and sell their visions of the BJP. This will throw up a president who will, at the very least, have legitimacy and the moral authority to discipline, streamline and shape the party.

The alternative is to let a small cabal dictate a negotiated choice. As the experience of the past three years has shown, this is a recipe for intrigue and private sponsorship, not for rejuvenation.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.