Debating India

BJP

The Iron Man’s Hammer

Saba Naqvi Bhaumik

Monday 1 November 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

L.K. Advani is back in the saddle. But is the party left with enough steam to gallop?

Anger, denial, bargain, depression, acceptance are the five stages before death in the Hollywood classic All That Jazz. It’s taken the BJP five months to finally accept defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Having done so, the party has in a sense returned to the very beginning. Its destiny will yet again be charted by the Great Charioteer of Hindutva, the loh purush of the saffron forces. It was a dramatic move last week when the BJP yet again anointed Lal Kishen Advani as its president. The 77-year-old Leader of the Opposition certainly has his job cut out for him.

In 1990, when he took out his Ram rath yatra and changed the face of Indian politics, Advani, by his own admission, was the right man in the right place. As he put it, "The BJP wouldn’t have taken the steps it did with regard to the Ram temple movement had the Congress not made mistakes like overturning the Shah Bano judgement or opening the locks at Ayodhya."

But in 2004, there is a growing realisation among BJP leaders that the cycle of Hindutva could be coming to an end.

Emotive issues seem to have exhausted their appeal. The mandir has lost its resonance. The Muslim-terrorist-anti-national pitch has become a "crashing bore". To survive in the age of a born-again Gandhi parivar, the BJP clearly has to reinvent itself. The big question, therefore,

is whether Advani can yet again chart out a fresh course for the party?

The BJP is no longer the fighting-fit agitational unit that exploded on the national stage 14 years ago. It is an exhausted organisation today, demoralised by defeat and riven apart by the battles of its second generation leaders. Advani’s first task will be to conduct a sort of holding operation and bring about a truce among the ambitious second rung. Some of them are clearly insecure about their future in the new Advani dispensation.

The party gave a facile explanation for the sudden departure of Venkaiah Naidu from the scene. The press was told the former party president was "emotionally shattered" by his wife’s prolonged illness. Yet, sources reveal that this was a surgical strike planned by a section of the second rung in concert with the RSS nominees in the BJP, the outgoing general secretary (organisation) Sanjay Joshi and vice-president Bal Apte. The move to bring the loh purush centrestage had been discussed for some weeks but Operation Advani began immediately after the Maharashtra results came in on Saturday, October 16.

Two key players who had a role in persuading Advani to take up the task were Ananth Kumar and Arun Jaitley. Once he agreed by Sunday evening, a gang of four were the main movers—Sanjay Joshi, Bal Apte, Arun Jaitley and Jaswant Singh. Joshi and Apte kept the channels open with the RSS while Jaswant kept Vajpayee informed of the fast-moving events. By the time Venkaiah arrived from Chennai on Monday morning, the stage had been set for his departure.

Venkaiah played according to the script and "insisted" on demitting office. He had a long session with Advani in the morning and discussed his departure over lunch with one of the BJP’s second-level leaders. Further consultations with Advani & Co followed. Madan Das Devi, the RSS man in charge of the BJP, joined the hectic parleys in the post-lunch session. At 4:30 pm, Venkaiah called on Vajpayee to inform him of his final decision. By five, the top leadership of the BJP gathered at the party’s central office. An hour later the press was informed that Venkaiah was stepping down as BJP president. Advani was again ensconced in the seat that had always seemed de facto to belong to him.

Yet, there were other pretenders to the throne. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, who loathes Advani almost as much as "communists and pseudo-secularists", had never quite given up hopes of reclaiming the BJP presidency.

The Joshi argument has always gone something like this—as a Brahmin he is a natural successor to Vajpayee because the "casteless Sindhi" Advani can never be fully accepted by the Indian body politic. Since Joshi has few followers in the BJP, but many in the RSS and VHP, stories were planted by a section of the RSS that both its chief K.S. Sudershan and Vajpayee actually wanted Joshi to succeed Advani. True, Sudershan has an excellent rapport with Joshi and Vajpayee too has used him as a stalking horse in the past. But to imagine that Joshi would be foisted as BJP president at this juncture in the party’s history would require a leap of the imagination.

As it happened, Joshi was in Allahabad when Advani took over. No one summoned him to Delhi for the crucial meeting when Venkaiah quit office. The outgoing president did, however, make a telephone call at 5 pm to inform Joshi of the dramatic developments. Also missing from all the action was the sulking sanyasin Uma Bharati. In spite of reports of ill- health and repeated pleas from her colleagues in the BJP, Uma has refused to come down from her current refuge at the temple of Lord Shiva at Madhmaheshwar in the Uttaranchal hills. Advani told Outlook that he was not certain whether she would join them at the national council meet on October 27 when his take-over would be formally ratified. Yet, it’s certain that some sort of role will have to be found for Uma as she is one of the few backward caste faces in the BJP, whose second rung is otherwise dominated by Brahmins.

Speculation is also rife about the future role of Pramod Mahajan, who is believed to have been outwitted by Arun Jaitley in this round of shadow boxing in the BJP. Mahajan believes he is being made the scapegoat for both the defeats in the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra. He told Outlook: "I have apologised to the party for failing to deliver. I am not angry with the party for no one has directly told me that they believe I am responsible for the defeats. I have tried my level best. Yet I hear from the media that some of my colleagues are trying to marginalise me. I have no credible evidence of this but if I am held responsible, so be it. I have been BJP general secretary for 21 years of the BJP’s 24-year existence. If the party now believes I have nothing to contribute, I will gracefully accept it." Clearly, Mahajan is prepared for the worst. But it’s hard to conceive of the BJP moving ahead without its supreme pragmatist. The fact that Advani addressed his first press conference with Mahajan seated on his left was obviously intended to put an end to rumours of differences between the two.

It is only after setting the BJP house in some order (and bringing Uma down from her hilltop) that Advani can address larger political problems. There are indications that party will abandon its disruptive tactics in the winter session of Parliament starting next month. He will also make a trip to Pakistan early next year—an exercise in image-building for the former deputy prime minister. An invite to China has also been accepted though no dates have been finalised. In spite of speculation that Advani ’the hardliner’ will sharpen the ideological postures of the BJP, this can only happen after the assembly polls in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana are over by February-March next year. Hardline politics can only be counter-productive in states where the BJP has to depend on parties like the Janata Dal (United). The BJP has also taken a strategic decision not to raise expectations from the coming round of assembly elections.

Although Advani continues to pay lip service to Hindutva issues, the Savarkar and tiranga misadventures have driven home the message that such agitations can only work in a certain context. Says Arun Jaitley: "There will be a blend of ideology and pragmatism.But if you want specifics, I would say that the party does not know at this juncture.We will have to wait for the current government to give us issues that we can take up." Yet another senior BJP leader says: "If Ram could bring us votes, I would have taken his name all day long. But the problem is that the Hindus are not getting excited by such issues while the Muslims continue to gang up against us. The India of today is vastly different from the India of 1990. I believe the BJP has to accept this and be prepared for a long, patient innings where we play a defensive game."

The problem is that Advani has a weakness for agitations and yatras. There are many who believe that his way of rebuilding the BJP would be to search for the big ideological issue when traditional Opposition politics is the need of the hour for the party. Indeed, the biggest challenge before Advani and the BJP would be to curb their natural dramatic proclivities and adopt sane strategies that do not further alienate the party’s core middle-class constituency.

For, in spite of the euphoria in the BJP over Advani’s return, the future of the party seems shaky. The biggest problem is the yawning gap in the Hindi heartland. At its peak, the BJP had 50-plus seats in Uttar Pradesh. In 1991, it won 51 seats in the state, up to 52 in 1996 and 57 in 1998. The slide began in 1999 when the BJP claimed just 29 in UP, down to a dismal 10 in the 2004 polls. And with the spotlight on Maharashtra, one fact that went unnoticed was that the BJP candidates lost their deposits in eight of the 13 byelections in UP. The figures from Bihar are equally depressing.

Until the party comes up with a credible strategy for recovery in the Hindi heartland, it can only be seen as a party in decline. Advani or no Advani. Hindutva or no Hindutva.

P.S.

The Advani Agenda

- Bring about a truce among second-rung leaders and utilise each to their best abilities.

- Play by the rules of conventional Opposition politics.

- Keep the RSS and the parivar at bay by giving an ideological spin to BJP actions.

- Avoid targeting Sonia directly.

- Devise a strategy to win back the Hindi heartland.

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