On Saturday evening, the Breaking News brigade had to take a difficult and unenviable call: Either to prioritise the shenanigans at the Copenhagen conference on climate change or the scripted finale of a melodrama that began with the BJP’s defeat on May 16. Most channels ended up doing a balancing act that left no one entirely happy. The bleeding hearts lamented the casual treatment of a conference ostensibly aimed at saving the planet from ecological disaster. The desi political animal on the other hand thought it unworthy that air time should be expended on a useless jamboree that interested only the jholawallah minusculity. Far better, they believed, to concentrate on the drama in India’s main Opposition party.
It is not my business to ascertain who was right. Sitting in TV studios that evening, what struck me was the remarkable similarities between the frenzied search of a declaration in Copenhagen and the quest for a political settlement in the BJP. True, the climate change conference produced more drama because the end-game was capsuled into 10 days of hyper-activity. By contrast, the BJP drama has stretched for nearly seven months but there have been no unseemly though colourful street protests to celebrate the confusion. Compared to the Copenhagen bacchanalia, the BJP drama was as sedate as a 1960s love duet in a Hindi film.
And yet, there were marked similarities in the end-games. In Copenhagen, the outcome was a face-saving, non-enforceable declaration that didn’t even satisfy the signatories. The West didn’t succeed in getting the developing countries, but particularly China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BASIC group), to agree on international monitoring of its carbon emissions. The developing countries didn’t get the generous compensation package from a recession-hit West. And the clowns outside the conference venue were left convinced that the end of the world was imminent.
It was a similar situation in the BJP. The RSS was forced to accept the principle of an honourable exit route for LK Advani. The post of chairman which was given to the veteran leader fits uneasily into any organisational chart. If he plays his cards well, Advani could emerge as the primary moral authority in the BJP, almost rivaling the ideological ombudsmen in Nagpur. The belief entertained by those adept in the art of remote control, that Advani would retire and devote his energies reading books, watching cricket and enjoying Hindi films, have been dashed. The inventor of the modern rath yatra has publicly said that he is still in the game of politics, although he carefully avoided any mention of the Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew precedent. In recent years, the management of the BJP has certainly come to resemble a dyarchy; Saturday’s agreement formalised it.
If the “politicians” in the BJP scored a modest success by ensuring Advani’s exceptional status, they failed to establish the inviolability of the principle that ‘the BJP should be run by the BJP’. It is no great secret that Nitin Gadkari, like his predecessor Rajnath Singh, has been appointed by the Sangh and the “politicians” have merely endorsed a decision taken elsewhere. But unlike the transition in 2005 which was based on tacit understanding, the latest arrangement is based on the bizarre separation between ‘politics’ and ‘organisation’. The BJP will control its own politics but the RSS (through its full-time pracharaks) will run the organisation. Whether this curious separation — reminiscent, in a strange sort of way, of the separation between ‘mass struggles’ and parliamentary interventions in the Communist parties — will work or become the recipe for incoherence is something that bears close monitoring.
The affable and well-liked Gadkari has his work cut out for him. His ability to be an effective president will depend on his success in bridging this divide. The new president will be conscious that he owes his appointment to the RSS, not to speak of Mohanrao Bhagwat’s public veto of the so-called ‘Dilli 4’, but he has to realise that his appointing authority is increasingly being perceived as a self-serving faction in the BJP. The manipulative conduct of the ongoing organisational elections has left a bitter taste in many mouths and it will take an exemplary show of fairness by the new president to restore confidence in the BJP’s political processes. If Gadkari is seen to be controlled by a cabal of pracharaks, it will lessen his effectiveness and in due course lead to desertions from the party. If the impression gains ground that RSS membership is a prerequisite to a meaningful political career in the BJP, the party will lose its appeal as the principal opposition to the Congress.
Like Copenhagen, it has all boiled down to a simple question of how to save the world. The RSS believes that the BJP has strayed from its mission and has lost sight of its core beliefs. The RSS wants to focus on identity issues and conduct campaigns to uphold Indian heritage. The pragmatists in the BJP feel that India has changed in the past two decades and that a national campaign to save the cow and the village — the scarcely noticed Gau-Gram Yatra — leave a new generation bewildered rather than moved. They want to focus on bread-and-butter themes and want the party to make a special bid to connect with a new generation that is more cosmopolitan, more culturally adaptive and more impatient to get on in the world than their parents or grandparents were. They want to focus on contemporary issues and leave religiosity to the sadhus and sants. In short, the tussle is over the very identity of the BJP in the 21st century: A party preoccupied with the past or a party looking to the future.
As of today, the BJP is dangerously close to merely occupying the historical space.