BJP at crossroads: Back to basics or irrelevance?
by Virendra Parekh on 25 May 2009 11 Comments

"Many of us, utterly overcome by Tamas, the dark and heavy demon of inertia, are saying nowadays that it is impossible, that India is decayed, bloodless and lifeless, too weak ever to recover; that our race is doomed to extinction. It is a foolish and idle saying. No man or nation need be weak unless he so chooses, no man or nation need perish unless he deliberately chooses extinction”Aurobindo, “Bhawani Mandir

“One who may die but will not perish has life everlasting”Lao Tse

Following the stunning defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the secularist commentariat lost no time in advising the BJP to eradicate once and for all the remaining traces of Hindutva from its thinking and programmes and move to a centrist position.

The carrot is: this will enable the party to win more allies and overcome the limitations of its vote base. The stick: the alternative is to play to its core support base by emphasising the party’s point of difference with the Congress and others on the secularism issue and indeed to seek polarisation on this count. The latter course might enthuse party cadres but will stunt BJP’s growth and confine its seat share in Parliament to double digits.

The advice is not new. It resurfaces every time BJP suffers electoral reverses. It is renewed now that the BJP’s strength in the Lok Sabha has declined by about 15 percent to just 116 seats (its lowest tally in two decades) and its vote share dropped to barely 18 percent, a good 10 percentage points short of the Congress score. These results are conveniently interpreted as “defeat of Hindu chauvinism,” “rejection of communal agenda” and so on. The situation is described as an “existential dilemma” which can be resolved only by a determined divorce from Hindutva.

The alternative explanation - that BJP might have been rejected by the people for not being “chauvinist” or “communal” enough - never occurs to those offering this unsolicited advice. “Mr. (Varun) Gandhi has swept a polarised Pilibhit, but the party has done poorly in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, even in Mr. (Narendra) Modi’s Gujarat, the difference between the BJP vote and the Congress vote is barely 3 percentage points,” points out an edit writer gleefully. What if the whole of Uttar Pradesh had seen polarization? How many more seats could BJP have won in UP without Varun Gandhi? What if Mr. Modi could polarize Gujarati votes as he has done in the past?

BJP will be courting certain death if it were to heed the secularists’ advice. For the advice is not objective and well-meaning but interested and partisan, motivated by a burning desire for total disarmament of Hindu society ideologically, morally and politically.

Yet the critics have a point: BJP cannot avoid taking a hard look at itself without risking total irrelevance and terminal decline. Its ‘success’ in persuading Mr. L.K. Advani to continue as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha for a while has only exposed its weakness. It has postponed the day of reckoning to prevent exposure of the faultlines in its central leadership. But sooner rather than later, it has to come to terms with the reality that the Vajpayee-Advani era is truly over.

The real challenge before the BJP, however, is not to find a successor to Mr. Advani but to rediscover its own original self, to compare what it aspired to be in its original incarnation with what it has made of itself through decades, and chart out a course of self-renewal which would restore its credibility and relevance.

Ever since it tasted power in Delhi, BJP has been consistently diluting its commitment to Hindutva to broaden its political base, to win and retain allies and to win acceptability and respectability in secularist circles. Commentators on this website (Sandhya Jain, Radha Rajan, B.R. Haran) have described in graphic detail BJP’s degeneration into a Congress B-team in its futile chase of a secular label.

It is amazing that BJP has been fighting a life and death battle as per rules framed by its inveterate enemies. Instead of challenging the values fashioned by the anti-Hindu secularist elite, BJP has been bending backwards to conform to them. The enemies say “secularism is good.” BJP says “We are secular, you are pseudo-secular.” Murli Manohar Joshi says BJP lost because it did not field significant numbers of Muslim candidates. Arun Jaitley boasts of Muslims being drawn towards BJP. Is this what BJP was set up to achieve?

The enemies say “caste-based reservations are good.” BJP says “we are all for it.” The enemies say “women’s reservations are good.” BJP says “We support it.” The enemies say “middle class is sold on the nuclear deal.” BJP says “We will accept it with a few minor changes.” At no point does it turn around and say “your values are perverse. Your programmes are worthless. We do not want any of them. We will chart our own course.” 

The strategy was flawed from the beginning, both at the political and ideological level. Whatever assurances BJP may hold out to Muslims and other minorities, it can never compete with the likes of Mulayam Singh (whose biggest achievement is showering bullets on kar sevaks in Ayodhya), Manmohan Singh (‘Muslims have first claim on national resources’) and Sonia Gandhi (about whom nothing need be said). More importantly, Muslims would get the message that it pays to be cross with BJP (Bigad ke rahane se jyada milta hai).

This is a battle BJP can never win. The secularists in media and politics have fashioned an identity for BJP which they want it to acquire, but which they will never concede to it. The more the BJP bends, the more will it be asked to bend. Secularists are like spoilt rich brats. The sight of beggars craving for crumbs makes them laugh. Even if BJP were to formally renounce all traces of Hindutva and disown every one of its nationalist planks, it will still be accused of being communal simply because that is the surest way to put it on the defensive.

There is a historical parallel between the plight of BJP now and Congress in the pre-independence era. Everything that Congress is saying now about BJP is what Jinnah used to say about Congress in the 1940s (party of Hindu baniyas, Muslims can never get justice from it…) Under Gandhi, Congress embarked on a path of winning over the hearts and minds of Muslims over the heads of Muslim League and Jinnah (a brave and noble endeavour no doubt, but foolhardy) and ended up conceding Pakistan. BJP under Vajpayee embarked on a similar mission vis-à-vis Muslims, secularist parties and media. It has no Pakistan to concede, but it can end up compromising Hindu interests beyond repair.

The first thing for BJP to do, therefore, is to resolve its ‘existential dilemma’ in favour of returning to its roots. It must develop the courage and vision to think and act like a party centred on Hindu India. If parties speaking for Dalits, Muslims, Yadavs and other small groups claim legitimacy, a party whose vision encompasses 82 percent of the population cannot be denied it. Secondly, a Hindu-centric party or polity need not be anti-Muslim in intent or action. Only it will not run after votes of Muslims as Muslims.

The key requirement in making the right choice is courage. As Radha Rajan put it so aptly, as long as BJP keeps looking only at the trees of parliamentary seats currently held by its allies and adversaries, it will not see the wood of Hindu sentiments and aspirations which will give it the seats required to stand alone. To do that, BJP must first have the vision and the courage to stand alone even in its weakened state. The legs will find their strength in movement, not in paralysis.

On the face of it, this may look like a losing proposition. For too long, BJP has been dominated by the mindset of a calculative Vaishya. But politics is a business of Kshatriya.

The second essential requirement is vision. Being rooted in the native soil is necessary but not sufficient. If BJP is serious about emerging as a party capable of governing a billion-strong country in the 21st century with a fast-globalising economy, it must evolve an economic programme simultaneously growth-oriented and inclusive. Such a programme will shun the old and the new orthodoxy in economic thinking. It will judge policies, events and trends by their impact on different sections of the population and the economy as a whole, rather than their conformity with notions and theories currently in fashion. It will push for social reforms centering on ending caste inequities and promoting gender justice. It will conjure up a vision of India where sky is the limit for youth with drive and ambition. 

Earlier, BJP relied exclusively on ideology. Of late, it is relying exclusively on development. Naturally, it faltered. At a time when the community felt besieged nation-wide by jihad and Christian evangelism, BJP disappointed its supporters by consciously avoiding these issues. BJP lost because Hindus who gathered to hear Narendra Modi did not get to hear what their hearts wanted to hear.

Third, BJP must have a 24x7 TV channel of its own. It must also have a chain of newspapers both in English and in regional languages, which would have excellent secular content (be it economy, society or sports) but whose editorial policy would be driven by a nationalist vision.

Finally, BJP must prepare for a long haul and develop the strength to sustain the effort. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “in India the breath moves slowly, the afflatus is long in coming. India, the ancient Mother, is indeed striving to be reborn, striving with agony and tears, but she strives in vain. What ails her, she who is after all so vast and might be so strong? There is surely some enormous defect, something vital is wanting in us, nor is it difficult to lay our finger on the spot. We have all things else, but we are empty of strength, void of energy. We have abandoned Shakti and are therefore abandoned by Shakti.”

In strengthening the motherland, BJP will strengthen itself. In reclaiming its glory, it will glorify itself.

The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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