The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is holding a high-level conclave in Shimla to contemplate its current state and future course. The immediate context for the conclave is, of course, the adverse verdict in the recent Lok Sabha elections. But the content of the conclave is unlikely to be limited to discussing why the party lost. It is bound to focus as much, and more, on the future. The history of a party like the BJP, which lays stress on its ideological underpinnings, is inseverable from its current and future course.
Its votaries as well as adversaries see the BJP, which is a reincarnation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), as an ideologically structured party like the BJS. The communists are still counted as ideologically oriented. The Congress party too was so regarded until it was taken over by one single family. And, till it became the property of a large joint family, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the ideological manifestation of the Dravidian movement. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) traces its birth to the Assam movement against illegal infiltration of foreigners and therefore has an ideological underpinning. Most other political parties are either family owned or family directed. But whatever ideological distinctness was left in political parties was considerably obliterated by two developments in the latter half of the 1990s – one, the coalition politics that democracy forced on different political parties; and two, modern economic development that became the common agenda of most of them.
The ideological identity of the BJP is shaped by the umbilical ties it has with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its offshoots. Yes, the BJP has had a history of ideological evolution. This evolutionary process was the product of struggles on ideological issues, most of which were considered politically unaffordable by other parties, particularly the Congress. Whether it is the struggle against special status for Kashmir, or for a cow slaughter ban or common civil code, or for the Ram Temple, or against minority vote bank politics that had evolved in the last few decades, no political party in India other than the BJP would dare touch them. Common civil code, cow slaughter or the erosion of Article 370, granting Kashmir special status, were on the agenda of the original Congress – not the family Congress; but the party slowly gave up its ideological position to fall in line with the needs of the market for votes. The BJP took up these issues and stood up to the might of the ruling and opposition establishment. It was marginalized first. But after three decades the party’s ideology began to win support as its struggle for a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and against pseudo-secularism amply demonstrated.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the BJP was the rising star of Indian politics, and it as the BJP that was setting the national agenda. It was led by two stalwarts, AB Vajpayee and LK Advani. Advani, the unquestioned leader of the BJP then, declared that not he, but Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister, ushering in a new political culture as a complete contrast to the Congress where the issue of who should be the Prime Minister split the party in 1969. Even those who disagreed with it began to respect the BJP. It was seen as nationalistic, free of corruption, free of the ills of the other political parties; and, in sum, the new hope of Indian politics even as its detractors abused it in the wildest terms as communal, anti-Muslim and anti-modern and what not.
But, the ideological clarity of the BJP was considerably eroded by the coalition politics into which it was forced in the late 1990s. The defeat in 2004 elections did bring the ideological erosion into focus. But the BJP was confused as to how to reinstate the ideology for two reasons -- one, how to handle the ideological repositioning and coalition politics that was still on in Bihar, Orissa and Punjab and two, how to win the confidence of the RSS and its parivar, or family, which constituted the BJP’s ideological fraternity. But the fragility of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and possibility of an early election had kept the BJP going more as a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leader than as an RSS family constituent. The BJP’s ideological position continued to remain fluid. In this context has come the defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Now the BJP, which goes into the Shimla conclave for contemplation, has this ideological confusion to resolve. This is a critical element of the BJP’s road ahead.
But ideology is not a slogan or a declaration that Hindutva is the mascot of the BJP. Ideology carries with it a commitment to share the common values of the ideological fraternity. The RSS stands for self-sacrifice, simplicity, humility and integrity. The parivar cadre largely shares these values. This is what holds the RSS parivar together and enables it to face the universal onslaught of the secular parties. So the other challenge before the BJP is whether it can reinstate those values which many of its Gen II leaders seem to have lost somewhere along the way. There are not many in Gen II in BJP with a combination of qualities such as self-sacrifice, integrity, simplicity and humility. Many of them are elitist in life style, far removed from the party and parivar culture and cadre; some of them show unbelievable arrogance towards the simple cadre of not just the party but also the parivar. RSS parivar worships sacrifice, not power. That is its strength; also weakness. The BJP, which is the ideological offspring of the RSS movement, cannot worship power and sacrifice self-abnegation, and still hope to remain connected to the RSS.
The BJP’s future is linked to how it motivates the RSS school of thought to own it. The RSS school of thought is too large to function on directives. It is only appeal based on ideology and quality of behaviour which will enthuse the large parivar to align with it. Just a decade ago, Advani could easily annoint Vajpayee as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate when he was at the lead in the party – a great act of self-abnegation by Advani. The BJP today longs for such examples of high behaviour. It needs the spirit of Guru Tegh Bahadur, whose sacrifice aroused a defeated race to action. Contemplation alone cannot lift the BJP from its present low spirits. It needs examples. Only self-sacrifice of a high order will lift the spirit of the RSS movement. Is the BJP prepared for such high quality response? Will the BJP reconnect itself to the spirit of self-sacrifice that has built the BJP? Only time will answer. QED: The BJP may even win the next elections without doing anything of that sort. But that would only make the BJP a performer at the cost of its purpose.
S. Gurumurthy is a commentator on political and economic issues and a former convenor of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch.
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