The Old Man and the Seat

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On the road LK Advani has jumped at the opportunity to go on yet another rath yatra
Photo: AFP

IT WAS SAID of 19th-century Mexican generals that they were always too busy fighting the last war. It must exasperate sympathisers of the BJP that their leaders are still fighting the legacy of the last elections or battling the previous decade’s phantoms. Some of this may be unavoidable for individuals; much of it is only indulgence. What it ends up doing, nevertheless, is distracting the party from the task at hand: optimising the opportunities given to it by the atrophy of the UPA government.

The BJP’s ‘time warp’ phenomenon was in view in the past week due to two very different occurrences. First, LK Advani, party patriarch and former deputy prime minister, announced yet another rath yatra, ostensibly to spread the message of UPA’s corruption, but quite clearly also to declare yet another go at prime ministership.

If the rath yatra bugle was greeted by some dismay by those in the party who feel the Advani appeal is well past its sell-by date, the other event of reckoning was certainly more invigorating for the party. In a verdict related to the Gulberg Society killings during the 2002 Gujarat riots and an allegation of a “larger conspiracy” by Zakia Jafri, the Supreme Court declined to indict Narendra Modi and asked the local court in Gujarat trying those accused of murder in the case to continue the hearings. However, it also asked the lower court to consider the report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT), set up by apex court, to “look into” Zakia’s complaint and study nine cases of particularly egregious violence in Gujarat’s horrific spring-summer of 2002.

Is the BJP lulled by the belief that if people vote against the Congress, the only beneficiary must be the BJP?

While the exact ramifications of the Supreme Court verdict are still being debated and contested (see Modi’s tryst with the law has only begun. Not ended by Ashish Khetan), as far as public perception goes, it would appear there has been some relief for Modi. In the concluding remarks of his report, SIT Chairman RK Raghavan argued that there was no actionable evidence of personal culpability against Modi and, as such, exonerated him from any specific acts of commission. If the trial court validates this position, it will represent a victory for Modi and remove a legal spectre hanging over him. It could also potentially pave the way for his move to Delhi, and to a decisive role in national politics.

Between Advani and Modi, the BJP has been kept busy this past week. There is, as the old political cliché goes, much activity at its Ashoka Road headquarters in New Delhi. Big-name functionaries, small-time hangers-on, party spokespersons, the usual brigade of sycophants and time servers: everybody has been anxious to get on the right side of Advani or Modi, to be seen saying the right thing — or more so, to be not seen not saying the right thing.

IN FUNDAMENTAL ways does any of this really matter? Politics is about the here and now. For the BJP, it is about putting its best foot forward to challenge the UPA and Congress in the next two years in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. That timetable may be too late for an Advani rejuvenation and too early for a Modi reinvention. Between wistfulness for yesterday and exuberant optimism about day after tomorrow, is the party losing focus on today?

That may sound a cutting and party-pooper assessment in a week when the BJP is in a celebratory mood. Who knows, it may be right. Maybe all those opinion polls predicting a sweep for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh that party spokespersons are quoting — even as the shrewder among them express bewilderment in private — are true. Yet, as in 2007-08, when the UPA and the Left Front went to war with each other and all but rendered the first Manmohan Singh government comatose, it is difficult to escape the feeling the BJP is turning a trifle complacent, allowing itself to be lulled by the belief that if people vote against the Congress, the only and natural beneficiary must be the BJP.

All this is getting ahead of the story. For the moment, there are three questions that exercise the BJP:

• What is Advani up to?

• Who are the party’s potential leaders and faces for 2014, or whenever the next Lok Sabha election is held, and where does Modi figure in this catalogue?

• Finally, what is the BJP all about? What is its programmatic content, its philosophy and its USP in contemporary India?

On all three questions, the party hasn’t faced up to the hard answers. These questions, it must be said, are not abstract queries that must satisfy some personal curiosity. They are being asked in the immediate political context — when the BJP’s principal national opponents, the Congress and the Left (the fulcrum of any viable Third Front), are at their weakest in years.

ADVANI’S UNILATERAL announcement of a rath yatra has shaken the upper echelons of the party. Like his anti-terrorism Bharat Suraksha Yatra — which was sprung upon the BJP and its then president, Rajnath Singh, in 2006 — it is being interpreted as motivated by an ambition bordering on desperation. That earlier yatra was less than successful and was called off when Pramod Mahajan’s death gave Advani and (an anyway unwilling) Rajnath the excuse to end it prematurely.

Nevertheless Advani survived and was the party’s unqualified prime ministerial candidate in 2009. That choice itself was a compromise. The generational transition that was supposed to have taken place after 2004 never happened. Far from playing the ‘Bhismah Pitamah’ role that was expected of him, Advani saw himself as Arjuna in his very own rendition of the Mahabharata. This led him to disregard the party and allow a small inner coterie to guide him into a series of unorthodox projects — including the visit to Pakistan in 2005 — that left the BJP confused and bogged down by non-issues.

Advani’s adventurism has cost the party. In 2004, the BJP had run a fairly good Union government and kept together an impressive coalition of regional parties. With Advani guiding it as a mentor, the BJP could have consolidated its autonomy from the RSS and transformed itself into a modern right-wing party. When Advani put personal ambition ahead of the institution, the autonomy process was not just not advanced, it was reversed. The RSS grabbed control of the BJP, leading to an uneasy relationship between the ‘politicals’ in the BJP and the Sangh secondments. This equation has still not been settled.

In 2009, the absence of alternatives and a degree of respect for Advani’s half-century of service to the BJP family found him being named prime ministerial candidate. It was always going to be a difficult election to win — though the extent of rejection did surprise the BJP — and Advani encashed every IOU he had. In some senses, that election campaign was the guru dakshina of the generation of BJP leaders Advani had mentored. After that, it was supposed to be a gentle walk into the sunset.

Advani never saw it that way. He had to be nudged out of the leader of opposition’s job in the Lok Sabha. He suggested he wouldn’t contest the 2014 election but never quite baldly stated it. Now, as a senior RSS leader says, “He feels there may be an election before 2014, or some sort of interim arrangement at the Centre. And doesn’t want to be out of the running.”

There is a growing perception in the political class — not limited to the BJP — that the next General election may be as early as winter 2012. If the Congress does badly in the Uttar Pradesh election next summer, there is a chance that the UPA arrangement may fall apart. Obviously Advani has bought into this idea.

Where does this leave the BJP’s Generation 2? For a start, Advani will rekindle hopes of the party’s Generation 1.5 — the 70-somethings such as Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi, who had lost out as the parliamentary leadership passed onto the hands of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. They would now be hoping for places in a potential Advani-led Cabinet, loathe as they would be to serve under a BJP prime minister who may be younger than them.

Even so, is it not as if the BJP’s Gen Next members are young any longer. Many of them are pushing 60. Some are already grandparents. How long will they wait?

In the past two years, Swaraj and Jaitley have done a much better job of cornering the government in Parliament than their predecessors — Advani and Jaswant — did in the 2004- 09 period. They have also achieved a degree of crossparty unity, reaching out to estranged former allies such as the Biju Janata Dal and forming a working arrangement with parties such as the CPM and the RJD, which will never be electoral partners of the BJP.

By itself, this is no mean achievement. It has been predicated on two assumptions. One, for the immediate future at least, Indian politics has entered a non-ideological phase and the next election will be fought on breadand- butter issues, on corruption and weak governance, on high prices and economic drift, on exploiting an antiestablishment mood and putting together state-specific coalitions to thwart the Congress.

The second assumption is the BJP no longer has the freedom to decide on its leader that it did in the 1990s or even in 2009. Till then decisions could be taken by the party and the RSS. Today, a third stakeholder can exercise a veto — the NDA. Alliance partners, and potential alliance partners, will want a leader who they see as not threatening their regional bases as well as having the persuasive capacities to bring in incremental allies and fence-sitting voters.

It is unlikely the NDA (and the ‘NDA Plus’, to use party shorthand for potential anti-Congress partners still outside the NDA fold) would be enthusiastic about Advani. This leaves the BJP with two effective choices: the parliamentary leaders. Both have their attributes but both have their shortcomings as well. There are question marks about Swaraj’s policy acumen, especially on economic issues, and about Jaitley’s popularity outside the educated middle-classes. Further, there is the option of a non-BJP person as NDA leader. The name of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has gained traction in some quarters.

There are also others in the BJP Gen Next. As former president, Rajnath Singh retains the allegiance of elements in the party bureaucracy. An influential section of the RSS is strongly backing him and if the BJP does better than expected in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh election, Rajnath will emerge as a contender, though it is difficult to see the NDA organising itself around him.

WHAT DOES this mean for Modi? He is the darling of the party rank and file, the most charismatic of the Gen Next, the most effective of the BJP chief ministers. If you leave aside the violence of 2002, even many of his detractors would concede that he has an enviable administrative record and has made Gujarat an economic powerhouse. He is the BJP leader the Congress fears most. If there is one person in the BJP who has the potential to take it to its 180-odd seat robustness of the late 1990s, it does appear to be Modi.

Nevertheless he remains a polarising figure. The aftermath of 2002 makes him difficult to accept for some allies. Even within the party, he remains a dual-edged sword. The Supreme Court verdict has given him a chance to effect a political reinvention. With his trademark mix of the politics of conviction and of theatre, Modi has started this process with a three-day fast to promote “sadbhavana”.

Will this political reinvention be completed by 2014? Can the party really risk backing him, knowing that this might mean a setback on the national stage in the short term? Alternatively, should it wait for him to morph into someone more universally acceptable?

On the other hand, as some in the BJP shrug, how long must the party wait before putting forward its most popular internal candidate? After all, for some allies, Modi may just never be acceptable. Of all the Gen Next candidates, he is the only one who can possibly spearhead an expansion of the BJP into new areas. This will worry parties as far apart as the JD(U), the Akali Dal and Shiv Sena.

In the history of healing, ‘heroic medicine’ was an expression for an aggressive, risky regimen that could cure a patient of a debilitating disease but also, if it didn’t work, weaken and even kill him. Modi represents the BJP’s ‘heroic medicine’ dilemma. To make him the party mascot means, in essence, to put all the BJP’s eggs in one basket — both high on return and high on risk. Will there be unanimity in the party on this, especially given the vulnerability of the Congress and the high chance that an adroitly-knitted multi-party coalition, led by a less controversial leader, could defeat the UPA in the next election?

IN POLITICS, whether in the BJP or elsewhere, there is a perennial allure to the ‘who’ question: “After Nehru, who?”, “After Vajpayee, who?”, “After Advani, who?” Less debated and as important is the ‘what’ question: “After Hindutva, what?” What is the BJP’s inspirational mantra after the muscular nationalism of the 1990s, an idea that is past its prime?

This is a compelling question and one that will determine the choice of leader. For example, a BJP led by Rajnath will be a certain type of BJP with a certain appeal; and a BJP led by Jaitley or Swaraj or Modi will be another type of BJP with another type of appeal. Some characteristics may be common but the overall identity of the party will influence its choice of leader as much as the leader will reinforce the chosen identity. By ducking the leadership question — and hiding behind the “collective leadership” babble of party president Nitin Gadkari — the BJP is actually running away from this ideational overhaul.

This is baffling and in fact paradoxical. Twenty years after liberalisation, significant sections of India are far more rightwing and accepting of right-wing thought than ever in recent history. An expectations revolution and a new energy in Indian business have thrown up a strong constituency for economic reform, for deregulation and for growth. That aside, some of the slogans of the BJP in the 1990s — whether on the centrality of Hinduism to Indian society (albeit not to the Indian State) and on Islamist concerns — are conventional wisdom today. Why then has the BJP failed to capitalise on all of this?

Today, the Congress has positioned itself as a centre-left entity, and is very unwilling to making the politics of aspiration its calling card, preferring a 1970s style politics of grievance. Its most visible opposition comes from civil society groups such as those led by Anna Hazare, which have posited the corruption issue as an inevitable byproduct of liberalisation and are not in any manner votaries of the politics of aspiration.

However, India’s urban middle classes are larger and more demanding than ever before precisely because of the fruits of economic reform. They are impatient for the growth engine to whirr faster. There is disquiet that the Congress is not enabling this. Indeed, between 2009-11, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have lost corporate India as a supportive constituency.

There is a vacuum here waiting to be filled. Individual leaders of the BJP are doing it, including in select states such as Gujarat. Gadkari himself has spoken about being a businessman and understanding entrepreneurial urges. Even so, factoring in economic aspiration and a young population’s hunger and ambition as essential ingredients for its all-India narrative is something the BJP is still shying away from.

Neither is it offering new ideas on foreign policy or India’s place in the world, on security and the pan-Indian themes that distinguish a national party from regional peers. New ideas on foreign policy don’t win votes. What they do achieve is to give the impression of a vibrant, engaging and intellectually exciting party. Right now, these are not terms one would use to describe the BJP.

As such, though the Indian middle classes have turned right, they find the original party of the right left behind. That policy paralysis is a symptom of the BJP’s predicament. Unchecked, it could soon become the affliction. No rath yatra or fast will then be able to salvage it.

Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka. 
[email protected]

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