A WEEK BEFORE the BJP National Council met in Indore on February 17, a close associate of party chief Nitin Gadkari asked me what had been the impact of the new president on the party. “Zero, but definitely not negative,” was my terse response.
A week after the Indore session, my assessment has changed; it is now markedly positive. In a very short time, the portly and affable man from Nagpur has won the trust and lifted the spirits of a demoralised party. It is too soon to say whether a transformation of the mood will lead to the BJP resuming its role as the principal opposition party and the natural alternative to the Congress. But since the first step of political assertion lies in instilling confidence in the ranks of the committed, Gadkari can be said to have reversed the sinking feeling that set in the BJP after the Lok Sabha defeat in May 2009.
To be fair, Gadkari did not wave any magic wand. Through an elaborate process of interaction with the party faithful in the two months that preceded the Indore session, he drove home two messages.
The first was relatively non-contentious. He sought to tell the party that he would try to be unrelentingly fair and rise above factions. For the BJP this simple assertion of wholesome politics was not only important; it was paramount. Party mentor LK Advani suggested in his concluding address in Indore that the impression of internal disarray was a factor in the BJP’s defeat in 2009. What Advani didn’t explicitly state was that the internal strains owed to the divisive approach of former party president Rajnath Singh and a section of the RSS that backed him. Gadkari’s promise to shun the culture of cronyism which resulted in the undeserving getting organisational posts and party tickets wasn’t entirely gratuitous. It stemmed from the acknowledgment of the distortions that had beset the party in the past three years.
The second theme that resonated through the Indore session was prone to divergent interpretations. To some, the commitment to introduce many more “third” and “fourth” generation leaders to political responsibilities was a breath of fresh air in a party that has a tendency to be weighed down by the hierarchical norms of the Hindu family structure. In hindsight the BJP has recognised that the octogenarian status of its prime ministerial candidate and an overall fuddy-duddy image did prompt a large chunk of younger voters to discover virtues in the Congress.
To yet others what was heartening was Gadkari’s emphasis on performance and delivery and, by implication, his disavowal of abstruse ideological posturing. There is a certain no-nonsense purposefulness about Gadkari — perhaps stemming from his self-image as a proud, self-made businessman — which marks him out from the traditional politician whose achievements and world view are defined by politics alone. He didn’t speak in abstraction about modernity or the need to face up to the realities of the 21st century. But in focussing on bread-and-butter issues and shying away from overt ‘identity’ issues, he did suggest that the BJP was keen to learn from its most important political mistake: the failure to recognise that strident Hindu nationalism too had a ‘sell by’ date. In positing a performance-linked criterion for leadership, he also crafted a vision that was markedly different from the patriarchal ‘parivar’ structure that has dominated the BJP.
Gadkari may owe his selection as BJP president to the RSS leadership, but his political priorities seem curiously out of sync with those of his patrons.
Indeed, one of the unintended consequences of the Indore meet was the slightly schizoid message that came across. The RSS-dominated Madhya Pradesh unit went out of its way to create a contrived atmosphere of simplicity that prompted many to recall Sarojini Naidu’s immortal aside on the cost of keeping the Mahatma in poverty. To accommodate RSS concerns, Gadkari also proclaimed the virtues of a ‘gaon chalo’ approach that may seem at odds with the BJP’s own urban and semi-urban base.
These were, however, instances of cosmetic accommodation to the RSS. The crucial test for Gadkari will be the selection of office-bearers and the nomination of the new National Executive. There is a section of the RSS that wants the BJP to be the mirror image of the so-called ‘parent body.’ They want the real nerve centre of the BJP to be the full-time organising secretaries appointed by the RSS. Yet, the bulk of the problems that Gadkari has inherited from his predecessor are the creation of these very organising secretaries. If the rest of the party is going to be assessed for performance, it follows that the organising secretaries cannot be governed by separate rules.
In private, Gadkari has often told colleagues that while he consults the RSS leadership, he isn’t afraid to say no where necessary. Rajnath Singh pampered the RSS by not only being unduly obliging but also trying to second guess his appointing authority. This resulted in serious political complications, not the least of which was the BJP’s failure to attract new talent after 2004. In trying to undo the damage, Gadkari may willy-nilly have to challenge and even reverse many of the key decisions of his predecessor. A small beginning has been made in Rajasthan and the coming months will see the slow return of Vasundhara Raje to the centre stage of state politics. There are similar outstanding issues in Uttar Pradesh. In coping with these different challenges, Gadkari will be judged on his ability to be fair and allow political imperatives prevail over other considerations.
RESTORING ORGANISATIONAL vigour is, however, only a fraction of the tasks before Gadkari. Far more important is the challenge of re-establishing the BJP’s political appeal to voters. That hoary identity politics has run its course is by now accepted by most in the BJP — a reason why the party was careful to distance itself from the Shiv Sena’s recent shenanigans. It is also recognised that quirky non-issues such as the promotion of vegetarianism (advocated by Rajnath Singh at Indore) are unlikely to endear the BJP to a country that is hungry for rapid growth. The instincts of the BJP are to posit uncompromising national security, independent foreign policy, the promotion of entrepreneurship and sensible economics against the waywardness of the Manmohan Singh government in these spheres. That is what the parliamentary wing of the BJP hopes to do in the coming months.
Rahul Gandhi’s growing appeal cannot simply be met by anti-incumbency
This approach, which is based on the presumption that there is a groundswell of anti-incumbency waiting to be tapped, may yield some immediate dividends, especially if the BJP puts on a united face. However, the growing appeal of Rahul Gandhi is a far greater challenge to the BJP and it cannot be met by simple anti-incumbency. This is because the Congress’ heir-apparent has been careful to keep his campaign detached from the UPA Government. Since Rahul’s appeal is centred on the nebulous but emotive planks of ‘youth power’, democracy and the uplift of Dalits, the BJP has to counter it through the projection of an alternative Big Idea.
At Indore, Gadkari made a plea for the BJP to shed its image as a middle-class/ upper-caste party and reach out to rural India and underprivileged Dalits. The unstated assumption was that the party would benefit by harnessing the discontent of all those left out by the relentless march of the market economy. This is an approach that also appeals to the RSS’S disdain for cosmopolitanism.
The theme of ‘growth with a human face’, often credited to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, has its takers. But it also has to blend harmoniously with the natural impulses of a party that owed its initial rise to its ability to articulate the yearnings of Middle India.
In the past decade, Middle India has changed dramatically. The disconnect between urban cosmopolitanism and Bharat is no longer as profound. The BJP doesn’t appear to have recognised this. This is why any drift to rural populism could offset potential gains from the return to organisational sobriety.
The BJP’s course-correction process has just about begun in Indore. There is still a long road ahead.