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Lotus in the mud

The BJP has to make hard choices if it wants to arrest its rapid decline into oblivion, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2006 03:31 IST

A picture sometimes does tell the story. The photo-op of Opposition leaders lining up behind Natwar Singh in Parliament was one such moment. That Amar Singh would be in the line-up was not surprising.

For two years now, the Samajwadi Party leader has been driven by a manic single-point agenda — avenging his alleged humiliation at the dinner table of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

For Amar Singh, the prospect of a Nehru-Gandhi family retainer turning hostile to 10 Janpath was too delicious a prospect to ignore. The Left’s presence was also not unexpected.

For the Left, Natwar’s U-turn from being one of the symbols of the Indo-US nuclear deal to now emerging as a fierce critic was enough to ally with his ‘cause’. The Left’s anti-Americanism is now so blinkered that it allows little space for considered judgment.

But what of the BJP, led by its former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and one-time star politician Shatrughan Sinha also joining the pro-Natwar caucus and arguing against the nuclear deal?

What individual or ideological agenda did India’s main Opposition party have in standing up for someone whose immediate removal from the Manmohan Singh government it had so vociferously demanded when the Volcker report first erupted nine months ago? Why should the BJP be opposing a nuclear alliance that they were so keen to cement when in power?

The Sinha twins — Yashwant and Shatrughan — may well have relished their momentary return to the spotlight, but the fact is that the BJP ended up being seen as the B team of Amar Singh, not quite the goal, surely, of a party which, not so long ago,was seen as the principal pole of Indian politics.

Barely having recovered from the hole into which the Jaswant Singh ‘mole’ controversy had driven it, the party now was again on the backfoot. Fortunately for the BJP, a section of the party quickly realised the danger of being judged by the company that one keeps, but the damage had been done. The BJP had been exposed, not for the first time in recent months, as a party totally devoid of direction or ideology, rushing pathetically to seek shelter in Amar Singh’s shadow.

Is it any surprise then that the recent CNN-IBN-The Hindu state-of-the-nation poll done by the redoubtable Yogendra Yadav and his team suggests that if general elections are held today, the BJP would be down to just 82 seats while the ruling UPA would win over 300 seats?

The opinion poll confirms the precipitate decline of a party which, a little over two years ago, was seen as the dominant force in Indian politics. If the figures are true, then the BJP is being pushed back to its pre-Ram Janmabhoomi, pre-Shah Bano phase, a party existing only on the periphery of Indian politics.

The BJP’s propagandists have attempted to suggest that this is only a temporary blip, caused primarily by the inability of the party leadership to reconcile to the setback of losing elections 2004. This is partly true.

In the 27 months since losing power, neither Vajpayee nor Advani — the party’s big two — have particularly distinguished themselves. While Vajpayee has periodically threatened retirement, he hasn’t quite taken sanyas, with the result that long periods of Deng-like silence are broken by a sudden reminder of his patriarchal authority, which throws the party into confusion (recall his Lakshman comment at the BJP silver jubilee celebrations last year, or his defence of Rahul Mahajan).

As for Advani, the Jinnah controversy has meant that the party’s original ideological mascot is now seen with suspicion within the party’s rank and file. Instead of clearing the air over his remarks on Jinnah, Advani has chosen to exist in uncharacteristic ambiguity, symbolic in a sense of the ideological confusion that now dominates the BJP’s politics. Is it any surprise then that the party’s so-called Generation Next is unable to come into its own, worried that any firm political stand taken will be interpreted as a sign of naked ambition?

But the BJP’s problems go beyond the leadership stakes. That power struggle will perhaps sort itself out in the next 12 months. The BJP’s real crisis stems from its inability to define itself in 21st century India.

The emergence of the BJP as a national party in the late Eighties had as much to do with the decline of the Congress in the Hindi heartland as it did with a growing middle-class, middle-caste frustration with the inability of the ruling establishment to address their concerns, especially in the context of the role of religion in the public space.

The series of Congress blunders, starting with the Shah Bano case, provided the space for the BJP to attempt to legitimise itself in the eyes of those who until then saw the party as little more than a political extension of the RSS. If Advani’s yatras provided the muscular energy to a traditional Brahmin-bania party, Vajpayee’s prime ministerial years conferred the ‘respectability’ to the BJP that it so desperately yearned for. Now, both the energy and the respectability are in danger of being lost.

In particular, it’s the BJP’s relationship with the RSS that lies at the heart of its present predicament. The Vajpayee years had seen the gradual erosion of the RSS’s authority over the party, the obvious power of the Prime Minister’s Office diminishing the moral clout of Jhandewallan.

While Vajpayee’s inability to act against Narendra Modi after the Gujarat riots exposed the limitations of even his prime-ministerial power, the fact is that the former PM was consciously able to push the party towards a more centrist, inclusive position in Indian politics, be it on economic liberalisation, relations with Pakistan, and even on Ayodhya. It wasn’t a situation which the RSS was comfortable with, but the balance of power was weighted heavily against the Sangh. Defeat in 2004 saw the delicate balance unravel, allowing the likes of K.S. Sudarshan and Ashok Singhal to openly target the BJP leadership.

Now, this war within is poised for its final denouement. Does the BJP continue to stay as part of a fragile NDA coalition, even at the risk of ‘congressifying’ itself and losing its ideological moorings with the RSS? Or does it strike out on its own once again, even if it means losing some of its allies, and the possible benefits of electoral arithmetic? One view is that the BJP must adopt the Narendra Modi Gujarat model at the national level. That, instead of seeking to become another Congress, the BJP must blaze forth towards a hard Hindu position — hard on terror, hard on reforms, hard on uniform civil code and hard on minorities, backed by a strong administrative leadership that the middle-class in particular appears to yearn for.

But even Narendra Modi is trapped in a dilemma. Still identified with the Gujarat riots of 2002, he is simply not a national leader, and remains someone who is unable to campaign in several parts of the country like Bihar because the BJP’s allies like the JD(U) find his presence electorally offensive. Recently, in the Organiser, the Gujarat Chief Minister even stated that there are no links between religion and terror, a far mellower position than his thundering ‘mian Musharraf’ days. Maybe even Modi is realising the limitations of the politics of exclusion if his personal ambitions are to extend beyond Gujarat. Modi’s dilemma, in a sense, reflects the BJP’s identity crisis, a party which doesn’t want to return to the ‘ideological splendour’ of the 13-day-old Vajpayee government, but at the same time, now fears being completely de-ideologised. The choices aren’t easy, but will have to be made soon. Else, the BJP’s political marginalisation will only gather momentum.

The writer is editor in chiefCNN IBN and IBN

First Published: Aug 18, 2006 03:31 IST