Anti-incumbency, a nondescript track record in office and an insufficiently thought through nuclear deal should have done the Congress party in, but the botch-up by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ended up increasing its margin in Parliament. But a larger truth lurks behind the BJP’s failure, beyond supposed lapses in electoral strategy and a misreading of the public mood. It even surpasses the little noticed irony of the Congress party acquiring a youthful sheen only because the dynast Rahul Gandhi hand-picked young men and women as candidates, something which L.K. Advani—heading a less autocratically run outfit—could not do.
That truth relates to the BJP’s having no ideological core. It was a weakness covered up in 1997 and 1998 by the tumult and excitement of finally achieving power. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister confirmed the impression of a party without a standard to call its own. There was nothing uniquely BJP about Vajpayee’s policies, which were marked by surprising policy continuities with the Nehruvian Congress party. With the party emerging, in effect, as a Congress double, the voter fell back on the “real thing” five years ago, and now again.
The Congress at least offered the solace of rhetoric, regardless of whether the condition of the “aam aadmi” (ordinary citizen) is ever bettered by the party’s exertions in power. Election slogans encapsulate the promised thrust of government. It does not matter if the end state is never reached. What matters is that the people feel their concerns are at least acknowledged, if not, in fact, addressed. Recall Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi hatao” (End poverty)? It did little for the poor but kept the Congress party in clover for nearly a generation. In this context, faced with the BJP’s campaign, the average voter would have concluded that it was disconnected from reality.
The problems of the BJP are manifested in the persona of Advani. An ineffably sad man who strived mightily to invent and reinvent himself—in his last stretch, as a latter day “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”—he was flatly rejected by the people as much for his pretensions as, perhaps, for his lack of conviction. Wanting to be prime minister is no bad ambition to have; but, tethered to a nebulous set of beliefs, it became a liability.
The rest of the party, too, foundered—tilting towards the tried, tested and obsolete themes. The BJP’s impressive record of good governance in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as well as issues where it holds the whip-hand—such as strong national defence, and an economy speedily unshackled from the remnants of the licence-permit raj—were left adrift. A sustained campaign to pillory the nuclear deal in terms of the “Indian bomb in danger” would have left the Congress utterly on the defensive. The BJP, however, talked of “renegotiating” it, leaving the Congress to walk away with the game.
The likely successor to Advani, Narendra Modi, too frittered away the opportunity to influence the public consciousness positively and to position himself as a leader of substance for the 2014 general election. Rather than talk about his success in providing power and water 24x7 to Gujarat—the only state to attain this—or his well-founded reputation for incorruptibility and, as its downstream effect, a clean administration at the grass-roots level, Modi heckled the ruling party as a “budhiya” (crone). Had he or his party more imaginatively devised a programme to, say, arrange for ordinary folk from different corners of the country, and particularly Muslims, to visit Gujarat and see the state’s progress for themselves, a few may have returned to tell tales of 2002; but all of them would have exulted about the enviable state the people of Gujarat live in. That would have been a perfect launch pad for Modi and his party’s development agenda in this and subsequent elections.
Indian society is socially very conservative and has survived for millennia because it has adapted to change without surrendering its core values. This is the secret behind the metastability of the Indian society and nation. An important reason for this stability is the assimilative quality of Indian culture. For a thousand years, Hindus and Muslims have lived together, albeit fist-by-jowl, evolving norms of interaction that may still contain rough edges but which ensure that the minorities, by and large, live unmolested. If the BJP’s doctrinal professions are to be taken seriously, it is this high tradition that it is rooted in. If so, then the advantage accruing to the party from this factor has never been capitalized on.
The thinking of the 18th century English philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, the “father of liberal conservatism”, ought to fill the BJP’s ideological void. Eschewing all radicalism, Burke—who also opposed colonialism because, he said, it uprooted traditional societies—emphasized “tradition” (the norms and conventions evolved by a people over time) as the anchor for an orderly society. Social order and stability were his preconditions for the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the citizenry as well as for a free market. It is these principles that the BJP should associate with.
Bharat Karnad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org