The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in turmoil. The resignation drama by senior leader L.K. Advani has brought the fault lines running through the party out into the open. This is surely its biggest internal ruckus since Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani fought Balraj Madhok to take control of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1973.

The two leaders dominated the party for nearly four decades, complementing each other despite the occasional differences. Replacing them has expectedly not been easy, as the party has descended into factional infighting that effectively let the blundering Manmohan Singh government off the hook.

The current personality battles mask a deeper challenge for the next generation of BJP leaders, and especially the man who party workers seem to be rooting for: Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. It is to be seen how the new leadership fashions a conservative party that is attuned to the demands of a new India.

The ideological roots of the BJP can be traced back to the trauma of partition. Its core thinking has evolved around two sets of issues: cultural and economic. Several ideological themes have been tried out: from Savarkarite Hindutva to the integral humanism of Deendayal Upadhyaya to Gandhian socialism to cultural nationalism. These themes have often overlapped, but there is no doubt that cultural anxieties have dominated the thinking of the BJP, especially the critique of what Advani has called pseudo secularism. Economic issues have been of relatively less importance, despite the fact that the Jana Sangh was an early critic of Nehruvian socialism.

The integration of India into the global economy since 1991—a process the National Democratic Alliance headed by Vajpayee continued—has complicated matters for the BJP. Its leadership realizes that India needs to be an open economy if it is to hold its own in the world, and especially in a hostile neighbourhood. But the innate dynamism of an open economy will necessarily undermine many traditional social arrangements. Cultural nationalism and liberal economics can only share the same space in an uneasy alliance, if at all. It is a paradox that the BJP will have to grapple with in a new India.

Vajpayee had the wisdom to understand this, though it often led to conflicts with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Once in power, his government did much to unshackle the Indian economy in the face of much opposition from the swadeshi wing of his party. If the Congress initiated economic reforms in 1991 out of necessity, the BJP took them much further out of choice.

The Goa conclave and Modi’s elevation mark another effort to resolve this contradiction. Embracing free markets and its cognate political position—liberalism —is bound to weaken cultural nationalism. The bulk of the party cadre is still wedded to cultural nationalism, however.

The fear among the BJP brass is that too dramatic a movement along one axis could lead it to lose grip over the other. For example, liberalizing too fast and too much has the potential to rob the party of its traditional base. The party’s confusion over foreign direct investment in the retail sector is an obvious example. Had it not taken a muddled stand, its base of petty traders and merchants would have rebelled.

The BJP needs to get over this dichotomy. The bulk of Indians today are concerned with livelihood issues. Since the mid-1990s, cultural nationalism of the kind championed by Advani at one point has lost salience. It is time for the BJP to transform itself into a party of economic conservatism, one that argues for free markets, secure property rights and a minimalist state. India cannot afford to have a party in power that does not pay attention to sound macroeconomic management.

Ultimately, India’s international standing and its ability to cope with geopolitical challenges also depends on a sound economic base. One does not have to take matters as far as Cicero’s dictum that the sinews of war are built with infinite money but the substance of prosperity can only come through economic growth.

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