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The next wave

Will the BJP leaders meeting in Bangalore hitch their fortunes to the New India or turn the party into an anachronism? Barkha Dutt finds more.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2008, 22:12 IST

It is entirely appropriate that the BJP should choose Bangalore as the setting for its National Executive meet. It is, of course, the state where the BJP’s ‘Southern sojourn’ began. With Karnataka in its kitty, the party is now clearly eyeing an alliance in Tamil Nadu, in its quest to transform from a party of the Hindi heartland to one with a pan-India presence. Since the BJP’s identity is defined by an assertive nationalism, it desperately needs the embrace of India as opposed to a smattering of state assembly victories.

But Bangalore is symbolic in ways that go much beyond the BJP’s geographical leaps. Even with its clogged streets and contentious airports, it continues to mark Modern India on the global map. With its self-made billionaires, software geeks and cosmopolitan cocktail of communities, it represents India’s can-do confidence, and our demand to stand up and be counted by the rest of the world. So it is in this city that the BJP must ask itself which language would be an acceptable dialect to New India. It is here, in a city that pushed American commentators to wonder if the world is flat, that the party must worry about being perceived as potentially anachronistic and out of sync.

The nuclear deal may or may not win the UPA extra votes in 2009. It is equally true that large numbers of our voters do not comprehend its complexity and, what’s more, may not even care to. The cynics have also pointed out that the chatterati cheerleaders of the nuclear deal will never bother to put their votes where their mouths are.

But, even so, there is no doubting the general sense of self-congratulatory patriotism that has permeated the national mood, at least in Urban India. In the 48 hours when the NSG waiver went down to the wire in Vienna and it appeared as if China may succeed in playing spoilsport to India’s aspirations, the negotiations transformed into some surreal version of a cricket match. And let’s be honest. For many Indians, this had precious little to do with how nuclear power was going to be the antidote to climate change and global warming. Nor was the excitement generated from any real understanding of Paragraph 16 or Clause Five of wordsmith magic. Instead, I suspect, many responses are rooted in reasons that are more cultural and sociological.

First, there is the fact that Indians love the sense of winning against an ‘enemy’. The perception that the ‘Eastern Dragon’ was threatening to devour the nuclear deal heightened the average Indian’s interest in seeing it go through. Add to that, China’s reported lobbying for Pakistan to get a similar deal, and a brusque statement from the US that ‘Islamabad just does not qualify’. Automatically, there was the psychological sense of winning against perceived opponents.

And then there’s the fact that while we may disparage George W. Bush and heap scorn on him, we still love America. We have studied there; have children who dream of Columbia and Harvard; relatives who run motels and newspaper stands or, at the very least, we have memories of a childhood vacation to Disneyland. In the strange new subculture that globalisation has given birth to, we are as much at home with Shah Rukh Khan as we are with Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis. A certain kind of Americanisation has been blended into our formative years to create a unique masala mix. We are firmly rooted in our Indianness, in our Hindi music, our classical dances, our A.R. Rahman and our cricket. Yet, we can crossover without self-consciousness from Bharat Natyam to Bruce Springsteen.

If there is anything we didn’t like about America, it was the fact that its people never treated us with the respect and recognition that we thought was our due. But ignorant assumptions about our land and culture were slowly challenged by successful Indians who grew roots in America and changed those perceptions forever. Forbes lists of millionaires and billionaires suddenly saw an explosion of Indian entries. And as Indians or people of Indian origin took over as CEOs of MNCs and banks, made a mark in Hollywood, and wrote books that made it to the New York Times bestseller lists, it was impossible for Americans to treat Indians as small-town hicks.

In some ways, for many Indians, the nuclear deal is simply an extension of this change. It’s recognition by the US that we think should have come long back and a certain sense of vindication that India-Pakistan have finally been de-hyphenated by Washington. So, if India was once the land of the pitiful poor, it is now the dreaded, even feared country, that can take away American jobs. And, the outsourcing debate means everyone has heard of Bangalore.

And it is in Bangalore that the BJP must ask itself whether it remembers the words of its own former Prime Minister who first described India and America as “natural allies”. The BJP may have raised legitimate questions over whether the 123 Agreement was drafted on equal terms and whether India’s right to test has been infringed. The political scrutiny has kept Indian diplomats on their toes, and that is something the Opposition can — and should — take all credit for.

But if Manmohan Singh and George Bush ink the deal later this month, does the party that first started the process of partnership really want to seem like the surly outsider? Should a nationalist party risk being seen on the same side as China and Pakistan? Should it risk making an ultra-nuanced argument on the nuclear deal — that for all its finesse makes the party sounds like a poor loser? On the eve of elections, would the BJP not be much better off taking on the UPA on issues of inflation, terrorism, governance? These are issues that matter to the people and issues that the UPA has clearly failed on.

Otherwise, just as the BJP charges the UPA with being paralysed in its pursuit of the nuclear deal, it, too, will be guilty of the same fault. This is now a done deal. And the BJP must find a new centrepiece for Campaign 2009.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

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