Saturday, November 19, 2011

BJP in search of a message

By Swapan Dasgupta

Many decades ago a distinguished British parliamentarian remarked that Opposition was more about principles in a way that Government with its preoccupation with compromises never can. The gentleman, who spent most of his career in the backbenches as a political untouchable, was a rarity. In real life, the quest for the opposition space has also involved expedience, inconsistency and, even duplicity. Apart from moments of crisis such as war or an imminent national breakdown—as in Greece and Italy—the Opposition has been content to use parliamentary politics as an arena of one-upmanship.

The underlying belief is that in most general elections, the electorate votes out a government rather than vote in an opposition party to power. This is generally true as far as India is concerned although, in the post-liberalisation era, governments (particularly in the states) have shown an uncanny ability to secure repeated re-election.

In the past 12 months, as the UPA Government has staggered from crisis to crisis and progressively lost both direction and moral authority, the largest Opposition grouping has acted on the assumption that victory awaits it whenever the electorate is given a chance to express itself. Those who had a dejected, hang dog expression after the 2009 verdict have suddenly acquired an extra spring in their steps. They have acquired new hangers-on and their gift haul this Diwali turned out to be full of rich pickings.

It is the illusion of inevitability that may explain why the BJP has become so purposelessly active in recent months and why it has lost sight of one of the main functions of political existence—to deliver a message. Last week, as the UPA Government finally woke up from its prolonged spell of helpless inactivity and announced a reform-oriented legislative programme for the winter session of Parliament, the BJP reacted with astonishing incoherence.

The reason is not far to seek. Since the election defeat of 2004, the BJP has been in a state of denial and distraction. The process of denial, which contributed to the most unproductive five years in opposition, ended after the election results of 2009 and the removal of L.K. Advani from the post of Leader of Opposition. However, the process of distraction has persisted since the UPA-2 came to power and it has been fuelled by an unresolved leadership tussle.

The net effect is that issues have lost focus inside the BJP. The BJP no longer has any real idea of what it believes and what sort of India it would like to build after replacing the UPA with its own coalition government. The impulses that propel individuals and communities to favour the party over the Congress are very much there: nationalism, business-friendly economics, deregulation and oodles of cultural symbolism. How this translates into the globalised world of the 21st century is, however, left vague and unstated.

At one time the party loved the ideologues it inherited from the RSS; today, a crass philistinism rules the roost. Under Nitin Gadkari, an enormously successful, self-made businessman from Nagpur, the BJP has junked its earlier obsession with austere living and simple thinking. Today there is a belief that politics is about the timely deployment of resources—and plenty of it. Gadkari himself typifies the belief that political messaging is an incidental add-on: money is the key to securing political influence. In Maharashtra, Gadkari opposed Pramod Mahajan but in Delhi he has replicated his adversary’s style.

The BJP, for example, must have spent a staggering amount of money in the arrangements and mobilisation of the three yatras undertaken by three veteran leaders. Yet, there the political return on monetary investment is certain to be pitiful for the simple reason that there was a mismatch between the feeble message and the choreography.

The BJP is no longer sure of what it believes in—not in foreign policy which appears to be decided by embassy liaisons and junkets, not in economics which appears to flow from corporate lobbying, and certainly not in the negotiable moral economy of politics. The party has designated a working group to forge a Vision Document of sorts to educate the party about its core beliefs—after all, Deendayal Upadhyaya died some 47 years ago. But in the true traditions of those who write books without reading them, the project has actually been ‘outsourced’ to a Karnataka-based entrepreneur.

This is fairly typical. Having grown from a modest-sized party to a challenger to the Congress in a remarkably short period of time, the BJP has been unable to put into place alternative systems of self-regulation. While abusing the Congress system of patronage and cronyism, it has allowed the same system to take hold of the party’s nerve centres, with disastrous consequences. Karnataka is by far the worst example but recall that it was the opposition to cronyism that led to B.C.Khanduri’s removal as chief minister in 2009. Khanduri was restored once it became clear that his successor’s rampany cronyism was likely to be rejected by voters.

What has been happening in the BJP constitutes a betrayal of all those who believed in the creation of a wholesome non-Congress alternative. Fortunately, the rot is only skin deep and hasn’t affected the party’s vitality. But it is important that something is done now, well before the 2014 elections, to restore decorum and integrity. There is a good second-tier leadership that is capable of undertaking a spring cleaning.

Sunday Pioneer, November 20, 2011

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