Debating India

BJP and Friends

Saturday 10 January 1998, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

The Bharatiya Janata Party has pulled out all the stops to win new friends. But there are already signs of a generalised pattern of disassociation with its Hindutva agenda among its new-found allies.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

in New Delhi

EARLY forecasts that Elections 1998 would be a triumphant romp for the Bharatiya Janata Party, it turns out, were grossly off the mark. Party strategists who believed that the BJP’s ticket to electoral glory would be assured once it broke out of the cocooned isolation of the politics of Hindutva are reworking their calculations. And as hardliners within the ranks set up a discordant chorus that brings the divisive agenda of Hindutva to the foreground, the BJP has begun to realise that being first off the starting block does not necessarily ensure success in the long haul of electoral politics.

Managing the implacable hostility that most potential allies harboured towards the Hindutva project was one part of the story. Its obverse was that of managing the extremists within the Hindutva fold. As in an eccentric dialectical process, every forward movement brings the BJP up against a fresh element of resistance from quarters that are only now beginning to enter its political calculations.

General Elections 1996 were in a sense a key turning point for the BJP, when it applied the principle of alliances on a scale that it had seldom done before. The results were fairly impressive from its point of view - a severe dent in Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Bihar bastion and sweeping victories in Punjab and Haryana. Concurrently, significant gains in the popular vote share in Karnataka and Orissa seemed to suggest that suitable alliances would help the party transcend its traditionally marginal status in the political landscapes of these States.

BUT as Elections 1998 approach, the established alliances of the BJP are proving to be victims of their own success. This could conceivably impede the consummation of new partnerships. P.K. Chaudhary, the BJP’s vice-president in Haryana, recently provided an unambiguous statement of what until now has remained a tacit element of the party’s strategic approach. Unmindful of his party’s status as the junior partner in the Haryana coalition, Chaudhary declared that the Haryana Vikas Party led by Chief Minister Bansi Lal would soon submerge its identity in the BJP so that the State would have a Ministry led by his party.

Chaudhary’s political prophecy earned him a sharp rebuke from the senior leaders of the HVP. But for parties that are confined to regions, it brought to the fore a longer-term political worry. This worry was that with its visions of a seamless whole of national unity, its monolithic structure and systemic hostility towards any form of particularity that is not neutralisable by its plank of Hindutva, the BJP may well embark upon a programme of homogenisation that could wipe out their distinctive identities.

Smaller allies that do not have a distinct ideological niche and are today using the allegiance of particular social constituencies as a bargaining counter suffer a twin threat. The BJP’s well-known capacity to orchestrate a fervour in support of its uncompromising ideological programme could make their partnership status an embarrassment in the near future. And a retreat from their ideological professions, such as they are, could lead to their being supplanted from traditional constituencies either by the BJP or by a party that is seen to offer a credible form of resistance to the advance of the Hindutva agenda.

A process of polarisation such as the BJP is intent on promoting shows little tolerance for parties that inhabit the uneasy middle ground. The BJP’s very distinctive political programme, which few other parties share, and its presence as a cohesive and ideologically driven party with a fairly expansive geographical base, makes it a less-than-benign partner for a party with a regional base.

THE BJP’s newly wrought alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu has, surprisingly, cast a shadow over its prospects in distant Bihar. Tamil Nadu itself is expected to be a token contest for the BJP; the party strikes up few resonances in the State. It may even find that the core of the AIADMK’s vote is not transferable to a party of its commitments. And the compromise with corruption that former Chief Minister and AIADMK leader Jayalalitha imposes on it could have repercussions for its campaign platform in other States.

Former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, with a shrewd eye for the main chance, has already begun to utilise the Tamil Nadu developments to turn around a desperate situation in Bihar. Facing prosecution and the prospect of a public inquisition over his involvement in the fodder scam, Laloo Prasad has contrived to interpret the BJP’s alliance with Jayalalitha as a sordid instance of double standards. In Laloo Prasad’s colourfully populist rendition, corruption is tolerable for the BJP if it involves a higher caste individual such as Jayalalitha. It was only when the leader of the resurgent backward classes was the target of corruption allegations that the BJP would make an electoral issue of it.

A SENSE of deep unease is already apparent within the BJP’s poll partners in Bihar. The Samata Party, at its recent National Executive session, expressed its concern over the BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK. In a symbolic gesture, it indicated that it would contest a few seats in Tamil Nadu to maintain the public credibility of its anti-corruption stance.

The Samata Party has also refused to sign on to the BJP’s political programme. The context was provided by BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj’s claim that all its partners shared its political perceptions in some degree. This drew an unequivocal rebuttal from Samata Party president George Fernandes. This is the kind of political discord that the BJP is anxious to avoid in its euphoric rush. The Samata’s specific points of disagreement are on the three most contentious items on the BJP’s agenda - Ayodhya, the enactment of a uniform civil code and the annulment of Article 370 of the Constitution on the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Fernandes indicated that there would be no dilution of his party’s position on these issues, that the alliance with the BJP was purely tactical in nature, and that it did not involve any endorsement of its political platform.

The Samata Party is keen to expand its geographical base to Uttar Pradesh, but could encounter resistance from the BJP which views the State as its unique preserve. The Samata Party also confronts the tantalising prospect that Laloo Prasad’s departure from the ranks of the United Front could make that alliance its natural haven, considering the ideological leanings and backgrounds of most of its leaders. Overtures to the Samata have been made by the U.F., particularly by the Communist Party of India, the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party. Further prospects depend upon the course taken by talks on seat adjustments in the next few weeks.

The Samata Party’s actions were part of a generalised pattern of dissociation with the BJP’s agenda among the Hindutva party’s allies. The Loktantrik Congress, incongruously enough for a party that shares power with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, felt compelled recently to affirm its opposition to the three central elements of the party’s agenda that the Samata feels so uneasy about. But at the same time, Loktantrik Congress leader Naresh Aggarwal found little amiss in reassuring the minorities that their interests would be absolutely safe under a BJP dispensation.

AS far as the AIADMK is concerned, it obviously believes, like the Loktantrik Congress, that complicity in the exercise of power is a great solvent for political divergences. Party programmes were relegated to a secondary status on the occasion of the AIADMK’s general conference at Tirunelveli, with BJP president L.K. Advani in attendance. Standing to the foreground were practical details such as seat-sharing and the shape of any future government. Jayalalitha was eager to stake her claim to a share in the possible future power dispensation at the Centre. Advani proved rather more reticent about commenting on the shape of the government that he foresaw, but welcomed the alliance with the AIADMK as a symbolic bridge across the psychological divide between the South and the North.

More mundane explanations appear to enjoy greater credibility. The AIADMK has been consistent in its well-established policy of seeking a viable State-wide alliance with a national political party. When in Opposition it obviously believes that a friendly government at the Centre is a useful insurance against intrusive scrutiny by an adversarial State Government. And when in office it could serve as the best assurance of a relatively free run of affairs in the State. The Congress(I), which should have been the automatic beneficiary of this policy, was in a state of palpable disarray, both at the national and State levels. Like many others, Jayalalitha thought that betting on the BJP was a safe strategy with the potential to bring her enormous dividends in the not-too-distant future if not immediately.

Indulgence for corruption - and that on an epic scale - is built into this particular convergence of political interests between a lineal descendant of the Dravida Kazhagam and the party of Hindu-Hindi nationalism. And even if Jayalalitha has expressed herself in favour of power-sharing as a more durable adhesive for the alliance, it is clear that she is likely to settle for a far more modest programme - in fact, a single-dimensional one of restraint on the multitude of corruption investigations against her.

OF the BJP’s many alliances, the only one that appears relatively untroubled at this juncture is the alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Ideological and political dissonances are not a concern here, so much as the perils of its three-year incumbency in the State administration. Yet as the principal Opposition party in the State, the Congress(I) is in no position to exploit the resultant political dividends. Not making too great a point of prestige, the Congress(I) State leadership has in a spirit of pragmatism decided to bring the disparate but influential Third Force on board its alliance. Even with the Congress(I)’s declining fortunes, consolidation with the substantial vote share that the Third Force won in the last election could conceivably put the brakes on the advance of the BJP-Sena alliance.

In Orissa, the Biju Janata Dal affords the BJP with the opportunity to break into a territory that has always been indifferent to its brand of politics, in part because of the absence of a significant presence of religious minorities in the State. For this reason, the perception of menace that the BJP projects elsewhere is unlikely to be a significant factor in the contest in Orissa. And with the Janata Dal in palpable decline, the BJP could aspire to filling the Opposition space. It has pretensions of contesting the majority of seats in the State, but the BJD has made it clear that it sees itself as the senior partner in the alliance. Whether a mutually satisfactory formula can be worked out remains to be seen.

Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti in Karnataka remain potential allies, though the terms of engagement could prove contentious. Mamata for her part has brought on board the loquacious former MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, better known in recent times as a media columnist with a penchant for unsubtle panegyrics for Rajiv Gandhi and virulent polemic against the BJP. When last heard from, the one-time MP from Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu was disavowing any possibility of an alliance with the BJP, though he would not rule out a contingent adjustment on seats contested, purely for tactical reasons.

LAKSHMI PARVATI’S faction of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh has meanwhile announced its alliance with the BJP. Sonia Gandhi’s entry into the Congress campaign may have created a momentary dissonance for the the widow of Telugu Desam patriarch N.T. Rama Rao. And the BJP’s unilateral announcement that it would contest 35 of the 42 seats in the State was another irritant. Lakshmi Parvati, however, was quick to set at rest all speculation. Her alliance with the BJP would be sustained, she said, with the sole prerequisite being that her party would contest 20 seats and allocate another two to close allies.

Lakshmi Parvati is entitled to bargain for a higher quota of seats on the strength of her performance in the last general elections, when her party polled twice the number of votes in the State as the BJP. It remains unclear whether the BJP, with its newly discovered sense of ambition, will quite see things that way. The hard bargaining over seats is being left to the State unit of the party.

MANAGING a disparate set of allies may be one part of the challenge. The BJP is today clearly at a loss to decide how to handle its own internal schisms. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with the blessings of the family elders within the Hindutva fold, has kept up an insistent chorus that Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura are integral elements of the political agenda in the coming elections. L.K. Advani sought initially to placate the extremists within his ranks by seeking a tradeoff - if Muslims were to relent on Ayodhya, he said, he would offer his mediatory services to obtain the deletion of the latter two items from the Hindutva agenda.

Midway through his first campaign trip, Advani seemed to tilt strongly towards the extremist fringe. Kashi and Mathura would in addition to Ayodhya feature prominently in the BJP’s election manifesto, he indicated. And yet, in a further statement that had most observers wondering about it all, he claimed to have been misquoted by the media which interpreted this remark to mean that Kashi and Mathura too were on the BJP’s political agenda.

The BJP’s putative prime ministerial candidate, A.B. Vajpayee, meanwhile sought decisively to set his face against the extremist agenda. But a detailed exegeses of the foundational works of Hindutva is already under way within both the Congress(I) and the U.F., and Vajpayee is likely to face a public inquisition in the coming weeks on the sections that he subscribes to and those he rejects. Clearly, any concession to the needs of pragmatism, any indication that the hard edge of Hindutva is being blunted, will stir up serious misgivings on the extremist fringe which is well represented at the BJP’s apex by former president Murli Manohar Joshi. A strategy of evasion which suggests itself may not survive the heat of vigorous contestation in Elections 1998.

The political dilemma is acute. As the BJP expands its base through a vigorous pursuit of its distinct political agenda, it provides a strong inducement to the Opposition to unite forces. Advani sees this as part of the destiny of the BJP - where political activity at one time revolved around the stable pole of the Congress(I), today it is the BJP that has begun increasingly to play that role. The difference which he still tends to overlook is that the politics of social exclusion that the BJP has carried to new extremes is self-limiting in the domain of representative democracy. And even if a new spirit of pragmatism impels the BJP towards an inclusive view of political mobilisation, the spirit of intolerance which lies within the inner core of its ideology continually pulls it back.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Vol. 15 :: No. 01 :: Jan. 10 - 23, 1998

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