Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pramod and the BJP (May 7, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Secrets, and the confidentiality surrounding “off the record” conversations, can only endure for a lifetime. Last Wednesday afternoon, Pramod Mahajan passed into history leaving behind a distraught BJP which had always recognised his abilities but had only just about come to acknowledge his potential. He died just as he was making the transition from the first division to the super league. Pramod’s untimely death, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee put it so evocatively, was akin to sunset at noon.

The last lengthy conversation I had with Pramod was in early-January this year. We were guests at a small dinner hosted by the US Ambassador for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Having exchanged some tittle-tattle about political goings-on, I confessed to Pramod that I was a little uneasy with the BJP’s strident and shrill opposition to the proposed Indo-US nuclear agreement.

“You are not alone”, he told me with characteristic candour, “I am a little surprised too.” “Have you stated your views to the party?” I asked innocently. Pramod laughed derisively. “In our party”, he confessed, “few decisions are taken after consultations. One of the leaders makes a public statement and more often than not that ends up becoming policy. Most of us just go along.”

What Pramod told me that evening was no great revelation. Despite the quarterly meetings of the National Executive and monthly meetings of the national office-bearers, the process of collective decision-making has been seriously impaired in the BJP. Rampant individualism has coexisted with dedicated team work.

Pramod epitomised this contradiction. Entrusted with responsibility for managing the 2004 general election campaign, Pramod set about the task with methodical diligence. A great one for using technology to collate data and manage the information overload, he established a campaign office which, in terms of appearance and equipment, matched that of any presidential aspirant in the US.

There were, however, some key differences. First, the campaign centre was located, not in the BJP headquarters in Asoka Road, but in portakabins perched on the back lawns of his Safdarjung Road residence. Second, the campaign was conceptualised, planned and executed by a group of people whose relationship to the party was incidental. These included quack pollsters and lowly copywriters employed on a contract basis. Third, almost all those who had been involved in the BJP election campaigns of the past were bypassed and kept out of the loop. Nominally there was an election committee but it never met. The 2004 campaign ended up being a Pramod-run campaign rather than a BJP-run campaign. The series of disasters—from the Vision Document that became a Vajpayee photo album to the puerile SMS and phone calls—happened because those running the campaign were living in a make-believe world of their own without recourse to any feedback. It was such a fantasy world that hours before the counting, laminated charts containing projections of the conclusive NDA win were distributed to senior BJP leaders. They are priceless collector’s items.

To be fair, Pramod was large-hearted enough to own up to all the responsibility for the defeat. Lesser beings would have tried to pass the buck. But more important, the defeats in May 2004 and the Maharashtra Assembly election held three months later proved a very humbling experience for Pramod. He realised that his boundless energy and resourcefulness would have earned greater dividends had they been harnessed to the party. In short, the future lay in creating Team BJP rather than banking on Team Pramod.

Pramod was a quick learner and digested the lessons of the 2004 debacles without demur. Unfortunately, others were not so alert to the larger lessons of the defeat. Since June 2004—right from the day Vajpayee called reporters to Manali and inexplicably delivered a tirade against Narendra Modi—the BJP has been suffering from explosions of private agendas.

At a trivial level, there was the spectacle of Smriti Irani threatening to go on fast unless Modi was removed as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Madan Lal Khurana courting expulsion by flying off the handle and Shatrughan Sinha staying away from the Bihar election campaign because the party wasn’t willing to project him as its chief ministerial candidate. These were, unfortunately, more than individual misdemeanours. They flowed from the complete breakdown of decorous conduct right at the very top of the BJP hierarchy.

The “crisis” in the BJP, about which so much has been written in the wake of Pramod’s tragic murder, is not something that has arisen out of the inability of the “second generation” leaders to work harmoniously together. To my understanding, this has never been a serious problem. While there are individuals with different ambitions and divergent styles, these have not affected the integrity and coherence of Team BJP.

Pramod, who was prone to flippancy, articulated the problem inimitably. A man who liked the sound of his own initials, he didn’t mind being called PM. One afternoon, last year, someone jokingly referred to him Mr PM. “Don’t say that”, he retorted with a smirk, “I’m not yet 70!”

It was a cutting aside but it also drove home a problem that the BJP has been confronting, in an embarrassed fashion, since the 2004 defeat—the dogged resistance to superannuation. The “crisis” of leadership the BJP is said to be experiencing—and the prophets of doom have multiplied since Pramod’s death—actually boils down to the reluctance of the old guard to hand over responsibility to younger leaders. More to the point, the old guard wants to be relevant and at the centre of all decision-making. The result is that the party is confronted with contradictory pulls and pressures and suffers a problem of incoherence.

The manner in which Advani bludgeoned the party into hosting the ill-fated Bharat Suraksha Yatra is a case in point. In search of an issue that would bring him into the limelight and salvage his ideological credentials—battered after his controversial trip to Pakistan in July last year—Advani seized on the Varanasi bombings to tap Hindu disquiet. In terms of timing it was all wrong. First, there was no evidence that Hindu anger against the UPA Government’s “appeasement” of minorities had started boiling over. Second, it was announced at a time when radical Muslim opinion was firming up against the Congress for its policy of friendship with the US. Instead of waiting for this anger to fructify and actually encouraging the disarray, the BJP chose to reveal its cards prematurely. Finally, another yatra was perceived as a Pavlovian response to the BJP’s internal disarray.

The misgivings over the Bharat Suraksha Yatra were widespread within the party. You have just to see Pramod’s uncharacteristic discomfiture replying to Karan Thapar’s pointed questions to realise it. It was also no state secret that Party president Rajnath Singh had to be taken to his leg of the yatra kicking and screaming. And during the yatra, there was no central theme which was projected. The question is: why was the yatra undertaken despite these objections?

The answers are bewildering and a commentary on the BJP’s inner problems. First, since Advani had announced the yatra, after a perfunctory conversation with Rajnath, everyone was too polite to raise doubts. Second, there was no meeting of the BJP office bearers to discuss the political rationale behind the yatra. From its inception to its premature conclusion the yatra was centred on unilateralism. Even now, no one is willing to ask what political dividends the long journeys yielded for the party? Were the human energy expended and the money spent commensurate with the returns? Yet these questions haven’t been asked and nor are they going to be asked at the next National Executive meeting in Ludhiana.

The yatra is not the first occasion that important political decisions have been taken on individual flights of whimsy. The repeated boycotts of Parliament last year was thrust down the throats of a deeply reluctant parliamentary party—the uncharitable suggestion is that it was done at the behest of astrologers to trigger a crisis for the government. Likewise, Advani’s praise of Jinnah wasn’t preceded by any consultation within the party. It too was a misplaced act of unilateralism.

Pramod’s death at this juncture is a grave loss for the party. With his death the BJP has lost the services of a formidable organiser, an energetic mobiliser of resources and one of its best orators. Yet, there are people who can step into the void, even if no one is able to combine all three roles. Pramod will be missed but the BJP will not be crippled by his absence. Indeed, it would be wrong to suggest that Pramod’s absence will deepen the BJP’s crisis.

The truth is more complex. Pramod was helpless in the face of recent developments in the BJP. Like most others, he was just biding his time, waiting for the evolutionary process to run its course. Like other leaders with a future in front of them, he knew that a party like the BJP could not be run like the Congress—as a proprietary concern. Sooner or later the system of collective decision-making would prevail. It is a tragedy that Pramod will not be there to revel in the return to basics. He would have thrived as the captain of a team, not a cluster of talented individuals each doing his own thing.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 7, 2006)

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