One of the paradoxes of Indian politics is that the Congress party has built a strong bench of leaders despite its dependence on a single family while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a weak second rung despite it being a cadre-based party.

This weakness is evident in the line-up of leaders who will try to guide the party in the next few years: Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. Gadkari is untried on the national stage, even though he has a well-deserved reputation as a good administrator in Maharashtra. Jaitley and Swaraj are no pushovers either. But this trio has to take on a Congress party machine that is led by Sonia Gandhi and a government that has Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram, with Rahul Gandhi busy at the grass roots.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The BJP is the only opposition party that currently has the ability to challenge the Congress. It would be good for the sake of Indian democracy that it gets its act together.

Gadkari, Jaitley and Swaraj have an unenviable task: of filling the void created by the departure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, two giants who led the party for more than three decades.

The new BJP leadership will have to struggle between the competing claims of tradition and modernity. The party derives its political base from the social conservatism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but operates in a new India that has benefited from economic reforms and engagement with the world. One undercuts the other, and it took the political sophistication of Vajpayee to manage this fundamental contradiction.

The immediate challenge is to redefine the BJP’s troubled relationship with secularism. Advani’s attack on what he described as “pseudo-secularism" was once dismissed as a rant from the fringe but has now become a mainstream concern, with the realization that communalism is not the exclusive preserve of any one community and that appeasement for the sake of Muslim votes is not secularism.

But the BJP has also to come to terms with its own use of religion to win power, be it the Ram Janmabhoomi movement or the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. The standard BJP response is to point to the Congress party’s role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi. Such debating points do not add up to a viable long-term political strategy.

We have argued in these columns earlier that India needs a modern right-of-centre party to balance the left-of-centre Congress, and that the BJP is the natural candidate for this position.

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