Thursday, September 07, 2006

Living in denial (September 7, 2006)

BJP is plagued by lack of leadership

By Swapan Dasgupta

If governments and political parties in the West have been accused of becoming slaves of opinion polls, their Indian counterparts may well be charged with treating their findings with casual disdain. The two bi-annual State of the Nation polls published last month has produced broadly similar responses. The Congress, elated by the suggestion that it may well cross the 200 mark in the Lok Sabha in the event of a snap poll, has reacted with a blend of surprise and smugness. The BJP, honourable exceptions apart, has greeted the prognosis of impending electoral disaster with either disbelief or indifference. The Indian temptation of firing salvos at the messenger of bad tidings has also proved irresistible.

Cretinism apart, a reason why the polls have been by and large ignored owes a lot to the complexity of the findings. Whereas the projection of seats and the brand image index tilts towards the Congress, there appears to be grave dissatisfaction with the UPA Government’s handling of bread and butter and security-related issues. It is, for example, ominous that some 38 per cent of Hindus and 35 per cent of the electorate equate terrorism with the Muslim community.

In normal circumstances, particularly in mid-term, gut level anger at the inability of the government to contain prices and curb terrorism should have worked to the advantage of the principal opposition party. That the BJP faces the prospect of being reduced to its 1989 level in the Lok Sabha indicates that the national mood is less favourable to the Congress and UPA as it is against the BJP. The central message of the opinion polls is an indictment of a party that has muffed its role as the possible government-in-waiting.

The BJP owed its success in the late-1990s to three factors: the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the outburst of political Hindutva after the Ayodhya movement and its ability to strike strategic regional alliances. For five years, and momentary blips notwithstanding, it gave India a modicum of stability and good government. Under Vajpayee, India realised its entrepreneurial potential as never before and became a global player of consequence. Indeed, it would not be unduly gush-gush to suggest that the NDA provided India with a firm foundation on which to build a vibrant 21st century society.

It speaks volumes for the current state of the BJP that there has been no worthwhile attempt to comprehend why this political legacy has been dissipated in just 28 months. Confronted with one internal crisis after another, the BJP has gone into a state of denial. With an ageing leadership refusing steadfastly to pass the baton to another generation, the party has lurched from one bout of adventurism to another, raising issues that have been played out a decade earlier. It has made serious tactical miscalculations on the strength of either astrology or desperation to bring the government down. Confronted with tough choices of a very fundamental nature, it has left the onus of decision-making on the RSS which, by its own admission, is temperamentally unsuited to being anything more than a moral guardian.

The past 28 months has been marked by what can only be described as an onrush of unilateralism in decision-making. Right from the Jinnah controversy which led to a grassroots revolt against L.K. Advani, the BJP has paid a heavy price for putting internal democracy on hold. On issues ranging from something as crucial as Advani’s replacement as president to tactical questions involving the parliamentary party, decisions have been taken bypassing the collective leadership. The National Executive meetings have been reduced to a series of inanely predictable resolutions.

In the recent past the BJP has successfully focussed attention on its own shortcomings rather than the disabilities of the government. Consequently, its offensive has lacked the requisite sting. There was the bizarre spectacle of the national president being shanghaied aboard a suraksha yatra that neither inspired the faithful nor moved the people, and which had to be jettisoned half way. When suraksha did enter centre stage after the July 11 Mumbai blasts, the BJP chose to put the limelight on a ridiculous hunt for an elusive American mole. The recently-concluded monsoon session of Parliament was open season for the hustlers and saw the BJP flip-flopping mercilessly and conducting itself like the B team of the Samajwadi Party.

At the heart of this dysfunctional incoherence is a leadership crisis. Regardless of all the homilies about being a “structured” party that rises above personalities and individual idiosyncrasies, the BJP needs a clear chain of command as much as the Congress. In the past it has always been so and the leader, be it Vajpayee or Advani, has played a central role in channelling ideological impulses towards political mobilisation.

Skirting the leadership issue has created major distortions in the BJP. First, the ultimate authority still rests with veterans who have served the cause well in the past but who have no personal stake in the future. Second, the absence of a fresh, young public face has created a dissonance between the BJP and the below-30s who make up more than half of India’s population. Finally, the absence of an acceptable face has taken the inspirational element out of the BJP and laid bare the many ethical lapses of those associated with the party.

The BJP is sleep-walking its way to disaster. What is worse, the party knows it.

(Published in Times of India, September 7, 2006)

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