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The continuing saga of the BJP

If the last two weeks have made anything clear it is this: the BJP’s idea of collective leadership is that its senior leaders all collect together and go and meet the RSS chief who instructs them on what to do next, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2009 02:04 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Who would have thought it? Over two weeks ago, when I left the country, the BJP was busy explaining to the world why it had expelled Jaswant Singh, one of its most senior leaders for either praising M A Jinnah (this argument was quickly junked when people asked why L.K. Advani had not been thrown out five years ago, in that case) or for committing the cardinal sin of daring to be critical of a Congress leader who had banned the RSS and prosecuted Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi.

It did not occur to me that a fortnight later the controversy would still be raging, or that the BJP would still be a huge news story.

And personally, I am inclined to agree with Manmohan Singh. What’s happening in the BJP is a tragedy for Indian democracy. We need two strong parties. I oppose much of what the BJP stands for, but I still pray that it emerges stronger from this crisis.

But what does this seemingly never-ending soap opera tell us about the BJP? Two weeks ago I made the point that because the BJP had no role in the freedom struggle, it tried to appropriate such Congress icons as Sardar Patel and attempted to project them as secret Sangh parivar moles teleported back to the 1940s from the future by some device straight out of the Terminator movies. Because Patel was no lover of the Hindu Mahasabha, these attempts to hijack his legacy were doomed to failure. And the Jaswant Singh row is just one example of the trouble a party gets into when it tries to concoct an imaginary history for itself.

But there are other lessons as well.

It is now fashionable for BJP leaders to run down Advani. Even those who owe their entire careers to his patronage now say the most vicious things about him and his leadership.

This reflects very badly on them. But it also reflects badly on Advani. In retrospect, it is clear that he is a godawful judge of people, easily susceptible to flattery and willing to extend his patronage to anybody who pays court to him. That is one important reason why he has failed to hold his party together.

Advani’s other failing is that he has stopped trusting his own instincts. His finest hour — according to me — came when P V Narasimha Rao framed him in the hawala case. At that stage, he was the unquestioned leader of the BJP (Vajpayee had been sidelined) and a potential Prime Minister.

But Advani was so outraged by the charge that he spontaneously announced that he would not participate in electoral politics till his name had been cleared. Given how the Indian justice system works, that could have taken years. But he was prepared to give up everything to fight for his honour.

Where is that Advani today?

A few months ago, when the election result came in, he did the right thing. He trusted his instincts and declared that he was stepping down as leader of the BJP. If he had stuck to that resolve, his stature would be very different today.

So why did Advani back down? His critics say that his stooges in the BJP persuaded him to stay on so that he could ensure their succession. A part of me feels that he was so horrified by the prospect of being succeeded by Murli Manohar Joshi, for whom he has a visceral dislike, that he allowed pettiness to supplant his original instinct.

My fellow columnist Karan Thapar, who has interviewed Advani more often than any other journalist, has suggested that Advani’s family made him change his mind. And Karan should probably know.

Whatever the reason, by withdrawing his resignation, Advani transformed his image — at a stroke — from that of a high-minded, responsible leader to a greedy old man who would do anything to cling on to power.

Subsequent events have reinforced this negative image. How could Advani stand idly by when Jaswant Singh, his old friend and senior colleague, was drummed out of the party? Shouldn’t he at least have telephoned Jaswant? If he has no loyalty to his friends then can he really blame them when they, in turn, expose the lies he had told about Kandahar?

The BJP goes on and on about dynasty. I’m not sure that the party is as free from the dynastic curse as it likes to pretend but there’s no doubt that it is much better off, in this respect, than the Congress.

After all, how democratic can the Congress claim to be when succession is dynastic and so much over-the-top sycophancy is directed at the Gandhi family? Even Rahul Gandhi says that he is perturbed by the dynastic nature of Congress politics and is working to alter that.

But here’s my point: how democratic is the BJP?

If the last two weeks have made anything clear it is this: the BJP’s idea of collective leadership is that its senior leaders all collect together and go and meet the RSS chief who instructs them on what to do next.

In a democratic party, the fate of Advani, Rajnath Singh and the rest should be decided by elections. Instead, a small group of old men in khaki knickers, sitting in Nagpur, will decide who runs the BJP and how.

Isn’t this shameful? And is there much to choose between dynasty and a secret coterie? At least the dynasts are elected. Who elected Mohan Bhagwat and the rest of his gang? What gives them the right to decide who will lead India’s largest opposition party?

And finally, a slightly contrary view. Many people think that the BJP is committing ritual harakiri.

I don’t.

I think what we are seeing is a colonels’ coup. When the dust settles, there will be a generational change in the BJP. The oldies — the Jaswants, the Advanis, the Yashwants even — will be out in the cold. Rajnath will be booted out. Dr Joshi will be undermined.

That will leave the field clear for a new generation: the Modis, the Jaitleys, the Sushmas, etc. Even the toothy Ananth Kumar is now presenting himself as a future BJP leader!

The RSS will bring in another generation of state leaders: Manohar Parrikar, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, etc.

By the beginning of next year, the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani will be dead. In its place, we will have a new BJP, its leadership a combination of mass-murderers, state chieftains and rootless politicians. All of them will take orders from the RSS.

Is this a good thing? Will this work to the benefit of Indian democracy?

You tell me.

The views expressed by the author are personal