BJP in Dire Straits

Not even the most inveterate critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party could have imagined that the party would prove so incapable of dealing with its recent election defeat that it would find itself in the hopeless and utter disarray that it does today. Last month, L K Advani had to take over as its party president amidst the washing of much dirty linen in public because no second-rung leaders would have survived in the job. But now even his authority stands undermined.

At last week’s party office-bearers’ meeting, Uma Bharati threw a remarkable tantrum, staging a grotesque political tamasha. She did something that no Jana Sangh/BJP leader has ever done: namely, challenge the party’s top bosses in the full glare of cameras while abusing her own colleagues like M Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Even as Advani was detailing the crippling second-rung rivalry in the BJP, she defied him to take disciplinary action against her.

This episode caps numerous acts of protest and defiance by Bharati over the past three months, especially centred on her Tiranga Yatra, in which she tried to wrap the National Flag around vicious communalism. The so-called sanyasin cannot forgive the BJP for having considered her unfit to govern Madhya Pradesh as Chief Minister and for not approving of her brother’s antics. She took her revenge in the way she knows best: loutish and strident.

However, the episode reveals much more. Most crucially, the BJP’s leadership crisis has deepened. Not only can’t it put together a relatively non-fractious “second-generation” leadership. Even its “first-generation” leaders’ writ doesn’t run. The greatest loser is none other Advani. This has severely undermined the desperate hope that he would somehow forge the party into a fighting machine.

Equally important is the growing rift between the BJP and the RSS, and the BJP and the loony Right represented by the VHP – despite Advani’s attempts to placate them. For instance, his very first pronouncements on taking over as party president were all of the classic Hindutva variety, including the Ram temple, “foreign origins”, and a Muslim demographic “invasion”. And his very first trip outside Delhi was made to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

The parivar’s fissures have become visible in three ways. First, a sustained attack by Ashok Singhal & Co on a hardliner like Advani (declared “unfit” for the job). Second, Bharati has clearly received significant encouragement from the sangh. In particular, she has been advised by K N Govindacharya, who was sacked by the BJP for his denigratory remarks about Vajpayee, but whom the RSS never disowned. And third, the RSS has indirectly reprimanded Advani for holding the first office-bearers’ meeting in front of TV cameras.

A front-page editorial in RSS organ “Organiser” raps him on the knuckles for allowing “full-blast televising” of Bharati’s remarks and permitting the media “to play a major role in BJP affairs… It is one thing to be media savvy, another to be captivated by the media”. The article only mildly rebukes Bharati in one line for being “impulsive”. Otherwise, it showers fulsome praise upon her as a “very effective campaigner; a mass mobiliser for the Hindu cause” and “a very dynamic leader, honest, and committed to high ideals”, who will always “remain part of the sangh movement”. The BJP is reportedly making conciliatory gestures towards Bharati. This can only further damage Advani’s authority and strengthen the RSS’s weight vis-a-vis the BJP.

The BJP today faces a manifold crisis. Six months after the Lok Sabha elections, it has failed to comprehend, accept or reconcile itself to its defeat. From outright denial, it has at best graduated to “internal” or question-begging causes: we lost our ideological moorings; our campaign on roads and electricity peaked too soon; our “India Shining” slogan was pitched too high… This basically denies that the party’s appeal has fundamentally narrowed and its social base shrunk and that it offers no vision to the people. Programmatically, the BJP peddles a bankrupt mix of communalism, neoliberal economics and toxic, chauvinist nationalism.

The BJP’s crisis today is far grimmer than in 1984, when it was reduced to a miserable two seats in the Lok Sabha. This is so despite the fact that it is in power in six states, while 20 years ago, it ruled in none. Then, the party was about to be buoyed up dramatically by the anti-Babri mosque movement. This catapulted it to 89 seats. Today, there is no broad social movement around. The Ayodhya temple campaign evokes no popular support.

In 1984, the BJP was still an untested entity and enjoyed a “novelty” advantage. Now, it has been tried, tested and rejected. Then, the BJP was a rising force especially in the Gangetic heartland. Today, it is in dire shape in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Earlier, it could capitalise on the Congress’s historic decline and the shrinking of the Centre-Left space in politics. Now, that space is expanding and the Congress reviving.

In the mid-1980s, there was strong synergy between the BJP, RSS and VHP. The VHP mobilised numbers through the hate-driven anti-Babri agitation. The RSS provided the ideological cement and organisational muscle. And the BJP handled the parliamentary or “respectable” political side of this division of labour. Now, that has broken down. The VHP is in revolt. And the RSS wants to administer “shock treatment” even to Advani to remind him of his promise that the BJP “will return to Hindutva”.

Three questions arise. Fifteen years after its meteoric rise, the BJP is shrinking. Does this signify a short downturn or long-term decline? Will the BJP split-into a hardline fringe party like the Jana Sangh, plus a relatively “moderate” parliamentary party? And does Hindutva, or rabid Hindu nationalism, have a future as an ideology or culture?

The BJP has probably entered a phase of long decline. Given the present trends in society and politics, it’s hard to see how it can bounce back. There are no likely electoral victories anywhere. And sectarianism is so deeply ingrained in the party that it will continue to play a highly negative, confrontationist and obstructionist role, further eroding its credibility. Of course, its opponents could soon get discredited if they follow conservative policies or adopt a Right-wing course. But the UPA hasn’t yet embraced that course.

The BJP could split especially if a succession struggle breaks out after Vajpayee and Advani (who is barely two years younger) fade out. New contenders could emerge for their mantle – eg Narendra Milosevic Modi, backed by the VHP-RSS, who might join hands with Bharati. In this case, less hardline leaders, allied to industrial houses, might break away.

However, a certain constituency for Hindutva will still remain. It was always there – even at the high noon of the Freedom Movement, and during the wave of anti-RSS sentiment after Gandhi’s assassination. But this will be a marginal, fringe constituency, with a mindset based on visceral hatred of Muslims, and on rejection of a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-religion India. But that hardly spells a bright future for a party that ruled India for six years.

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