The BJP’s many avatars
There’s a little jigsaw puzzle BJP has to piece together first — the party has to resolve who it is and what it stands for, writes Barkha Dutt.india Updated: Apr 06, 2007 23:26 IST
For a while it was beginning to look like the world’s largest democracy was missing an Opposition party.
So ravaged was the BJP by delusions of grandeur in 2004 that instead of rolling up its sleeves and readying itself for the next political battle, it just slumped into self-defeating squabbling. And then what followed was crisis after crisis: L.K. Advani was pushed out of the party president’s chair; Sanjay Joshi was stung by an unseemly sex scandal; Pramod Mahajan was murdered by his brother; 11 BJP MPs were caught taking money for asking questions in Parliament; and, the party devoted almost an entire parliamentary session trying to hunt down a ‘mole’ that never was. The party’s historical claims to a distinctive rectitude and probity had collapsed into caricature. Buoyed by the disarray within the enemy camp, Manmohan Singh’s coalition sailed along, even through choppy waters, confident that the Opposition was rudderless. The Left worried the government more than the Right.
The recent Congress rout in the assembly elections has given birth to strong rumours of resurrection. Today the BJP and its allies rule more states than they did when the NDA was in power. The party independently governs five states. Its dramatic infiltration of the urban vote in Punjab has especially restored its sense of self. BJP strategists are now convinced that India’s notoriously fickle middle-class is tottering on the edge of fatigue and discontent. And political commentaries are abuzz about how every government eventually has to scratch the three-year itch.
India’s democracy is certainly healthier now that the blood is back in the Opposition’s veins. But, to my mind, the spring in the BJP’s step shouldn’t turn into a swagger just yet. There’s a little jigsaw puzzle it has to piece together first — the party has to resolve who it is and what it stands for. Is it still defined and distinguished essentially by Hindutva? Or is it finally ready to embrace a more moderate, mainstream identity? If it reinvents itself for an India driven more by economics and globalisation than religious identity, will it lose its loyalists? If it doesn’t shake off the stigma of intolerance, can it ever have broadbased acceptance? The tumult and unpredictability of Indian politics will eventually force the BJP to eye itself in the mirror. And when that day comes, the party will have to tackle its schizophrenia; it will have to make a choice.
So far, the BJP has survived by straddling multiple realities. Think about it. The architect of the peace process with Pakistan was a BJP leader. And the man whose shrill electoral war cry was “Mian Musharraf” was also a BJP leader. I remember standing in the rally grounds of Srinagar the day former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stunned his advisors and minders by offering “a hand of friendship” to Islamabad. That was in April 2003. Just four months earlier, Narendra Modi had been sworn in as Gujarat’s Chief Minister after a campaign drenched in anti-Muslim rhetoric. How was one to reconcile these contradictory truths? Which man represented the real face of the BJP?
I suspect the NDA government was able to survive this glaring paradox because of the personality of its Prime Minister. Vajpayee successfully converted a natural poetic ambivalence into a smart political strategy. He always answered tough questions in suitably vague epigrams and managed to project thoughtfulness in the endless pauses he took between sentences. He never really took a meaningful position against Narendra Modi, but still managed to convey an air of agonised introspection when he visited the riot victims of the Gujarat state. Somehow, even in the face of empirical facts, Vajpayee managed to seem above it all. And it’s no surprise that in poll after poll, he continued to remain popular, even when his party’s own fortunes had taken a nosedive.
But as the BJP knows well, the cult of personality can only take a party so far and no further. This past week was a reminder of the different ideological directions that drive its cadres. The party had to scramble to withdraw an election CD designed by its cultural wing and released by a senior functionary in Uttar Pradesh. The CD, apparently brimming with anti-Muslim campaigns, was officially described as a “mistake” and its creator was suspended from the party. This was also a week when an NDTV survey of the state’s voters threw up a rather interesting statistic: more than 60 per cent of the BJP’s own voters believed that the temple at Ayodha was no longer an issue for them.
Ironically, the party leader who scripted the Ayodhya campaign more than two decades ago (taking the party from just two seats in Parliament to more than 80 in a single election) is now the one man in the BJP who has realised that even ideological campaigns come marked with an expiry date. But when Advani attempted to make a new, perfectly reasonable beginning in Pakistan, his innocuous comments on Mohammed Ali Jinnah cost him one of his jobs, and almost an entire political career. His own history perhaps, could not set him free for a new kind of future.
Today, the BJP has reason to sense a subterranean discontent simmering just below the surface. Some of its campaigns on ‘minority appeasement’ and terrorism may even win it some converts in the urban middle-class. Several commentators have argued that its future lies in occupying a neo-Right space in India’s polity. But the big question is this: will its cadres allow the party to move backwards from the periphery towards the middle? (Here’s the inescapable irony — it’s the same crisis that the Left is facing with its cadres as it tries to construct a contemporary brand of Marxism.) And if it wavers too close to the centre, will it lose its individuality and become just another party in a rag-tag coalition?
Either way, the BJP is standing at a crossroads: duality is no longer an option.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7