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.