New Delhi: Bangaru Laxman took charge as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in August 2000, when the party was in its ascendancy and was heading a coalition government at the Centre.
His tenure was cut short eight months later when Laxman was caught on hidden camera accepting a wad of rupee notes in a sting operation conducted by Tehelka, a news website, over a fictitious defence deal. Laxman was forced to resign in the ensuing scandal.
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A politician from Andhra Pradesh with a background in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Laxman headed the scheduled caste cell of the BJP before he became party president. Laxman spoke to Mint on the crisis within the BJP, its impact on the organization and the ability of the party to conduct itself as a credible opposition party after its defeat in the general election. Edited excerpts:
What is happening in the party right now—is it collapse, a period of transition? Your thoughts as a former president?
Nothing like a party on the verge of a collapse. No doubt the party has seen its worst defeat in close to 20 years. However, this flutter in the party will die out. This is just a transitional period as party workers are worried because of the defeat.
What makes you say it’s a transition?
(The) party president’s term is over; L.K. Advani has stated that he does not want to man the Lok Sabha position on behalf of the BJP. Defeat has brought about a phase of uncertainty. The party workers are worried. This worry and uncertainty is surely transitional, and will fade away when these two issues are resolved.
You’ve seen the party grow since 1980. Where do you think it went wrong? What is the cause of this defeat?
After I resigned (in 2001), those who took over the party’s leadership did not expand the party’s outreach, as I had planned. The party’s presence is felt among the upper and middle classes, and among some sections of the other backward classes. However, we have been unable to connect with the Dalits and the minorities.
Your resignation was controversial. The party with a clean image collapsed with that one incident, is the common refrain. How would you react to such a claim?
It was an unfortunate incident. I was targeted and framed—it was part of a conspiracy. It was sad that the party did not defend me. Not one of the party leaders came forward. Anyhow, one incident of that nature cannot tarnish the image of the party.
You used the word “conspiracy” and said that the party did not defend you. Can you substantiate?
BJP’s leadership did not come forward in my support. I had expected more support.
Did this lack of support have anything to do with your background?
Party in a flutter: Bangaru Laxman says defeat in the Lok Sabha election led to a period of uncertainty within the BJP ranks. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
I would not like to name anyone, but (if) I were to assess, I would say it is possible that some within the party ranks viewed my efforts to expand the party’s outreach unfavourably. It may have offended some people. Opening new gates is always hard. My progress and my desire to incorporate Dalits and other classes into the BJP fold may have offended some within the party.
So was expansion given up by the BJP after you left?
It was not pursued with vigour.
The BJP does not look like a formidable opposition party right now. Is that a problem? A strong opposition is a tenet of democracy.
I don’t think the BJP is weak. Internal issues don’t take away from the fact that the party has credibility—people voted for the party—so what if it is the second best. The seats it got—116—is a credible number for an opposition.
There’s a flutter within the party leadership—one leader talking against the other. Other than the flutter, do you see a real movement at the base?
Certainly. We will analyse the reasons for out defeat—we will iron out the issues. But I don’t see this to be a big issue because our party leaders on the ground are intact. They can be motivated to work for the party with renewed vigour.
What is the way ahead?
The presidential election in 2013 is one big event the party is looking towards. The 2014 elections may be very promising for the party. Each time the Congress has come to power, the BJP has gained in the bargain.
Consider the elections in 1977 and 1996—in each of the cases, BJP managed a victory after a Congress-led government at the Centre lost. This is an opportunity for us to strengthen ourselves and pick up the reins of the government in the next election... What we really need is more clarity on the party’s principles and policies: What Hindutva really means, its real interpretation. Varun Gandhi’s version isn’t what the BJP stands by.
Is there a way ahead for the BJP without Hindutva?
Hindutva is a pillar of identity for the BJP. But not an electoral plank. It’s embedded in our culture, in our history. If interpreted in this way, it is an asset as an ideology.
Is this time for people such as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to take over?
He is just one of the individuals who can take over. Don’t speculate too much.
What is your advice as a senior leader and a former president to the present leadership in BJP?
Integrate, seek cooperation of all, (engage in an) inclusive effort to rebuild the party and we can take over the reins of the government (in 2014).