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What next for the BJP?

What next for the BJP?
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First Published: Sun, May 17 2009. 11 43 PM IST

The day after any election is something that both victor and vanquished dread. Simply because it throws up the inevitable question: What next?
For the victor, in this case the Congress party, with the economy battling a painful downturn, there is not a moment to lose. At the same time, it will have to deal with the vexing problem of whom to retain in the cabinet as it goes about organizing its house and preparing to face Parliament. These challenges are not insurmountable and the euphoria of victory will propel the dynamics with minimum collateral damage.
However, this is something that cannot be said for the loser, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, despite its defeat, will continue to be the largest opposition party in the 15th Lok Sabha. The BJP has to address the worrying issue of what it has to do to reposition itself as a credible alternative. Two resounding back-to-back defeats in general elections under the leadership of two of its most experienced campaigners—Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani—should be a rude wake-up call.
Efforts to reach out to one of the top functionaries on Sunday morning were futile; the individual concerned had switched off his cellphone. In the absence of any official input, one can only make surmises from what is already in the public domain.
The initial reaction is to blame the leadership of Advani and prepare the ground for the next rung of leaders belonging to the generation of Narendra Modi, the pugnacious chief minister of Gujarat, and his counterparts in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. These leaders managed to hold their own in this election.
While this may or may not revive the party’s rank, it does appear that the BJP is struggling with a larger issue of identity. From the time of its inception as the Jan Sangh to its eventual transformation into the BJP, it had a defined identity as a clear alternative in the anti-Congress political space. However, its ascent to power and the uncomfortable realization that this can only be managed in a coalition framework has led to the gradual dilution of this identity; the only way any coalition can be kept together is by eschewing niche agendas and adopting a more centrist stance. All the more because it has struggled to progress as a political alternative, restricted largely to north India and unable to make headway beyond Karnataka in the south, making it dependent on political alliances to assume power at the Centre. This has often triggered a confrontation with its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has refused to retreat from its fundamentalist stance on Hinduism and its place in Indian society.
The BJP could not simply cut away from the RSS. The latter was also its connect to the Hindu society at large. RSS cadres, often involved in relief work during catastrophes, provided a means for the BJP to bond directly with society. But over the last two decades, this part of the RSS has become less visible. For instance, during the terror attacks in Mumbai and Delhi last year, the RSS, in the normal course of things, would have been a visible presence, helping the victims. Instead, all the public saw was finger-pointing by the BJP leadership and tasteless newspaper advertisements a day before Delhi elected a new state assembly.
The six years of rule beginning 1998 and the leadership of Vajpayee only accelerated this process of disengagement between the BJP and the RSS. So, when it lost power in 2004, owing to a tactical miscalculation with respect to its ally in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and a severe reversal for its then ally, the Telugu Desam Party, in Andhra Pradesh, the party was set adrift. The Congress, which replaced it as the leader of the next coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was quick to tap the socially and economically disempowered sections of the electorate.
So when the manifestos for the general election campaign were prepared, it was very difficult to distinguish between the Congress and the BJP. A Mint analysis of the manifestos, Same Difference, on 16 April clearly showed that while political posturing would suggest otherwise, the degree of commonality in the agendas spelt out in the manifestos was startling. The only difference is the BJP’s effort to reassert its commitment to the Hindu cause by promising a Ram temple at the site that was occupied by the Babri Masjid, the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya that was razed by Hindu vandals in December 1992.
This has left the BJP between a rock and a hard place. At one level, its core constituency of right-wing Hindus feels abandoned. At the same time, being seen as a Congress clone without any distinctive platform has diminished its allure for others. Not surprising, therefore, that it has led a schizophrenic existence even as it has struggled to curb dissent within the party. In terms of internal democracy, the BJP is better endowed than the Congress, where the political leadership is clearly defined and rests with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But, without a win at the national level since 1999, this democracy is rapidly descending into anarchy. This may or may not lead to bloodletting. But eventually, the party will have to address the inevitable question: What next?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at capitalcalculus@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, May 17 2009. 11 43 PM IST