The iron man’s meltdown


By Swapan Dasgupta

Party talk Sudheendra Kulkarni in the LK Advani war room Photo: Shailendra Pandey

A POLITICAL PARTY like the BJP doesn’t exist for the gratification of a self-perpetuating leadership. It is sustained by a vibrant dialogue involving the leadership, activists, stakeholders and above all, its supporters and voters on the ground. It is a measure of the deep commitment of large numbers of Indians to the ideas driving the BJP that the 2009 defeat has generated a passionate and spontaneous debate over the party’s future. Without waiting for the leadership to first read a report on the debacle by three unnamed notables and then determine the ‘line’ in a closed door chintan baithak, well-wishers of the party including many who gave quality time to the party during the long election campaign have taken matters into their own hands and have already initiated a debate the party leadership can’t afford to ignore.

Contrary to the perception that it is some sort of a cadrebased body operating along Leninist command-and-control lines, the BJP actually approximates a political movement. This accounts for both its strengths and its weaknesses. Like much of Hindu society, a strange cocktail of idealism, ideology, pragmatism and selfinterest governs the BJP.

Sudheendra Kulkarni’s “candid insider account” (TEHELKA, June 13, 2009) is a welcome addition to the ever-growing literature on the BJP’s 2009 election experience. As the driving force behind LK Advani’s campaign for the prime ministership, Kulkarni has been refreshingly forthright in positing his reasons why the campaign to regain power went so horribly wrong. For its own reasons, the party leadership may have taken a dim view of a kiss-and-tell story by an ‘insider’ but these concerns don’t invalidate either the importance of his intervention or the efficacy of his observations.

Some of Kulkarni’s observations are unexceptionable. In 2009, the BJP-led NDA was missing in action from 143 seats of eastern and south India. These also happened to be precisely the areas where the Congress and its allies performed best — at the cost of the Left and the Third Front.

Secondly, it is also undeniable that the BJP coupled its uneven geographical spread by not being on the radar of Muslims and Christians who are 14 per cent of the population but whose enthusiastic participation in voting gives them a political clout far greater than their number.

Kulkarni’s argument that belligerent and ugly expressions of Hindutva have limited the BJP’s reach among both minorities and moderate Hindus is also one that will have many takers within the party and even the RSS. The BJP’s complete misreading of the post-Kandhamal mood in Orissa and the adverse fallout of Varun Gandhi’s tasteless remarks on the rest of Uttar Pradesh add weight to Kulkarni’s suggestion that the BJP must clarify “what formulations of Hindutva are not acceptable to it.”

I would, in fact, go a step further and reaffirm my argument (made in the Times of India, June 4, 2009) that it is time for the BJP to reconsider the very use of the H-word. The hideous baggage of Pramod Muthalik and Praveen Togadia that ‘Hindutva’ carries negates its use as respectable shorthand for a wholesome ‘way of life’.

Unfortunately, this is where my agreements with Kulkarni cease. In suggesting that “Never in the history of the Jana Sangh or the BJP was the party enfeebled by so much disarray at the top,” he has questioned the competence and integrity of those who were at the organisational helm of the party. As an expression of frustration, this blame game may be in order but the organisational shortcomings — particularly the appointments of inappropriate state presidents — were known to Advani in December 2007 when he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. What was done in the intervening period to put the right people in charge?

Kulkarni doesn’t answer the question and instead blames the Sangh Parivar and the party for not throwing their collective weight behind Advani, thereby making “a strong leader like Advani…look weak, helpless and not fully in command.”

Kulkarni doth protest too much. The RSS may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is no doubt that the Parivar participated in the campaign ungrudgingly. The participation may not have been as intense as it was in, say, the 90s, and the social influence of the Parivar may have shrunk in the intervening period but that does not warrant a charge of criminal dereliction of duty. Defeat does not mean there was a lack of resolve. To suggest otherwise is hurtful and churlish.

IN HIS outpourings, Kulkarni casually admits, “Of course, it is also true that Advani himself failed to assert his leadership at crucial points before and during the campaign.” Was this failure to lead an oversight, as Kulkarni seems to suggest, or was it a strategy that went awry?

That the BJP was not in a state of battle-readiness was known to almost everyone in the party for more than a year. It was also an open secret that a few leaders who relied excessively on resident astrologers saw the 2009 election as a “semifinal,” believing that their big moment would come in 2014. If Advani had wanted to act to correct these divinely ordained distortions, the party would have welcomed it enthusiastically. There would have been no opposition from the RSS too.

Unfortunately, Advani didn’t attend to the problems. Instead, he embarked on the suicidal course of trying to transform a parliamentary election into a presidential one. From the summer of 2008 onwards, Advani sought to project himself as a leader who was nominally from the party but stood well above it. Beginning with the functions associated with the publication of his autobiography to the establishment of his war-room, the unveiling of his personal website and his own vision statements, the Advani strategy lay in bypassing a problem-ridden party. Advani even had his separate media strategy, which centred on Kulkarni and his team of wide-eyed interns.

Whether the visible detachment of the Advani campaign from the party campaign was deliberate or an incidental consequence of Kulkarni’s own style of functioning is something that only Advani can clarify.

It is true that a conscious strategy of separating the leader from the party can often yield results. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s popularity always exceeded that of the BJP. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi benefited from his cult following. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work with the Advani 2009 campaign. Advani didn’t secure an incremental vote that would have given the BJP a booster shot. His projection as the “mazboot neta” didn’t correspond with his hands-off approach to the problems affecting the party. His energetic Internet campaign, while conveying an impression of meaningful impact, didn’t offset the age factor among youth voters.

Advani didn’t attend to problems. He was too busy on his suicidal mission: his presidential campaign

The real problem, as I stressed in an earlier article, is that Advani suffered from the confusion of contradictory images. This haziness was responsible for the sudden midstream realisation by many that Modi offered something extra: inspiration. By then, it was too late for an audacious queen sacrifice.

Finally, in suggesting the BJP’s future course of action, Kulkarni has proposed that the relationship between the BJP and RSS be redefined, a suggestion he first mooted during the Jinnah controversy in 2005. It is an important area of concern considering the murmurs of dissatisfaction against the overbearing style of some RSS apparatchiks.

That the approaches of the BJP and RSS need to be different is undeniable. That the BJP must not be micro-managed by the RSS is also not a bone of contention. Yet, the functional autonomy of the BJP cannot diminish the fact that its institutional links with a nationalist organisation committed to Hindu unity and nation building are a source of strength. The RSS’ role of providing a moral and ethical compass for the BJP remains as valid today as it was in 1980 when the dual membership issue forced a parting of ways with the Janata Party.

In positing BJP-RSS ties as a key issue towards the revitalisation of the party, Kulkarni has climbed on his favourite hobbyhorse. It reveals an unfortunate streak of adventurism that deflects attention from the more urgent business at hand: forging an enlightened nationalist agenda centred on security, growth, modernity and good governance.

There is also a need to analyse and learn the relevant lessons from the failed 2009 campaign. Kulkarni has provided some interesting insights but has also cluttered the picture with red herrings. This isn’t surprising. There are many in the BJP who insist that the problem with Advani was Kulkarni.

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