The Vanquished In The Rear-View Mirror


For the BJP to survive as a national party and for it to remain politically relevant, it will need new leaders

Swapan DasguptaSwapan Dasgupta, Political Commentator

AMONG THE more fascinating features of an Indian election is the fact that the writing on the wall isn’t apparent till after the event. This was as true in 1971 and 1984 as it was last week when the electronic voting machines revealed a clear mandate in favour of the Congress-led UPA. If the BJP didn’t expect to be mauled in two successive elections, the Congress never imagined the electorate would give it a firm thumbs up after five years of indifferent governance. But while the winner can afford the luxury of post-facto smugness, the loser suffers grievously from the hangover of miscalculated triumphalism.

Setbacks L.K Advani and senior BJP members at his residence after the party’s defeat in 2009
Setbacks L.K Advani and senior BJP members at his residence after the party’s defeat in 2009
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It is natural for the defeated to get into a tizzy over what went wrong. It is also customary for the vanquished to focus less on what the other side did right and more on what it did wrong. Wisdom in hindsight, convulsions and recriminations are the inevitable consequence of political defeat. It happens in all democracies.

For the BJP, the defeat in 2009 is qualitatively different from its unexpected failure in 2004. The failure in 2004 was a shock but it was perceived by the party as a fluke defeat caused by one wrong campaign slogan and over-confidence. The post-mortem exercise that followed was, consequently, perfunctory and superficial. There were no real corrective steps because there was no feeling that there was a fundamental problem — an impression bolstered by the series of victories in state Assembly elections. The party lived in denial, looked for signs of the UPA’s premature death and convinced itself the electorate would rectify its 2004 error at the earliest.

The results of Election 2009 have shattered this self-delusion. Unlike 2004, this was a conclusive verdict for the Congress- led UPA and against both the BJP-led NDA and the Third and Fourth formations. Apart from Bihar, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam and, to a lesser extent, Gujarat, there was a national swing in favour of the UPA. Compared to 2004, the BJP lost ground to the Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Its national tally was a notch below its 1991 level. The incremental gains the BJP made under Atal Behari Vajpayee between 1996 and 1999 were decisively lost.

In social terms, the message for the BJP was quite devastating. First, there was definite evidence that the BJP’s stranglehold over upper caste Hindus had been significantly eroded by the Congress advance in the Hindi heartland. The Congress, in fact, appears to be regaining its old social coalition of upper castes, dalits and Muslims.

Secondly, the loss of urban seats which the BJP viewed as a function of over-confidence in 2004 was even more marked in 2009. In 2004, the BJP lost in the metros (except Bengaluru) but held on to the cities elsewhere. This time, not only have the metros (Bengaluru apart) rejected the BJP—in Delhi the Congress polled over 50 per cent of the votes—but the party lost Jaipur and Bareilly, seats it has won since 1989, and Kanpur. It has clung on to Indore and Bhopal with wafer-thin majorities.

The middle classes were once the mainstay of the BJP. Indeed, it used to be taunted earlier as a middle class, urban party. In this election, the BJP has seen its middle class fall steeply — a situation it encountered only once before, in 1984.

Advani was one thing till 1996, another in government and a third thing after the Jinnah controversy

Finally, the BJP has seen a complete decimation of its standing in the youth. This is not merely on account of LK Advani’s octogenarian status. For the past 10 years, the BJP has not conducted itself in a way that suggests it is accommodating towards the post-market economy generation and responsive to its impulses. On the other hand, despite the nominal presence of the septuagenarian Manmohan Singh at the helm, the Congress went out of its way to demonstrate its partiality for fresh, young faces. In hindsight, it would seem that Rahul Gandhi’s series of meetings in colleges, particularly outside the metros, and the media’s fascination with the young inheritors who were elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 paid handsome dividends. Despite being a dynastic outfit, the Congress ended up as more appealing to the youth. The BJP by contrast seemed completely hidebound and unresponsive.

Unfortunately for the party, this impression is likely to be strengthened by the Parliamentary Board decision to reanoint Advani as the Leader of Opposition. There may be good reasons why a knee-jerk response to a defeat had to be avoided. However, to the average Indian, the imperatives of taking a “considered decision” are likely to be misread as unresponsiveness to popular sentiment.

If it is to survive as a national party and an alternative to the Congress, the BJP cannot afford to brush the implications of a second defeat under the carpet. The familiar explanations centred on injudicious candidate selection, local antiincumbency and tactical blunders during the campaign are no doubt relevant but they don’t address the basic problem of a larger loss of momentum. The BJP isn’t exciting today’s voters in the same way it did in the 1990s.

A Pavlovian response to setbacks is to fall back on certitudes. Already there are whispers that the BJP erred in deviating from the path of assertive Hindutva — the factor said to be responsible for the muted involvement of the larger Sangh Parivar in the election campaign. The problem with such an approach is that it only addresses the concerns of the committed, not the average voter. It skirts a larger question: has “modern” India tired of identity politics?

The answer seems self-evident. Apart from the 2002 Gujarat Assembly election which was fought in exceptional circumstances, all elections in India have been won or lost on the strength of normal issues such as development, antiincumbency and even personalities. This includes Narendra Modi’s win in Gujarat 2007, Lalu Yadav’s defeat in Bihar and Mayawati spectacular triumph in Uttar Pradesh. Identity politics may be a factor in patches but it is on the retreat nationally. True, this may abruptly change following some dramatic occurrence but this seems to be the trend.

To a very large extent, the BJP has acknowledged this. Since 1998, it has fought all national elections on conventional political lines, without raising the emotional temperature. Unfortunately, it is burdened by the countervailing pulls and pressures of a small unreconstructed minority that exaggerates its own importance and influence.

Orissa is a classic example of how irrational exuberance leads to strategic miscalculations. Naveen Patnaik broke his alliance with the BJP because he was exasperated by the image of incoherence his administration was conveying as a result of the inflammatory posturing of a few BJP hotheads. In a sense, his problem was not dissimilar to Manmohan Singh’s problems with the Left and the Samajwadi Party. By mistaking its own cadre’s dissatisfaction with Patnaik for the public mood, it tried to box above its weight and ended up looking very foolish after the results were out.

DESPITE THE Congress advance, there is vast political space available for those who are inclined towards a Right-of-Centre approach grounded in alternative policy formulations. Of course, Hindu nationalism cannot be discounted altogether. But the question is the strategic weight given to identity vis-à-vis governance issues. The BJP has made an encouraging start with a manifesto that promotes deregulation, low taxation and a zero tolerance approach to terrorism. These are planks that take time to register with the electorate. The party has to persevere. In the past five years, the BJP was disdainful of parliamentary intervention and casual about projecting alternative policies. Its bizarre emphasis on “nationwide agitations” that never took off and Mickey Mouse issues have cast it in an ugly light.

With the government likely to last a full term, the BJP has time to reflect and take remedial steps. It will need new faces to promote it. The choice should reflect the future priorities and direction. Advani was one thing till 1996, another thing in government and a third thing after the Jinnah controversy. His inconsistencies epitomised the waywardness of the BJP. His successors must be consistent.

The BJP will always be politically significant; the coming days will determine whether or not it remains relevant.


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