Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Out of touch (August 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A fortnight ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged from the Budget session of Parliament quite upbeat. Despite the Congress wallowing in the euphoria of victory, the party fulfilled its responsibilities as a robust but responsible opposition, questioning the Manmohan Singh government at every stage and attacking it spiritedly on foreign policy blunders. The change of guard in the parliamentary party, it seemed, had tempered its recklessness, kept internal differences on hold and begun focusing on serious issues of public policy and governance. The retreat from "shrillness" had, it appeared, been put into operation.

Tragically, the events of the past fortnight have not merely undone the good work in Parliament but cast the BJP in the most unfavourable light imaginable. Following the peremptory assault on Vasundhara Raje, the ungracious expulsion of Jaswant Singh and the skulduggery over the leak of an unsigned internal report, the party has painted itself into a corner. To both its supporters and a bewildered public, it has appeared petty, cussed, illiberal, undemocratic and completely at odds with itself. Despite the farcical gloss of "jolliness" the party president inexplicably detected in L K Advani's demeanour in Shimla, the BJP shows distinct signs of imploding.

If the public relations disasters had been occasioned by mofussil unfamiliarity with image management and a show of low cunning, the BJP would have reasons to be irritated but not alarmed. Unfortunately, the present turbulence doesn't seem an isolated cloudburst. At the heart of the internecine war is the unresolved question: What sort of BJP?

Political parties, especially those devastated by electoral defeats, are naturally inclined to seek self-renewal and, occasionally, reinvention. For all its pretence of being grounded in ideological certitudes, the BJP is no exception to an innate desire to remain relevant in the battle for power. There is, after all, no percentage to paraphrase a self-deprecating republican song from the Spanish Civil War in the other side winning all the battles while the chosen ones had the best songs.

In evolving a strategy of recovery, the BJP has been hamstrung by a series of pre-conceived notions. The first is a communist-like belief in the supremacy of ideology. That a worthwhile political party must be grounded in a loose set of values and a sense of mission isn't in any doubt. The problem arises when there is an attempt to codify ideology into scripture. The BJP began its innings with a commitment to a nebulous cultural nationalism. This was a framework of Indian nationhood which, while intellectually contested, allowed the party to demarcate itself from the Congress's constitutional patriotism and socialism. Since the connection between cultural nationalism and governance was illusory, it also permitted the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to embrace pragmatism without too much fuss. When in power, the BJP paid ritual obeisance to the party's distinctive facets and then proceeded to focus on issues such as robust foreign policy, an open economy and rapid modernisation.

A chunk of those who devoted themselves passionately to the BJP did so out of a conviction that it was a "Hindu party" committed to "Hindu interests". At the same time, the party's electoral advance (except in 1991) owed almost entirely to the fact that it was seen as a wholesome alternative to the Congress. It is not that the Hindu dimension of the BJP was disregarded but that Hindu identity took a backseat to more bread and butter issues. There was always a hidden tension between the BJP activist and those who voted BJP. Vajpayee exploited this to his advantage.

Recent attempts to codify political Hindutva and define an ideological "core" have contributed to the BJP reducing its political options dramatically. The charge of "ideological deviation" against Jaswant, for example, reveals a streak of regimentation. It negates the broad church approach and casts the party in the role of a sect, a move that fits uneasily with an increasingly self-confident Hindu youth and middle classes.

The second problem the BJP faces is its bizarre inclination to reduce political problems to organisational shortcomings. Till a year ago the party argued that a plethora of booth committees and multitudes of full-time pracharaks would see its candidates through. This "sangathanist" approach to politics is largely derived from the RSS tradition and may help explain why tensions between the organisation and mass leaders recur incessantly. Vasundhara is the latest victim of this uneasy relationship but she isn't going to be the last as long as organisation is seen as autonomous from politics.

A Times of India interview with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has fuelled frenzied speculation that the BJP may bypass its well-known public faces for a relatively low-key but ideologically sound person as the next leader. The search for an elusive Manohar Lal who personifies aam Hindutva may be an innovative way out of the present troubles. Unfortunately, it may not address the fundamental problem the BJP faces: estrangement from a young, impatient electorate which wants to combine glamour and glitz with quick-fix solutions. The party is still fixated on another India that is either disappearing or is in rapid retreat.

Times of India, August 25, 2009


ZoomIndianMedia said...

Perverted baseless thinking during the last decade that separated out youth from commitment to native Indian interests was peddled by a motley crowd - likes of Sunil Kulkarni as well as you. This thinking bought in by gullible leadership is the reason BJP is in the woods today. Humpty Dumpty, Tarzan, Alice in Blunderland are well deserved epithets for not just who you called the mofussil man with low cunning.

While the reality that BJP's lounge for muslim/xian vote has been politically detrimental has been validated, what has never been validated is the nonsensical position taken by you, some others that BJP articulating commitment to native Indian interests would have electoral penalty.

It is facile to argue that Hindu youth and standing up for native Indian interests is mutually exclusive. It is idiocy to allude that a political Hindu does not care for bread butter issues.

Many in the BJP, so called sympathetic journos indeed did kite flying without knowing either the art of elevating the kite or understanding how kite is built or fathoming the wind direction. They experimented with BJP and made it manifest their self conceptions without weighing in ground realities heavily influenced by christian democratic west. It is only those who like to bury their heads in sand, ostrich like, that would advocate repeating failed strategies/methods.

Riding multiple horses for a long time too has always been passe.

Indeed BJP will do well to operationalise Bhagwat's Hindutva commitment that RSS stands first and foremost for interests of native Indians, their beliefs, heritage. This is not to argue that RSS is perfect. As Bhagwat himself accepted, RSS (has weaknesses and) has to change with times.

BJP if it has to get out of its morass of the past decade, will need following:

a. Coherent definition of Ideology elements such as Hindutva, generate Big Ideas that will have resonance in minds of voters.
b. Social Engineering to expand its voter base on economic and social criteria.
c. Inspiring leadership of a proven performer like Modi who can bring in the incremental votes (something that Advani 2009 could not achieve)

Above three conditions in conjunction are necessary to take BJP forward, not the vacuousness buttressed by St Stephanian type(?) sophistry and high cunning.

Malayappan said...


Reading your reaction to Swapan and his own article, I get a sense that you two do not say different things! Although it appears so!

Swapan's argument is that Hindutva cannot be a political ideology (much less an election issue!), particularly when there are many and very different interpretations of the same.

Your argument strikes me as saying that a properly articulated Hindutva has to be the bottomline of any recovery.

To me these are not contradictory!

To give another handle to the issue at hand - to win political power the party needs to generate about 30 crore votes. It does not have that many committed supporters. The gap needs to be met from people outside the current tent. Level of commitment of those who come in afresh may not be identical to those who are already in, but that should not disappoint those who are inside!

Actually Govindacharya (whom I consider as one of our own) put it quite well in his interview in Tehelka. That as a political party the BJP will need to figure out an appropriate way (appropriate for a mainstream political party) to articulate Hindutva!

So, Sir, let us not fight with friends like Swapan. We need many many more like him!