The general election marks an end to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani’s prime ministerial ambitions. His age and the political climate have proved to be insurmountable challenges for him.
What went wrong? The outcome of a political career spanning at least 65 years cannot be reduced to a binary choice. But given the stakes involved and the effort behind gaining prime ministership, one can be excused for thinking in terms of right or wrong.
In the end, it looked as if Advani was a powerless spectator as the BJP continued to decline. At one level, the party’s problem was existential: how to define and push conservatism in a political milieu dominated by a Leftist outlook. Is there an “Indian” way of conservative politics or could some ideas be picked off the shelf, say, from the West’s civilizational experience? The BJP, led by Advani, chose Hindutva—a controversial interpretation of a subcontinental religious experience.
Roughly from 1990, when he led a fateful rath yatra, to 2004, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition lost power, Hindutva struck a chord with many Indians. But by 2004, it had been overshadowed by the BJP’s internal squabbles and organizational constraints. The BJP had become a party of power from being a mere party of opposition. In that transformation, it had to jettison many ideas and acquire new ones, as all parties have to. The Congress made a similar journey many decades ago. It, too, had to pay a price.
The BJP has also never understood where Hindu nationalism ends and blind anti-Muslim biases begin. It is a serious flaw.
Yet it would be a mistake to write off the BJP, even in the near future. The ideas that powered it originally remain in the minds of concerned Indians. These range from national security to Indian nationalism and doubts centred around religion. These are unlikely to be addressed by “progressive” political formations such as the Left and even the Congress.
If the politics that made the BJP relevant continues to exist, the party’s organizational chaos and internal squabbling are big stumbling blocks. For Advani, it is too late in the day to rectify the situation.
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