Someone asked Lal Krishna Advani in the middle of the latest election campaign what he missed the most at these polls. He replied promptly: “I miss Atalji (Vajpayee).”
As the results of the 15th Lok Sabha elections are sinking in, the 81-year-old is perhaps realising that the BJP needs the Advani he was 10 years ago — one who could foresee sudden twists like Orissa leader Naveen Patnaik’s exit from the National Democratic Alliance.
Advani probably knew that things were turning worse for the party. But he still nursed hopes that the BJP would be able to pull through. As the infighting got worse, the selection of candidates went botchy and the campaign remained largely hi-tech, somewhat distant from the masses. So the final outcome possibly didn’t come as a surprise to many BJP leaders.
With 116 seats, the BJP’s tally this time has turned out to be lower than in 1991, though it’s still more than what the Congress had in 1999. But then, this time the Congress gained more than it has in the past two decades.
Surprising or not, these results have changed the two parties considerably. Whereas the Congress is brimming with confidence at having found the pulse of the New India, the BJP is scrambling to select its next generation.
The post mortem
When the time the BJP faces the next general election, it will be 10 years since it lost power. By then, the voter profile would have changed further. Not surprisingly, other NDA constituents are already looking for greener pastures. (See ‘A House of Cards?’)
In the first election fought without Vajpayee, who fronted as the moderate face of the party for over 29 years, the BJP found that it could attract neither the middle class nor the urban youth.
It failed to win any seat in Mumbai or Delhi, and its national vote share has dipped almost 4 per cent. The BJP could not win new votes and remained disconnected from the aspirations even in its traditional strongholds.
Advani, staring at his political sunset, remains at the helm for some more time — till the transition happens. He quit as the Leader of Opposition, but the fear of infighting forced warring leaders to ask him to stay on.
Among all this, there is a push for change within the organisation. The pro-changers are arguing for a complete overhaul in outlook, whereas the no-changers are worrying about their own survival. Being mostly tied to RSS managers, the latter find nothing wrong with the Hindutva brand of politics. “What is the BJP without its ideology? Should it become a poor copy of the Congress?” asks one status-quoist.
Supporting the pro-changers’s case are some of the voices of defeated candidates.
“Calling Manmohan Singh a weak Prime Minister was probably a bit of an overkill,” says Tathagata Roy, who lost on the party’s ticket from Kolkata North. “Narendra Modi’s loud talk turned non-Hindu voters against us,” says Jaswant Saini, the nominee from Saharanpur. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who lost from Rampur, blames the hate-filled speeches of Varun Gandhi.
Those who won, too, have a word of advice. “It’s time we pondered why we let someone (read Varun Gandhi or B.L. Prem) make provocative speeches instead of giving a healing touch,” says Shahnawaz Hussain, the former Union minister who won from Bhagalpur.
“Assertive Hindutva isn’t getting you anywhere. People hate anyone who is seen as a disruptionist,” says a BJP leader who lost. “We can stay on the Centre-right, but we must talk of governance and development only and act like a Centrist party.”
Everyone seems to agree that the BJP today needs to do what the British Labour Party did in 1995 — completely junk the old policies. The ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair moved away from its socialist commitment. And that changed its fortunes.
The pro-changers argue that the BJP must do something similar, and stick to what matters most to the voters.
“True, the BJP isn’t a party of 40-pluses to match Rahul Gandhi and his team. But we must make a beginning before long,” says a younger BJP functionary who was involved in the campaign but didn’t get a ticket.
The war within
Arun Jaitley, 56, the chief strategist, appears to be leading the pro-changers. He was the first to admit that the shrillness of the campaign cost the party. But some within the party wouldn’t like to see him rise, as they blame him for the poll debacle.
Other next-generation leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, 57, too feel that there must be change. But they haven’t spoken out yet.
However, Rajnath Singh, 57, who owes his strength to his ideological image, thinks the party cannot give up its core beliefs.
Some of the other ‘elders’ — Jaswant Singh, 71, and Yashwant Sinha,71 — have never been enamoured of the RSS.
But Murli Manohar Joshi, 75, has argued that blaming ideology without identifying the “real” failures in strategy, campaign and selection of candidates won’t get the BJP anywhere.
Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, 59 — whose ascension was being talked about even while Advani was being projected as the prime ministerial candidate — is no longer the best proposition. He may still be liked by the cadres, but his attractiveness outside his state is still doubtful.
In the middle of all this, Advani is backing the pro-changers. He wants a ‘modern face’ to head the party. In the first of the big changes he announced as BJP parliamentary party leader, he made Sushma Swaraj his deputy in Lok Sabha and Jaitley the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha.
All eyes are now on coming January, when Rajnath Singh’s term as party president comes to an end. That will be the first signal of how the BJP is likely to prepare for the Battle of 2014.