Vir Sanghvi recently described the political turmoil in the BJP as a colonels’ coup, with the party’s middle echelon ejecting its senior officers. A change of guard does seem to be in the offing: The RSS has intervened to speed up the superannuation of the Jan Sangh gerontocrats, L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, and to manage the transition to a younger generation of bigots. The party’s rout in the recent elections has weakened its ability to resist Nagpur’s meddling or to preserve the fig leaf of functional autonomy, and defeat has made it easier to purge the old men who failed to deliver Hindutva’s holy grail, the state.
Trump card: Will Modi alienate the undecided voter? PTI
The fascinating thing about this process is the speed with which the party’s anglophone intellectuals have abandoned their erstwhile friends and patrons. Sudheendra Kulkarni has jumped ship, Swapan Dasgupta has turned on Advani, his erstwhile hero, out of a principled concern for the greater good of the party and Arun Shourie, who thinks on the grand scale, presciently urged the RSS to nuke the party’s ruling establishment and set its house in order.
Shourie is an interesting figure: an ideologue whose persona fuses intemperate polemic with mincing rectitude. He’s unique: There isn’t a person I can think of in contemporary politics who has been a crusading editor, a civil rights activist, a votary of the “hard” state, a forceful minister, a majoritarian demagogue and an inexhaustible compiler of albums of quotations glazed with rage and published as books.
If the BJP was brighter and Shourie less angular, he would be that party’s Manmohan Singh, its Mr Integrity: the foreign-returned, World Bank alum determined to globalize India, the arch modernizer with the middle class credibility to make majoritarianism India’s common sense. The fact that he doesn’t have an electoral base isn’t important: Manmohan Singh has shown us what a Rajya Sabha MP can do. With Vajpayee retired and Advani in the doghouse, the BJP sometimes seems like a party of provincials and operators: Shourie at the helm would have given it the semblance of a fierce, metropolitan respectability.
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But this is unlikely to happen not least because Shourie carries so much published baggage. His book-length attempt to exhume Ambedkar the better to shred his reputation would be a liability in a political world where Ambedkar counts for more than Gandhi or Nehru. So the role he seems to see himself playing is that of the conscience keeper of the Hindu right and, should it capture the state, the guardian of the republic’s morals.
If India were a Hindu state, Shourie would make a first-rate Torquemada. His crusading, inquisitorial style, his conviction that the nation’s defining majority is being undone by mischievous minorities and their secular appeasers, his ability to say the unsayable on national television—that the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat left him unmoved, for example—would be invaluable assets for a BJP government trying to redefine the moral sense of the republic.
In a brilliant profile of Shourie in Tehelka, Shoma Chaudhury shows us how Shourie is constituted by the Arya Samaj, just as Torquemada was a creature of Catholic revivalism. “The real key to Shourie’s complex character then—his high sense of personal integrity, his austere dislike for high living, his capacity for unexamined bigotry, his driving sense of simple Good and Evil, and his zeal for public service and reform—lies in his Arya Samaji background. It would explain both the reflexive distrust of Islam and Christianity and the simultaneous imitation of everything that is disliked in those religions.”
But before Shourie can play Torquemada, the BJP needs someone who can successfully play Ferdinand and there is a consensus building that Narendra Modi will lead the party into the next general election. The other plausible candidate is Sushma Swaraj. She has the résumé: She’s been elected to the Lok Sabha three times and she’s been a central minister more than once and she is currently the deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha. Her other claim to the top job is that she is a woman, a capable, articulate professional woman who also manages to embody the archetypal Hindu housewife. It’s a rare talent and if the BJP was looking for someone who could replicate Vajpayee’s broad-based, non-feral appeal, she would be the logical candidate.
But it isn’t: The party isn’t looking for a lady; it’s in the market for a lohpurush, a “strong” leader with a provincial base, and Swaraj doesn’t fit that bill. If the BJP was a less chauvinist party, it would project Swaraj as Modi’s deputy, Isabella to his Ferdinand.
The only chief minister in the prime ministerial reckoning is Modi and the BJP’s recent by-election gains in Gujarat have strengthened his claim to the top job. In a recent television discussion, Sanghvi argued that it would be to the Congress’ advantage if Modi was to be projected as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Sanghvi’s reasoning was that Modi would be a polarizing leader, enthusing the BJP’s base but alienating the undecided voter. In the recent general election, for example, his campaigning in hundreds of constituencies outside Gujarat did very little to improve the fortunes of BJP candidates.
There is a logic to this but if you think of the enthusiasm for Modi expressed by men like Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and the Ambani brothers, scarcely your average Sangh cadre members, it’s hard to feel reassured. If Modi leads the BJP into the next general election, one of the country’s two largest parties will ask the electorate to vote into the prime ministership a man alleged to have presided over violent pogroms and ethnic cleansing. Even if the BJP were to lose, it is likely that a substantial percentage of India’s electorate will vote for the party Modi represents; and thereby a line will have been crossed. If it were to win, we will have sanctioned an Inquisition.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org