Has India’s BJP lost the plot?

DABWALI 2SEPT,2009

Many say the party leadership needs young blood

In the past week India’s main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been wracked by infighting and a crisis of leadership. Analyst Mahesh Rangarajan explains why this may be the worst crisis facing the party.

Even seasoned observers of the Indian political scene have been caught unawares by the speed with which the crisis in India’s main opposition party is unravelling.

Ever since its second successive defeat in the general elections of May 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on a phase of transition, most notably by introducing younger leaders into key posts in parliament.

But much of this work has come undone.

Caught in this struggle of head and heart, the BJP’s leadership has been wavering

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The party has expelled from its ranks one of its founder members, Jaswant Singh, who had held the key portfolios of finance, foreign affairs and defence. His book on Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah has also been banned by the state government in the party stronghold of Gujarat.

Even as the party wrestles with issues of identity and ideology, it seems in more disarray than ever in its nearly three decades of existence.

Mass support

Founded in the summer of 1980 in the western city of Mumbai (then Bombay), it was led by Atal Behari Vajpayee who espoused a centrist strategy to act as a foil to the ruling Congress.

The party’s campaign to build a temple at Ayodhya generated mass support
Once this strategy failed, it gave way six years later to a mood of militant Hindutva, or Hindu-ness.

This was embodied best by his close associate LK Advani’s campaign to build a temple at a disputed site in Ayodhya, which generated mass support.

But the destruction of the disputed mosque at the site in 1992 led to nationwide rioting and the party veered once again to the middle ground.

This paved the way for Vajpayee-led governments.

The party itself has walked a fine line between posing as an alternate pole of power and being a militant party defined by an ideological core that stresses the Hindu-ness of India.

The latter has always been problematic in a country with a sizeable population of other faiths including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

It eventually contributed to deep divisions between the party and its regional allies, especially after the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002.

The general elections earlier this year saw the party lose for a second time in a row.

Faced with a Congress-led alliance that emphasised welfare for the poor and safety for religious minorities, the BJP came across as out of touch with the times.

But what undercut the BJP was the eclipse of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

His successor, LK Advani, was unable to counter Congress charges of having been party to a prisoners-for-hostages deal in December 1999 to secure the release of passengers on a hijacked Air India flight that was taken to Taliban-controlled Kandahar.

The eclipse of Atal Behari Vajpayee has hit the party
Meanwhile, in his own party, the octogenarian leader never recovered from his praise for Mr Jinnah on a visit to that country in 2005.

Soft on terror, he was also seen as warming up to a historic figure his own followers blame for the partition of 1947.

In a sense, the party and the wider cultural movement it is part of are in a crisis of their own making.

In a country where seven of 10 people are below the age of 40, it is the future and not the past that is a pressing concern.

Out of touch

Already in 2004, it lost as many as 17 of the 20 parliamentary seats in the big metropolitan centres, a sure sign that it has lost its sense of the popular pulse.

Further, a clutch of hitherto lower-caste groups has come to power in much of northern India, undercutting the religious appeal of the BJP.

Where the party has retained power in west and central India, it has done so with a mix of welfare and populist measures aimed at farmers, women and the poor.

At the pan-Indian level, its “India Shining” campaign message of five years ago failed to entice voters.

In a country where one in two children is malnourished it reinforced its older image as a party of traders, priestly and the merchant classes.

Mr Advani’s party is also out of touch with the wider shifts in the mood in the region at large.

Religious symbols and icons continue to matter in politics but they have a jaded air about them.

Religious polarisation last worked wonders for the party as long ago as the Gujarat state elections of 2002.

A book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah led to the expulsion of a senior member
Last winter even the terror strike on Mumbai known in popular parlance as 26/11 did not polarise voters.

The leading religious trusts of Muslims in Mumbai refused to accept the bodies of terrorists for burial on grounds that they had violated the tenets of Islam.

If religion has less appeal in the political arena, so does the BJP’s claim of being “a party with a difference”.

It has no leader who can challenge Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s economic credentials.

On another front, it seriously underestimated the resilience of the Nehru family, who with Rahul Gandhi as future leader make the middle-aged opposition leaders look out of synch.

Dilemma

There is still room for the party to regroup; given the immensity of the challenges the Congress-led alliance faces in governing India.

A drought due to the failure of the monsoon affects about half the country. Prices of key food items are rising. The rapprochement with Pakistan attempted by Prime Minister Singh has not won full endorsement even in his own party ranks.

There is also a long history in the sub-continent of leaders rallying people around symbols that unify adherents of one faith and set them up against another.

The party is plagued by infighting
The BJP’s dilemma is that if it takes up the baton on Hindutva, it will alienate not only potential regional allies but a vast middle ground that has had enough of strife.

But the rank and file of the party and its affiliates is most at ease with such emotive issues. Caught in this struggle between head and heart, its leadership has been wavering ever since 2004.

Unlike Mr Vajpayee who was a master of saying little and being many things to many men, his successors are caught in webs of their own making.

The BJP is facing more than a crisis of leadership. It is facing a crisis of direction.

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