Why the BJP lost its voice
It’s funny how the conventional wisdom in Delhi changes from month to month. Six months ago, the pundits said that Mayawati would be our next Prime Minister. Three months ago, they decided that with the Congress government done for, L.K. Advani would be the obvious choice to move into Race Course Road.
Now, the pundits have changed their minds again. The current conventional wisdom is that the Congress-UPA government will win the next election. It is the BJP that is done for.
I don’t have much faith in the conventional wisdom. If history has taught us anything, it is that the pundits are usually wrong. Five years ago, the same people were telling us that Sonia Gandhi had led the Congress to oblivion and that the BJP would rule India forever.
Nor am I ready to write off the BJP or L.K. Advani. In my experience, oppositions don’t need to win elections. It is enough that governments lose them. That’s pretty much what happened five years ago. The BJP lost the election. The Congress merely picked up the pieces.
But the current mood tells us something about how the Congress and the BJP have transformed their images. Five years ago, the BJP was seen as a strong party with a charismatic leader. The Congress was seen as a shambolic outfit, clinging desperately to dynastic leadership.
Now, the Congress is once again perceived as the natural party of government. It has managed a stable coalition for five years, coping easily with the defection of the Left and avoiding any major corruption scandal or communal bloodbath. Even the dynastic leadership objection has lost some of its power after Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the Prime Ministership. (And the foreign origin issue is now dead for the same reason.)
Moreover, the Congress has actually managed what once seemed impossible: it now stands for something.
The chattering classes may laugh at the NGO-bias of the government and editorial writers may condemn the waiving of farmers loans. But for better or for worse, the Congress is seen as a vaguely socialist party (Sonia Gandhi even defended bank nationalisation at the HT Leadership Summit) with a commitment to the ‘aam aadmi’.
This is a considerable achievement for a party whose government is headed by the original economic liberaliser and which has followed broadly market-friendly policies, even entering into a nuclear deal with the United States over the objections of the Left.
In contrast, the BJP has now become a party that stands for nothing. Five years ago, it went into the election packaging itself as the party of India Shining. When that avatar failed, it retreated so sharply from taking credit for the achievements of Emerging India that it almost abandoned its middle class supporters.
It could have gone the whole hog and occupied the Congress’ position as the party of the common man, but the BJP has lacked the imagination to make that jump. Even those who support the party do not believe that it has any special commitment to those at the margins of our society, the landless labourers, the hungry farmers, etc.
Instead, its leaders make fun of the Congress’ love of subsidies and sops for the poor, and speak of the importance of the market and of liberalisation.
But even that position now seems out of sync with the times now that the global capitalist system is in decline. This is
not a good time to represent the free market. The Congress’ determination to abandon solid economic principles and to write off loans and subsidise prices, which seemed like foolishness two years ago, now appears to have been prescient.
That leaves the BJP with its traditional issue: the rights of Hindus. But this poses problems of its own. How do you stand up for Hindus when there is no evidence that they are being discriminated against? The BJP’s rise to prominence during the 80s came at a time when the hard secularism of the Congress (Shah Bano, The Satanic Verses, Babri Masjid, etc.) had provoked a Hindu backlash. These days, however, there is no backlash. Nobody seriously believes that Muslims have a terrific deal in India or that Hindus are suffering.
Early attempts by the BJP to link Muslims with terrorism and to awaken Hindu insecurities have failed. Nobody seriously disputes that some Muslims are involved in terrorism. But equally, hardly anyone sees this as a reflection on the whole Muslim community. Nor is there any sense in which the terrorism is specifically directed at Hindus. Muslims also die in bomb blasts and the worst terrorism takes place in such Muslim countries as Pakistan, where the jihadis delight in killing their own people.
On the other hand, the BJP’s covert Muslims-are-terrorists agenda has prevented the party from making any inroads into the Muslim community. Five years ago, the BJP bragged that Muslims would vote for it at the General Election. (Advani even said that this was because his government had improved relations with Pakistan, leading to angry responses from Muslims, who accused him of questioning their patriotism.)
This time around, the party does not dare to make any such claims for itself. Muslims will not only refuse to support the BJP but they will vote tactically to defeat BJP candidates. Could things have been any different? Was there an alternative identity available to the BJP?
Actually, there was. This version of the BJP as the party of global capitalism is a relatively new invention. In the 90s, a substantial chunk of the BJP and almost all of the RSS were deeply suspicious of globalisation. Such leaders as Murli Manohar Joshi (sidelined by the current leadership) wanted the BJP to become the party of Indian enterprise. They were for liberalisation they said. They were just not in favour of globalisation.
A second strand consisted of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and such ideologues as S. Gurumurthy (and Ananth Kumar, in the days when he actually believed in something), which argued that India was making a huge mistake by allowing foreign companies to dominate our markets.
It is not my case that these people were right, only that they offered an alternative viewpoint to the Manmohan Singh position, which the BJP eagerly embraced and made its own. Given the current state of the global capitalist system, the Swadeshis have a right to be smug. If the BJP had paid more attention to their views, it would have had a distinctive economic policy, one that would have been more suited to these difficult times.
But because the BJP so closely modelled itself on the Narasimha Rao era-Congress (fair enough; Rao was probably India’s first BJP Prime Minister in many ways), it rejected all of the policies that could have given it an identity that went beyond memories of the Rath Yatra.
Now, it finds itself without a plank, without an identity, and with no issues to fight the election on. It may still win — anti-incumbency is a powerful factor in Indian politics — but it will have no vision of India to implement if it ever gets to office.