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Jai Sri Ram, comrade?

By opposing the nuclear deal, the Bharatiya Janata Party risks alienating its middle-class constituency, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2007 02:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

In all the fuss about relations between the Left and the Congress, the other major player in Indian politics has been completely ignored. Even though the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie have been trudging patiently from television studio to studio trying to explain their party’s point of view, nobody has paid much attention to them.

Partly this is because the BJP itself does not appear to have a coherent party position. Arun Shourie is an expert on disinvestment and well qualified to defend his government’s excellent record in that area. But when it comes to relations with the US, we expect to hear from Jaswant Singh, who actually dealt with Washington when the BJP was in power. But Major saab’s sonorous baritone has been absent from most discussions about the deal. Unlike Shourie, he negotiated with the US on nuclear issues. And yet he seems either unwilling or unable to defend his party’s current position.

Then, there are the usual suspects. Rajnath Singh is, after all, president of the BJP. But how often have you seen him commenting on the deal? Arun Jaitley is the single most articulate speaker in the BJP — and probably the potential Prime Minister from his generation — but he too has been curiously silent. Could it be, as journos suspect, that he does not agree with the party’s position?

And L.K. Advani doesn’t seem too sure where he stands either. Weeks after Messrs Sinha and Shourie had done the rounds of the TV studios, the Iron Man gave an interview which suggested that he was rethinking his party’s position and that perhaps Arun and Yashwant had overdone it somewhat.

The divisions within the BJP are easy enough to comprehend. The party faces a crisis at two levels. The first is the one of hypocrisy. No Indian government did as much to cultivate Washington as the NDA. It wasn’t just A.B.Vajpayee flying off to the US every year to meet the President or even his much-quoted statement to the Asia Society in New York that India and the US were natural allies.

It was also that on matters of substance the BJP/NDA seemed eager to accommodate Washington’s concerns. The exact content of the many rounds of discussion that Jaswant Singh had with Strobe Talbott in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests remains secret but we have Talbott’s version (in his book Engaging India). According to him, Jaswant Singh had agreed to sign the CTBT and asked for time to build a consensus on the issue. Given that every single Indian party was opposed to the CTBT, this was a significant concession to US interests.

Then there was the whole business of sending troops to Iraq. The famous story to the effect that L.K. Advani had agreed to do so on his visit to the US may well be a lie spread by his detractors in the party but there is no doubt that a substantial section of the government was actively considering the option — and that ambassador Lalit Mansingh was advocating it. Eventually, domestic opposition caused the BJP to scrap the plan.

When a party that bent over backwards to accommodate the Americans suddenly starts holding forth on threats to Indian sovereignty from Washington, it faces a major credibility problem. In the circumstances, it is understandable that Jaswant Singh and so many other BJP leaders have shied away from the issue.

But the crisis at the second level is even deeper. For most of its existence the BJP has represented a certain worldview. At a time when the Congress was signing treaties of friendship with the USSR, the BJP held out for closer ties with the US. This was in keeping with the party’s freemarket stand and its position that Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors had mortgaged India’s future to the communist bloc.

By the mid-1990s, when it was clear that the US had won the Cold War, the Indian middle-class came round to the BJP’s point of view. There was no longer a communist bloc to prefer and India and the US had a certain confluence of interests (especially with regard to the need to contain China).

After the BJP came to power, its pro-American stance worked well with its constituency. Bill Clinton came down heavily on Pakistan, made Nawaz Sharif withdraw his army from Kargil and India’s friendship with the US appeared to be working in our favour. The BJP’s foreign policy seemed to have been ahead of its time.

Given this background, it is extraordinary to see how the BJP is behaving now. Its rhetoric against the nuclear deal echoes the hysteria of the Left with its suggestion that the US is determined to impinge on India’s sovereignty. Arun Shourie may claim, with much justification, that his objections are entirely different from the Left’s but in terms of public perception, the BJP and the Left are on the same side.

Even if you absolve the BJP of hypocrisy you cannot absolve it of foolishness. How does it benefit the party or please its constituency to oppose something that it has always stood for? The BJP’s identity is rooted in its opposition to communism and the communist bloc. It was in this avatar that it became the party of the emerging educated middle-class.

Why throw all that away now? And for what?

The only answer possible to these questions is this: the BJP has lost its moorings. After so many years in government it is unable to formulate a coherent strategy for opposition. Determined to oppose the government and perhaps, to bring it down, it will do anything and say anything.

We saw this in the campaign against Pratibha Patil. No sensible person will deny that there was a case for Mrs Patil to answer and that the allegations against her required some rebuttal.

But a mature political party knows when to stop. It knows when to raise an issue and when to withdraw. The BJP, on the other hand, lost all sense of proportion and embarked on a campaign full of such viciousness and venom that it actually had the effect of making people feel sorry for Mrs Patil.

Worse still, the campaign achieved nothing. Mrs Patil got elected anyway and the Opposition was left in disarray. So why did the BJP do it? Only because it felt that if it could defeat the UPA’s presidential candidate, the government would fall. Or, if it forced the Congress to change candidates, then the government would be embarrassed.

And in the pursuit of that political objective, the BJP had no compunctions about dragging the Presidency through the mud.

There are signs now that the BJP is rethinking its position on the nuclear deal. Advani seems to have realised that the public at large will not wade through thousands of words of Arun Shourie’s impeccably researched prose to understand just what the BJP’s position is.

Instead, the BJP’s own constituency will wonder why the party has suddenly turned against Washington and why it is making common cause with the very communists it spent decades opposing. At a time when Prakash Karat is the single-most hated man in middle-class India, Shourie and Sinha risk seeming like his courtiers. From being the party of the educated middle-class, the BJP has become the party of mindless, pathological opposition.

That probably explains Advani’s recent declaration of faith in Indo-US friendship. Already, the polls show that the Congress will do better than before if an election is held today. Should the BJP go into that election as the party that opposed everything it once believed in and as an ally of the Left, then its prospects will be severely damaged.

Indians understand the role of an Opposition. But we also have a sense of a national interest that is above all party political concerns.

Alas, this is a distinction the BJP has forgotten.

First Published: Aug 28, 2007 23:40 IST