By Swapan Dasgupta
The passage of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill through Parliament was marked by a rare display of convergence. A Bill that was greeted with horror and outrage when it was first drafted was deftly modified to accommodate the objections raised by the Opposition, particularly the BJP. The final product may not satisfy everyone, not least those inclined to accommodate potential N-suppliers at any cost. But it constitutes the broadest consensus on a subject that will be crucial to India's transition to another energy regime.
The Government should, of course, be complimented for its pragmatic approach to a law the Prime Minister considers a key item in the welcome kit for the US President when he comes calling in November. Had the Cabinet persisted with the initial Rs 500 crore liability and the surreptitious attempts to make a mockery of the all-important clause 17b of the Bill, it would have had to engage in the same skulduggery that was last witnessed during the Trust vote in 2008. That, in turn, would have made President Obama's visit contentious.
Yet, it takes two to tango. If the UPA showed a willingness to pay heed to the opposition's objections and suggestions, it was also because the BJP shifted tack from its confused opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal to a policy of constructive engagement. It was, therefore, not merely Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Prithviraj Chauhan who chose to think of the BJP as the legitimate Opposition rather than as the 'enemy'; the BJP too undertook a much-needed course correction.
Contrary to some impressions, the tentative shift away from the cussed and disruptionist role played by the BJP in Parliament between 2004 and 2009, has not been easy. Those responsible for what I have often described as the 'Hizbollah-like' opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal succeeded in making the party look ridiculous to its large middle-class. The process was egged on by three factors.
First, there was a complete non-application of mind by the leadership. Stunned by its unexpected defeat in 2004, the top rung of the BJP seriously believed that unrelenting opposition would ensure that the fragile UPA dispensation would simply keel over. This belief owed as much to wishful thinking as to astrology but its net effect was paint the BJP as an obstructionist force.
Secondly, during the tenure of UPA-I, BJP moved away from the modernist plank that was a feature of the NDA Government. This was partly a reaction to the India Shining campaign's failure but it was also egged on the small trader impulses of those guiding the wider saffron movement. Thanks to this limited and blinkered vision, the BJP was unable to either present a coherent critique of the UPA's inept statist-welfare model or emerge as the natural party of rapid development. Consequently, Congress consolidated its traditional BPL vote and made deep inroads among the BJP's natural APL base.
Finally, following its 2004 defeat, the BJP abandoned all meaningful attempts to create a broad church party and retreated into an ideological ghetto. The growing importance of the RSS in the BJP may have been dictated by organisational imperatives but it led to serious distortions. The party leadership outsourced its strategic thinking to activists whose familiarity with a world beyond the committed was tenuous. This meant that the party didn't necessarily do what was right and necessary but tried to second-guess an RSS whose decision-making was at times guided by either flights of whimsy or based on eccentric inputs.
One major consequence of this over-reliance on a cultural body that is not naturally at ease with either politics or governance was the failure of the BJP to generate new blood. Rahul Gandhi's political impact may still be untested and based disproportionately on flattery and hype. However, the heir apparent has succeeded in creating a network on new talent. The BJP, on the other hand, has succeeded in repelling those who are committed to a non-Congress alternative but who have no connections with the RSS. The truncation of the NDA since 2004 is a reflection of the ghetto mentality that has overwhelmed a section of the BJP.
It is heartening that some of these dubious certitudes have been called into question by the leadership of the BJP parliamentary party. The party's role in the creation of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill marks the party's first worthwhile intervention in policy making at the Centre since 2004. It won't lead to an instant change in the popular perception of the party but it will give some reassurance to those Indians desperately searching for a worthwhile alternative to a blundering and complacent Congress.
Unfortunately, even this limited gain is in danger of being wiped out if the BJP now falls into a trap laid for it by the Congress. The 'saffron terror' issue is one where BJP must rebuff all attempts by extremists acting as custodians of Hindu interests to gain legitimacy. A resurrected Ayodhya dispute will be another test of its responsible nationalism. The Congress wants to paint the BJP as a party of narrow-minded fanatics out to destroy India's plural society. It wants to show that India's future isn't safe in the hands of such a force.
More than a thousand speeches, it is worthwhile policy engagements, like those on the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, which will persuade India to have another look at the BJP.