Saturday, September 16, 2006

Lost and leaderless (September 16, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

IN Indian politics it is sometimes difficult to separate reality from caricature. A farcical mix-up forced the BJP to confront this problem at the National Executive session in Dehradun earlier this month.

A clutch of papers and documents which delegates were handed out on arrival contained, among other things, the text of party president Rajnath Singh’s address to the previous National Executive meeting held in Delhi three months ago. One delegate, either an ignoramus or someone with an impish sense of humour, was approached by a reporter from a news agency for a mandatory “exclusive”. Without batting an eyelid, he presented the reporter a copy of Rajnath’s Delhi musings. The reporter couldn’t believe his luck. He imagined he had laid hands on a text of the presidential address the day before it had been delivered. Without examining the fine print, he rushed to file his “exclusive” report which was duly disseminated to all the media subscribers. Since there was not much happening that day, most of the newsrooms picked by the report for their “dak” editions.

It was purely by chance that someone, late in the evening, drew the proverbial attention of a BJP spokesman to the news agency’s preview of Rajnath’s speech. Realising the mix-up, he pressed the panic button and persuaded the agency to withdraw its unwitting misrepresentation. By then the damage had been done and most newspapers carried curtain-raisers of a speech made by the rashtriya adhyaksh three months ago!

What is remarkable about the mix-up is not that it happened but that most newsrooms accepted the report without demur. Two conclusions follow. First, that it is possible to sell the media just about any pup. Secondly, that the BJP is so template that a three-month old speech can just as easily be passed off as today’s news.

Being above mundane accountability, the media can afford to be blasé about its own shortcomings. For the BJP, however, the message is ominous: from once being associated with political innovation, improvisation and imagination, it has come to be synonymous with predictability. To put it less charitably, a large chunk of the outside world perceives the BJP as an old LP record with the needle firmly stuck in a groove.

For a party that missed being at the helm of affairs in New Delhi by a whisker a mere 28 months ago, the fall of the BJP has been precipitate. The party still leads a formidable opposition combine in Parliament and is a major stakeholder in eight state governments. With luck and a dose of anti-incumbency, it may add Uttaranchal, Punjab and even Goa, to its tally next year, thereby compensating for the possible loss of Jharkhand.

Yet, despite this large spread, the BJP conveys all the unmistakeable signs of a party that has somehow lost its way. The gung-ho over-confidence which marked the final year of the NDA Government has been replaced by an all-round dispiritedness which, in political terms, has translated into the party looking more and more inwards.

The facile explanation for this disorientation is that there is a fierce tussle between those who are described as Hindutva “hardliners” and more moderate pragmatists. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was always viewed as a moderate and L.K. Advani the hardliner. After the controversy over his Pakistan visit, Advani has been placed with the moderates and pitted against faceless apparatchiks. By a natural process of extension, the party’s confusion has also been blamed on the desire on the part of the RSS to impose its authority on the BJP. Since it is customary for conviction-based parties to withdraw into an ideological bunker in moments of adversity, the BJP too has been charged with falling back on hoary certitudes to offset the after-effects of the shock defeat in 2004.

The reality, it would seem, is a little more complex. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 defeat, there were many—not least in the RSS and its affiliate organisations—who blamed the electoral setback on the apathy of committed voters to a government which had lost sight of emotive issues such as the construction of the Ram temple. The BJP, it was argued, had paid the price of ideological deviation. India Shining, it was held, should have been subsumed by full-throated cries of Jai Shri Ram. The country, it was implied, was all dressed up for a Hindu revolution but was betrayed by BJP leaders who spent their waking hours either feathering their own nest or attending to ministerial files.

Although most BJP leaders feigned grudging acceptance of this “betrayal” theory—both M.Venkiah Naidu and Advani acknowledged the disappointment of the karyakartas in their presidential addresses at National Council meetings—the party as a whole was loath to abandon aggregative politics for ideological grandstanding. This, despite the RSS sarsanghachalak’s perceived patronage of those hell-bent on creating a separate “Hindu” party. True, the BJP has never missed any opportunity to tom-tom its “distinctiveness”—witness its aggression on the recent Vande Mataram controversy—but, at the same time, it has made an important distinction between preaching to the converted and connecting with the wider electorate.

The failure of the protests against the arrest of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi in 2004 was an important pointer to the fact that 1990s-style “identity” politics was yielding diminishing returns in a country which is delighting in the lollipops offered by the market economy. Despite an attempt by Advani to force its hand, the party consciously steered away from involvement in the anti-quota stir last summer. And, in terms of electoral politics, the BJP has contested all the major State Assembly elections since May 2004 on issues that have not compromised its relations with NDA partners. In West Bengal, for example, it underplayed its rhetoric against Bangladeshi infiltrators to accommodate its Trinamool Congress ally.

Hindutva, Advani once told a National Executive meeting a decade ago, can best be viewed as “the ideological mascot of the BJP”. This core brand positioning is certain to persist without necessarily overwhelming the party’s marketing strategies. If there is a shift, it will be on account of a mood transformation in the country rather than the desire of activists to fall back on self-comforting certitudes. The BJP is a party that is committed to cultural nationalism—another euphemism for Hindutva—and champions Hindu interests. But, as a participant in the electoral arena, it will not confine itself to Hindu issues alone. This is a dichotomy that is inherent in the party. It is also the only way the party can be a mass-based, rainbow coalition of both Indian conservatism and the Indian Right.

The argument that the BJP is a conventional party of the Right—an Indian equivalent of, say, the Christian Democrats of Europe or the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom—is often contested by those who point to the unique role played by the RSS in its affairs. Since the RSS is, strictly speaking, not accountable to the electorate or indeed to any one but its own swayamsevaks, its influence over the BJP has been seen to be a non-democratic drag on the BJP. Over the years, many of Left and liberal persuasions have argued that the BJP will forfeit its claim to be regarded as a “normal” political party until its snaps its umbilical cord with the RSS.

The relationship between the RSS and BJP is a constantly evolving one. There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the ban imposed on it in 1948, the RSS felt the need for a political outlet for its swayamsevaks. This coincided with the attempt by former stalwarts of the Hindu Mahasabha, notably Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, to forge a nationalist, pro-Hindu alternative to the Congress. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 as an alliance of these twin imperatives. The RSS loaned foot soldiers and apparatchiks to the BJS while Dr Mookerjee brought political experience and gave the new party a public face.

With the tragic death of Dr Mookerjee in Srinagar shortly after the first general election, the balance of forces in the BJS tilted sharply towards the RSS. Although many individuals from non-RSS backgrounds—notably Devaprasad Ghose, Raghuvira and Rajmata Vijaye Raje Scindia—occupied important positions, individuals “loaned” to the BJS by the RSS played the decisive role. The role of senior RSS pracharaks such as Deendayal Upadhyaya, Kushabhau Thakre, Nanaji Deshmukh and Sundar Singh Bhandari in determining the political thrust and shaping the culture of the BJS can hardly be overstated. Most of those who played an active role in the BJS will testify that there was no day-to-day interference in the functioning of the party and this stemmed from the RSS’ complete faith in the BJS leadership.

Has the transition from the BJS to the BJP involved a shift in this relationship?

To begin with, the BJP as a political party is much larger and more politically relevant than the BJS ever was. The BJS, at best, enjoyed an equal status with the Swatantra Party and the various avatars of the Socialists in the broad anti-Congress constellation. Apart from holding power in the Delhi Metropolitan Council from 1967 to 1972, the BJS never controlled any state government on its own. The most it ever managed was to share power briefly in short-lived coalition governments. In its 25 years, the BJP has managed far more. It even gave India its first genuinely non-Congress Prime Minister. For the BJP, the stakes are much higher.

Secondly, since the Ayodhya movement, the BJP has established itself as a distinct ideological pole. It has reshaped political alignments on its own terms, though not always to its own advantage. The BJP has been phenomenally successful in redefining India’s security paradigm, challenging hitherto uncontested Nehruvian assumptions of foreign policy and offering a powerful majoritarian critique of secularism. Despite petulant charges of betraying Hindutva that is periodically levelled by purists, Vajpayee and Advani together have done more to advance the cause of Hindu nationalism than any other in recent times.

What is more, most of the creative ideas which have emerged in the past two decades centred on Hindu nationalism have arisen from the BJP and not the RSS. Looking at the internal dynamics of the Sangh parivar, the scales have tilted decisively in favour of the BJP. Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad which at one time looked poised to enter the stage as a variant of the Christian coalition in the US has been reduced to a vocal but ineffectual rump.

The impact of this shift in the balance of power has been considerable. Till the time the NDA Government came to power at the Centre in 1998, the relationship between the RSS and BJP was managed with utmost discretion and behind closed doors. RSS stalwarts such as Bhaurao Deoras and former sarsanghachalak Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya) developed strong personal relationships with the top echelons of the BJP and helped sort out the wrinkles in RSS-BJP ties. Even Vajpayee’s lukewarm attitude to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement wasn’t allowed to come in the way of a mature relationship between the two bodies.

In line with its philosophy that “fraternal” parivar bodies should enjoy functional autonomy, the RSS also shied away from day-to-day involvement in the affairs of the BJP. A number of chosen pracharaks would, of course, be despatched periodically to work in the political arena but they were at the same time expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the priorities of the BJP. During elections there were periodic requests from RSS units to accommodate such-and-such individual. In some cases the requests were met and in others refused, but the principle functional autonomy was never contested. Indeed, all general elections from 1989 to 1999 witnessed parivar bodies pooling their resources to help candidates of the BJP and its coalition partners.

The election of the NDA Government in 1998 introduced new complications. Unlike the Congress which had got accustomed to the exercise of political power, both the BJP and the wider Sangh parivar were new to the game. The sheer magnitude of opportunities and the scale of available patronage proved dizzying to many who had spent a lifetime outside the purview of the wider Indian establishment.

The troubles began even before the swearing-in ceremony when early-morning confabulations involving a top RSS functionary and the prime minister-designate led to Jaswant Singh being excluded from the Cabinet. Jaswant had originally been billed to assume charge as Finance Minister. Although the objections were couched in ideological terms—Jaswant was charged of being unduly partial to multinationals—it subsequently transpired that the RSS was goaded into objecting on the strength of the misgivings of a powerful corporate group.

Although the RSS had its way, its direct interference in a process that should have been the preserve of Vajpayee ensured injected a sour note into the the top BJP leadership’s relations with the so-called parent body. Many of the RSS’ functionaries in the states took Vajpayee’s needless capitulation as the signal for sustained pressure on NDA ministers. The bulk of these demands had precious little to do with the RSS’ Hindutva project; they related mainly to appointments, contracts and disbursements of government largesse. What has come to be known as the petrol pump scam was only one element of the frenzied quest for securing the material benefits of political power.

Ideally, the RSS should exercised restraint and applied moral pressure on BJP ministers to curb the greed of karyakartas. Unfortunately, once it was clear that some RSS functionaries were feathering their own nest, the less ideologically committed in the BJP joined in with gusto.

The extent to which the supposed “wishes of the Sangh” were met depended on individual BJP ministers. But the never-ending demands, couched in very self-righteous terms, undermined the RSS’ moral authority over the BJP. The image of the selfless pracharak devoting his energies to the propagation of the Sangh’s ideals was seriously compromised.

The term of the NDA actually witnessed rival flights of whimsy. Whereas those claiming to speak for the Sangh were hell-bent on what a very senior BJP leader described as “micro-management”, a euphemism for disbursement of favours to greedy karyakartas, a section of the Government, notably around the Prime Minister’s Office, was equally determined to make private likes and dislikes the criterion of political functioning. The damage both groups did to each other was incalculable.

In mid-2003, during the Jammu and Kashmir election, the RSS actively encouraged the formation of a separate Hindu party in Jammu to compete with the BJP. The new party performed miserably but soured the atmosphere sufficiently to ensure the decimation of the BJP in its traditional Jammu strongholds. It was around this time a very senior VHP leader told me that he had evidence that the Home Ministry was conspiring with the Al Qaeda to “eliminate” him. It was a preposterous charge but indicated the extent to which various wings of the parivar perceived each other as enemies.

By the time the general election was announced in early-2004 and the re-election of the NDA seemed a certainty, the political atmosphere of the once-united Hindu parivar was vitiated. The larger political project was made a hostage to competitive self-aggrandisement.

To comprehend the internecine war which erupted after the NDA lost power in May 2004, it is important to understand the breakdown in RSS-BJP relations that had already taken place earlier. It is in this context that we have to view the Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan’s contentious TV interview where he was very critical of the NDA’s record and suggested that Vajpayee and Advani had overstayed their welcome. Indeed, the backdrop of Advani’s controversial visit to Pakistan was the growing belief that the RSS, egged on by the VHP, was on the verge of blessing the formation of a new and explicitly Hindu political party.

There is a suggestion that Advani’s contentious statement at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was part of a larger process of re-positioning premised on the exodus of the loony fringe from the BJP. If so, it proved a tragic miscalculation. Advani’s choice of symbols to drive home his message was seriously flawed. While his attempt to redefine RSS-BJP ties keeping in mind political realities and the experience of the NDA Government enjoyed support, there were few takers for his choice of Jinnah as the symbol of revisionism.

When he returned from Pakistan, Advani was confronted with a grassroots revolt involving the entire party. He, unfortunately, mistook a genuine sense of outrage for a RSS-inspired revolt. Slightly taken aback by the intensity of the opposition, he tried to counter it by making the issue a test of personal loyalty.

Advani’s unwillingness to either retract—he had been suggested a clever way out of the mess by distinguishing between the demands of protocol and party policy—or step down immediately had two consequences. First, his undeniable moral authority in the BJP, centred on the right blend of realpolitik and ideology, collapsed abruptly. He became increasingly bitter and, in time, reduced himself to the level of a faction leader.

For the BJP, this self-inflicted fall from grace was a great tragedy. With Vajpayee showing his age and beginning to withdraw from active involvement, Advani’s difficulties created a monumental void in the BJP. Ideally, the baton should have been transferred to the second generation of leaders who had been nurtured by the two stalwarts. However, the old guard was unwilling to permit this transition and let go the reins of authority. At the same time, the parampara of the Hindu parivar did not permit the BJP to be nasty towards venerable elders.

The second consequence of Advani’s fall was the abrupt shift in the balance of power in favour of the RSS. As the only organised grouping in the BJP with an established chain of command, the RSS felt obliged to step into the void created by the turmoil at the top. At the same time, the RSS’ involvement has not been total since it is itself in the throes of a spirited debate over exercising authority in the BJP or opting out of political involvement altogether and concentrating on its core area of “nation building”.

In the past year, the RSS has sent out very mixed signals. At one level, it was almost solely responsible for the appointment of Rajnath Singh as the successor to Advani. However, this was not been coupled by attempts to decisively dictate the BJP’s political priorities and set the agenda. It may sound strange but the RSS is preoccupied at present with organising many hundreds of events all over the country centred on the birth centenary of Guruji Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghachalak. Setting the BJP’s house in order is not its immediate priority.

The net result of this impasse is the BJP’s descent into incoherence. Although the BJP is nominally a structured party committed to collective leadership, it was either Vajpayee or Advani who set the agenda and took decisions which were subsequently endorsed by the rest. Today, there are multiple centres of decision-making in the party, a situation made possible by the unwillingness or inability of the party president to exercise his authority. The ill-fated Suraksha Yatra saw the party president being shanghaied kicking and screaming aboard a me-too rath. The misadventure was cut short by Pramod Mahajan’s tragic death.

There has been a mushrooming of unilateral decisions, many of which are at odds with each other. The party’s stand on the all-important Indo-US nuclear deal, to take one example, was decided shortly after the George Bush-Manmohan Singh meeting in July 2003, on the strength of the personal preferences of one of Vajpayee’s aides. To this date, there has been no detailed internal discussion on the subject in the party.

Likewise, Advani led the party into a series of remarkable flip-flops on the Justice Pathak report on K. Natwar Singh’s involvement in the Oil-for-Food payoffs. There was the unedifying sight of two BJP members of the Rajya Sabha—Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha—and the Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh cheering the discredited Congress leader as he frothed and fumed before the cameras. By the end of the parliamentary session the BJP was so utterly confused about where it stood that it connived with the Congress in preventing a debate on the subject in the Rajya Sabha.

There was also the utterly farcical controversy triggered by Jaswant Singh on the elusive American mole and the post-Kandahar champagne party. Jaswant’s book, in fact, helped the Congress divert the focus from its inability to come to grips with the terrorist threat. The monsoon session of Parliament saw the BJP bail out the UPA by incessantly shifting the limelight from the Government’s shortcoming to its own contradictions.

Two incidents drive home the growing incoherence in the BJP. In early-August, the BJP joined hands with the Government and the Left to endorse a unanimous resolution in Parliament condemning the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Within a week of this resolution, the party president announced in, of all places, Panaji that India should emulate Israel and launch pre-emptive strikes on terrorist bases in Pakistan and Bangladesh!

Four days before the BJP National Executive met at Dehradun, BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley confessed guardedly to CNN-IBN that the BJP had squandered some of its natural anti-incumbency advantage by focussing on irrelevancies. It was clear that he was hinting at the party’s disastrous performance in Parliament. At Dehradun, Advani devoted his speech to praising the BJP’s parliamentary strategy, particularly the contribution of Yashwant Sinha, the man responsible for the Natwar fiasco.

Although the old guard remains in a state of denial and await the sudden death of the UPA Government which will give them another shy at government-formation, the disarray in the BJP is leading to growing restiveness among the party faithful. It is more than likely that all the anxieties about the party’s future will come to a head after the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh next year.

As things stand, the BJP in the state has more or less abandoned the field with a section of the national leadership having cut a deal with the Samajwadi Party. But while it is true that Mulayam Singh Yadav may be forced into taking the BJP’s help in UP in case the verdict is inconclusive—the hoped-for quid pro quo will be the Samajwadi support for a future NDA arrangement at the Centre—the BJP has to first win a sufficient number of seats on its own for any deal to be worthwhile. Going by the present demoralisation of the state unit, it seems highly unlikely that the BJP will finish the race in a respectable third place. In private, BJP activists doubt the party’s ability to win more than 25 Assembly seats.

If the results in UP are indeed so dismal for the BJP some of the flak is certain to be drawn by Rajnath Singh. However, the party president will not be only one to have his fingers burnt. It is certain that larger questions will be raised about the lack of inspirational leadership and the party’s growing inability to connect to the new, young India whose electoral influence is increasing with every revision of the electoral rolls. These are issues which the BJP should have debated after its May 2004 defeat but which were shelved so as not to upset the increasingly fragile status-quo.

For the moment, thanks to some grandstanding by the veterans, the BJP has been able to delay the issue of leadership which is at the heart of its present crisis. But it is only a matter of time before it is forced to confront the inevitable. The restiveness on the ground augurs well for the one man who is fast emerging as the instinctive choice of BJP voters to lead the party in 2009: the leader from Gujarat.

It may well be a controversial choice. But the BJP has performed best when it has courted controversy and flaunted its distinctiveness.

(Published in Tehelka, September 23, 2006)

No comments: