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BJP’s Pratibha Patil

Thursday 28 June 2007, by DASGUPTA*Swapan

After the BJP National Executive meet concluded on Tuesday, an impish politician remarked on the uncanny similarities between the UPA presidential hopeful Pratibha Patil and the BJP’s very own Rajnath Singh. Apart from kinship, they both seem blessed with fertile imaginations: Pratibha believes she is in communion with the spirits and Rajnath imagines an unending conspiracy to deprive him of his rajyog. Both individuals, the politician concluded, have confirmed that the Peter Principle doesn’t apply to Indian public life.

Ever since the discrepancy between promise and performance touched dizzying heights in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, the BJP has gone into another tailspin. The debacle had two immediate consequences. First, it was a monumental setback to the party’s hopes of leading the NDA back to power in 2009. The immediate fallout was on the presidential election. The BJP’s loss of political momentum has prevented Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat from successfully encashing his cross-party IOUs. Secondly, the UP defeat, followed by the disappointment in Goa, punctured Rajnath Singh’s pretensions of being at the helm of the boisterous saffron march on Delhi. With its president’s leadership claim exposed as counterfeit, the rot in the BJP that had been glossed over in anticipation of a political recovery now resurfaced.

Rajnath’s reaction to adversity has been one of brazenness. He first decided that the defeat was “collective” and certainly not an indictment of his legendary greatness. Second, he decided that there was nothing to either discuss or explain. The initial political resolution for the National Executive session which also guardedly focused on some shortcomings in the party was peremptorily junked at the last minute and a predictable indictment of the UPA’s three years in power substituted for it. Finally, he complained to senior RSS leaders that all the disquiet stemmed from “rootless” intellectuals around the party who were allegedly acting at the behest of some “dissident” leaders. It is no secret that the party president’s office identified the three leading contrarians as Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani, General Secretary Arun Jaitley and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. It is also reliably understood that the wariness of Jaitley and Modi stems from astrological prognosis.

The bunker mentality that has gripped the ruling faction in the BJP stems from a distortion in the political process. An unintended and undesirable consequence of the

Jinnah controversy that led to Advani’s ouster was the transfer of real power from the politicians to the pracharaks. Beginning from the selection of Rajnath as Advani’s successor to the constitutional amendments that conferred extraordinary powers on RSS-appointed organising secretaries, the RSS has become the predominant power centre in the BJP, but without acquiring the corresponding moral authority.

The implications of this shift are ominous. First, a major chunk of political decisions have been entrusted to essentially non-political individuals whose exposure has been limited to one ideological parivar. This resulted in serious miscalculations in both candidate selection and campaign management in UP. It also explains why many in the RSS are less than enthusiastic about a thorough post-mortem of the UP experience.

Secondly, the new equations have bred a culture of non-accountability to the wider party. Rajnath’s survival strategy over the past two years has been to second-guess the RSS on issues that are dear to it. This clever tokenism, plus the strategic deployment of RSS nominees in key operational areas, has ensured him a functional freedom without any accountability. Rajnath can afford to disregard feelings in the party because he knows his future is not dependent on fellow politicians. He just has to keep the appointing authority in good humour.

Of course, not everything need be blamed on an over-bearing RSS. For the past three years the BJP has more or less abandoned projecting its own policy perspectives. There are vast areas of economics, social policy and foreign policy to which the BJP has just not applied its mind. This has made it possible for sectional interests to masquerade as policy. It is an open secret that many out-of-power BJP leaders have found a vocation as lobbyists for contractors and corporates. It is also said quite openly that to get places in the BJP hierarchy, an endorsement from the right quarter of the Samajwadi Party is more than helpful.

There has been an alarming fall in the integrity quotient of the party as a whole. After the cash-for-questions scandal and an MP’s involvement in an emigration racket, the talk of ‘a party with a difference’ has been given a discreet go-by. The UP campaign even witnessed the unseemly spectacle of the top leadership practising cronyism in awarding contracts for publicity and transport. Indeed, there is the unmistakable impression of a mushrooming of private war chests in the BJP.

It is against the backdrop of this alarming degeneration that Advani finally broke his silence at the National Executive meet with a set of pointed questions whose answers are already well-known. Advani’s intervention was characteristically restrained but, given the prevailing gag order on all internal debate, it was wonderfully timed and has aroused expectations of some correctives being put in place.

There were many issues that Advani’s critique, quite understandably, left unaddressed. These centre on the leadership question. Regardless of whether he remains president or moves to more interesting challenges, it is clear that Rajnath lacks the attributes to inspire either the electorate or the BJP and NDA. Apart from the BJP being squeezed to the margins further, persisting with Rajnath will see more NDA partners fishing for alternatives.

This burden of a non-performing president may compel the party to place the responsibility of leading the charge in the 2009 polls on Advani. A decision cannot be put off indefinitely — not with the UPA reeling under anti-incumbency and the Left flexing its muscles with greater vigour. But no leadership can be effective without dismantling the dubious legacy of the Rajnath interregnum. The control of the BJP must vest with the BJP.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator

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