By Swapan Dasgupta
Has the BJP been at the receiving end of a malevolent evil eye? This is a question that is being asked not merely by the party’s sympathisers and well-wishers but by a multitude of fence-sitters who believe that, to be workable, the system needs a buoyant and effective Opposition.
The search for a supernatural explanation of the public relations disaster of the National Executive session in Patna is compelling. Having fulfilled its role as an Opposition reasonably well in the five months or so since Rajnath Singh was replaced by Nitin Gadkari, the BJP had every reason to believe that the National Executive meet would be purposeful in a non-spectacular way. It is not that anyone expected the Patna session to come up with any miraculous ‘war forward’ strategy. The most optimistic expectation was that it would give a chance to Gadkari’s office-bearers to familiarise themselves with the aggregate national mood in the party. At best, the party could have deliberated how it made an ass of itself in Jharkhand.
Instead what happened in Patna was unexpectedly bizarre. The relationship with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which has been exemplary for the past 12 years, was soured by some propaganda over-kill from Gujarat. To this was added media sniggers at the BJP’s eccentric decision to reward Ram Jethmalani with a Rajya Sabha seat from Rajasthan.
The Jethmalani affair is likely to be relegated to a footnote, at least till the flamboyant lawyers chooses to score his first self-goal. But the same cannot be said of the simmering tensions between the Janata Dal (U) and the BJP in Bihar. With just a few months to go for the Assembly election, the acrimonious undercurrents could either break the alliance or make it look politically incoherent. Either way, the advantage will pass from the NDA to Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress.
To believe that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as the wild distraction is over-simplistic. Modi does have fierce partisan support all over the country. It is also undeniable that there is a large section of the BJP which believes that all transitory arrangements should be dispensed with and Modi anointed leader. It is entirely possible that some of these elements used the Patna meeting to wave the flag for a new ‘Hindu hriday samrat’.
Nitish need not have reacted intemperately to the internal developments within the BJP. The inclusion of a photograph of the famous Nitish-Modi wave in Ludhiana last year in a BJP-supported advertisement wasn’t an offence that warranted the social boycott by one Chief Minister of another Chief Minister. Silence would have done him no harm.
Yet, the mere fact that Nitish did derail the BJP National Executive meet is significant. It suggests that he nurtures a profound irritation with ‘communal’ elements in the BJP. The Bihar Chief Minister wants a BJP with which he is in ideological sync. This is about as likely as the JD(U) shedding its Lohia-ite temperament and embracing the BJP’s Integral Humanism.
But while Nitish may be faulted for actually believing the media hype about him emerging as the great hope of ‘secular’ non-Congressism, there is some incomprehension as to what the BJP hotheads were after. Modi, it would seem, is being used by a section of the Bihar BJP for some ideological grandstanding aimed at pushing Nitish into a corner. Predictably, there is a caste dimension to this brinkmanship. But those familiar with the bickering in Odisha that preceded and followed the Kandhamal disturbances will not be blamed for nurturing a sense of déjà vu. An exasperated Naveen Patnaik broke a 11-year alliance with the BJP because he felt that the junior partner was no longer in a position to deliver an incremental vote. If Nitish starts believing that the BJP presence will undercut his own vote-bank without bringing in compensatory support, he may have no option but to ditch the NDA and target the Congress and RJD vote.
The BJP may be quite right in believing that no alliance can exist without mutual self-respect. The implication is that Nitish has punctured the BJP’s self-esteem and that the party must flex its muscles, if only to prove its worth to its own support base.
In theory such a tit-for-tat approach is unexceptionable. But there are two problems. First, elections in Bihar are around the corner and it does neither the BJP nor the JD(U) any good to lose the battle. Second, since 2004 the BJP has been steadily losing allies without making any independent headway. Its relations with every existing ally — be it Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and JD(U) — are strained. It will do the BJP’s national standing incalculable harm if Nitish decides to go his own way. It will reinforce the image that it is a difficult customer and potentially untrustworthy.
Since the 2004 defeat, a section of the BJP has believed that for the party to advance it must go it alone. This approach is also premised on the belief that a more belligerent Hindu stand will garner additional support. As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that India is reverting to the mood that prevailed during the height of the Ayodhya dispute. Nor is there anything to suggest that the BJP has been galvanised by another big idea which, in due course, will capture the national imagination. As a consequence of running purposeful State Governments, the BJP has become a staid, conventional party with some impetuosity on the margins. Its radical days are behind it.
The tragedy is that the party seems temperamentally disinclined to accept this reality. It seems to be forever in search of heady excitement. The result is that its good work in running State Governments and managing the national Opposition is offset by unthinking flamboyance that neither adds to its appeal nor enhances the comfort level of its allies.