Hindutva Or Rudderless Drift
The future of the BJP
By Praful Bidwai
16 June, 2004
The Praful Bidwai Column
brave pretences, the Bharatiya Janata Party remains shell-shocked by
its comprehensive, humiliating defeat in the Parliamentary elections.
From a party which laid down the political agenda for more than a decade--that
is, even before it came to power in New Delhi in 1998--, the BJP suddenly
finds itself on the margins of politics. Along with its NDA allies,
it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self in major states like
Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, where it loomed
large whether or not it was in power. In the Rajya Sabha, the NDA was
slated to win a bare majority this summer on the assumption that it
would hold firm in the states. That prospect has now receded. The BJP's
allies have suffered more ignominiously, having been reduced to a third
of their strength before April.
How does the BJP
explain and come to terms with its rout? The short answer is, it does'nt.
Its topmost leaders were stunned into graceless and undignified silence
for a whole fortnight after the election results. When Mr L.K. Advani
finally spoke to the press on May 31, his "explanation" was
ludicrous: the BJP-NDA lost the mandate, but no other party/alliance
won it. But no amount of jugglery with words, or spurious reasoning
about regional variations, can negate the overarching truth that the
NDA was trounced in 23 out of the 28 states of India. Its rival, the
United Progressive Alliance, enjoys the support of 320-plus Lok Sabha
MPs--a number the NDA couldn't dream of at the peak of its power.
Mr Advani's "explanation"
is a non-starter, but he at least concedes that "India Shining"
was overdone: the NDA's policies fell short of the voter's expectations.
Mr Vajpayee, the BJP's tallest leader, isn't even prepared to concede
that. He rules out either poor policies or the "Modi factor"
(the impact of the Gujarat violence in numerous states) as the defeat's
causes. He claims the BJP lost because "we were too complacent"
and in places, "we didn't have a clear rival". Mr Vajpayee
implicitly concedes that the BJP does well only when it campaigns negatively,
by maligning its opponents, not because of its own positive appeal.
In truth, the BJP
viciously attacked Ms Gandhi in a very personal way on the "foreign
origins" issue. It missed no opportunity to hit other well-defined
targets either. As for the "Modi factor", sober analysis shows
the NDA lost millions of Muslim votes everywhere, its share in that
total declining from 14 to 11 percent--or roughly half its share in
the aggregate national vote. (By contrast, the Samajwadi Party bagged
15 percent of Muslim votes, three times higher than its overall national
share. TheCongress and allies secured 52 percent of the Muslim vote.)
As for "complacency", it's a question-begging term in the
first place. Nobody can accuse the BJP of not having campaigned energetically,
marshalling all its forces and huge sums of money, and ably "micro-managing"
The BJP leadership
lacks the intellectual ability to grasp the quality and causes of the
electoral defeat. But does it have the resources to devise a grand gameplan
to stage a comeback? That too looks doubtful. Of course, the party is
focusing on "tainted" Ministers. But that doesn't look too
convincing given that its Messrs Advani and M.M. Joshi and Ms Uma Bharati
had serious charges against them all these past six years, and that
Mr George Fernandes was re-inducted into the Cabinet without being cleared
by the Tehelka inquiry. The NDA apparently fielded 78 candidates with
a criminal record in the latest elections. In any case, staging walkouts
on such issues doesn't add up to a gameplan or strategy.
Under its unquestioned
organisational boss (Mr Advani), the BJP will remain preoccupied with
survival issues for months: how to set its house in order and keep the
NDA going. The first task won't be easy, especially in the North (the
entire Hindi belt excluding Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan),
where the BJP's Lok Sabha tally has been reduced to just 25 seats out
of a total of 180. In the crucial states of UP and Bihar-Jharkhand,
it's down to a pathetic 15 seats.
The BJP, unlike
the RSS, isn't quite a cadre organisation. Non-cadre parties which get
used to power find it difficult to keep their flock together when unseated.
(Look at the Congress's state for the past 20 years). The problem is
particularly grim in UP, where the BJP has fallen from 25 seats to just
10. It has no revival strategy. Its big guns--Kalyan Singh, Rajnath
Singh, Vinay Katiyar, Lalji Tandon and Kalraj Mishra--have all failed.
In most Northern states, it doesn't know which group to woo, barring
Even in the West-central
states--MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan--BJP voters may desert it as
they sober up after the hangover from the last Assembly elections wears
out. The Maharashtra Assembly elections are around the corner. The adrenaline
of Central power has energised the Congress-NCP. Ms Sonia Gandhi's campaign
will further boost the alliance. It would be a surprise if the Shiv
Sena-BJP mounts a major challenge to it. In any case, the BJP must piggyback
the Sena. It has failed to build a durable base anywhere in Maharashtra,
except among numerically tiny late-urbanising upper-caste groups. Similarly,
in Karnataka, it's not clear if the BJP can retain Lingayat support
it recently received: its base has unsteadily fluctuated between the
coastal North and South, and some old Mysore districts.
Within the NDA,
the number of BJP allies is now down to 8, from 24 two years ago. Of
these, only the Shiv Sena is an ideological ally. And at the national
level, the only active ally is the JD(U), which has shrunk to a miserable
8 seats (down from 30 seats). The numerically largest ally, the BJP,
doesn't have a national profile or agenda. The NDA's main cementing
force has been Mr Vajpayee. Today, he isn't only taking a back seat;
it's unclear (but unlikely) that he will lead the NDA into the next
election. There is a distinct possibility that the AIADMK and TDP will
quit the NDA. The TDP now finds the BJP's
communalism a huge liability. And the BJP burnt its fingers by allying
with Ms Jayalalithaa.
As if these travails
weren't enough, the RSS-VHP are beginning to flex their muscles. They
accuse the BJP of pussyfooting on Hindutva--for them, the primary cause
for its election debacle. They want a tough line on the "trident"
issues (Ayodhya, Art 370 and Uniform Civil Code). The BJP is divided
on this. With the UPA government in power, the Ayodhya litigation is
likely to be opened up, putting the BJP on the defensive and making
difficult for it to oppose a negotiated settlement. The temple issue
agitation might be left to the VHP. On Art 370, the BJP cannot both
oppose it and support the peace process within Kashmir and with Pakistan--a
Vajpayee "achievement", which it capitalises on. On the UCC,
it'd be hard put today to drum up support. The national mood is different.
The litmus test
for the BJP's strategic line-of-march and its relations with the RSS
will come with the "Modi factor": Will the BJP sack Mr Narendra
Modi in keeping with half of its Gujarat MLAs' demand? Or will it keep
him despite the disgrace, infamy and adverse litigation he has brought
upon the BJP? If it does the first, that will at least signal that it
might, however reluctantly, move towards "moderation"; at
least that possibility isn't closed despite Mr Advani's recent statement
that the BJP's devotion to
Hindutva is nothing "to be apologetic about". If it chooses
the second option, the BJP will further harden its ideological stance
and become more brazenly communal, like the Jana Sangh.
The first choice
spells a certain political direction. The BJP will have to stop looking
for cheap gimmicks and too-clever-by-half slogans. It will have to work
hard to rebuild and expand its political base and provide a responsible
policy-based opposition to the UPA.
The second option
too entails a definite trajectory, one of contraction and marginalisation.
As Mr Advani has himself repeatedly said since 1980, a strongly ideological
party cannot hope to come to power in a large, diverse and plural country
like India (the last three adjectives aren't his). It can at
best hope to operate as a pressure group, representing sectoral upper-caste
interests. That's exactly what the Jana Sangh was. It used to command
20 to 30 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP might go that way. There are organisational
signs too: all its five newly appointed general secretaries are upper-caste
Of course, there
is a third option: the BJP could just drift rudderlessly, stirring up
anti-democratic sentiments on issues like POTA and saffronised textbooks,
but providing no effective opposition. Drift also means decline. We
will soon know which option the BJP chooses. But none of them will be
pleasant--unless the UPA makes a mess of things.