Middle march

PTI | ByManoj Joshi
May 07, 2004 11:47 AM IST

Election 2004 has marked BJP?s decision to fight the poll as a ?normal? one.

Every election marks a small shift in a larger national political paradigm. Election 2004 has marked the BJP’s decision to fight the election as a ‘normal’ one, stressing its record, rather than relying on the appeal of its Hindutva angularities. The party’s ‘vision document’ released at the end of March self-consciously diluted its stand on its three principal ideological pillars — Ram mandir, Article 370 and the uniform civil code. Not surprisingly this was met with cynicism, especially after the mandir issue was inserted into the NDA agenda document.

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But the proof of the pudding has been in its eating: Election 2004 has largely steered clear of the emotive and divisive mandir demand. Despite some jitters, its major focus has been on the performance of its government and the personality and achievements of its leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

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While the prime minister’s pre-eminence has had a lot to do with the shift, it also involves the cold calculus of electoral numbers. In other words, the party’s strategy of achieving a majority by consolidating Hindu votes hasn’t worked, despite the massive upheaval caused by the campaign to build the Ram mandir at the site of the Babri masjid. After initial gains, the party’s position plateaued and, in UP, actually began to decline.

The BJP’s senior and oft-reviled leader, L.K. Advani, has been on record several times arguing that it was precisely to overcome the narrow appeal of the Jan Sangh that the BJP was created. Then, realising that even this was not enough for a parliamentary majority, the party subsumed its agenda within that of the NDA. But its success has also lain in its agile political management so evident in the manner in which it took the sting out of the Mandal revolution by inducting a generation of middle-caste leaders.

After the 1999 elections, it became clear that the party’s anti-Muslim stance was costing it that critical support needed to breach the 200-mark in the Lok Sabha. The party sought to address this in mid-2000 by appointing Bangaru Laxman president, the first-ever Dalit to head any major political party. In turn, Laxman came up with a new Muslim strategy, appealing to the community to forget the past and to remember that they were the “flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood”. Laxman’s gambit died with his political demise after Tehelka and was buried finally in the killing fields of Gujarat. But Election 2004 has shown that the moves were not a flash-in-the-pan, but a carefully thought-out strategy.

So after somewhat brashly declaring in 2002 that his party would win with or without Muslim votes, Vajpayee has opened all stops to woo the community.  Party leaders have, of course, been profusely apologetic over the Gujarat riots, but the PM topped it off with the offer to recruit two lakh Urdu teachers and allot Rs 74 crore for modernising madrasas. This is a long journey for a party that coined the words ‘pseudo-secularism’ and flayed ‘minority appeasement’.

Detractors will cite statements of various party figures to argue that the hardline agenda of the RSS still runs the party. But almost all political parties, especially those shifting their ground, make it a point to swear by the ideas and policies of a hoary leader. A good example is the Chinese Communist Party which even today swears by Mao. Or closer home, the CPI(M), a party quite comfortable with democracy and yet insisting that its policies are rooted in the ideas of Stalin. The BJP of today is not the Jan Sangh of S.P. Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, though they, along with Dr Hedgewar and Golwalkar, remain its icons.

Critics also argue that nothing has changed and that the BJP’s genuflection is a tactical shift designed to win elections. They say that the VHP and Bajrang Dal are the true face of the party all of whom are run by the shadowy RSS. Events like the demolition of the Babri masjid, its attendant riots and the Muslim massacres in Gujarat are too close and compelling to ignore. We have heard the Modis and Togadias fan sentiments of hate to further their party interests. But, under Vajpayee’s leadership, the party has very distinctly sought another, more moderate course as well, never mind periodic bouts of pusillanimity.

Some will dismiss Vajpayee as the mukhota of the party, and its recent moderation as a tactical shift. But history is replete with instances of how tactical compulsions aggregated themselves into a strategic transformation. The BJP will not be the first party in the world to begin at the extreme fringe and moderate its message over time. Neither will it have been the first to have used communal, racist and other base passions to gain political advantage, or on occasion, promote violence to achieve its ends.

In the Seventies, the Congress used religion to fight the Akalis in Punjab, a tactic that backfired so tragically in the Eighties. Its apologia for the Sikh massacres in 1984 have been at least as reluctant as those of the BJP’s in Gujarat.

The most telling example of how parties can change their character comes from the US. Both the Republicans and Democrats have in their past stoked racist and xenophobic frenzy, provoked riots, mayhem and even murder. The Know-Nothing movement that peaked in the 1850s sought to exclude foreign-borns from holding even municipal office. Its followers attacked the Roman Catholic church and conducted murderous attacks against poor Irish migrants. Yet, in a matter of years, this ‘sons of the soil’ movement merged into the new Republican Party led by Abraham Lincoln that won the presidency in 1860.

As for the Democrats, they were the pillars of the slave system that Lincoln reluctantly dismantled through a civil war. Despite the formal ending of slavery, governments in the southern states, dominated by the party, played a major role in keeping blacks in semi-bondage till the 1960s. The role of the State apparatus in shielding those who killed or rioted against the blacks would be par for the course in modern Gujarat. But the same party is today seen as a paragon of liberalism.

In recent elections, one in four voters has voted for the BJP. While it may not be expanding as much as it had hoped, its spread is impressive. The country cannot afford to have such a party espousing a narrow perspective, one that seeks to exclude minorities and adopt a negative posture towards them. It is in everyone’s interests to encourage the party’s transformation as a strong centrist outfit, which showcases the politics of Vajpayee, rather than Praveen Togadia.

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