BJP: Mid-summer nightmare
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Jun 2009 7 Comments

The pansy juice wore off a long time ago; the beloved hero turned out to be, well, an anti-climax. Yet so great is the hangover of electoral defeat that the BJP cannot even begin to get its act together.

One thing is clear – the dead weight of L K Advani and his coterie must be immediately lifted if the party is ever again to stand up straight.

Any attempt to maintain this stranglehold by keeping Advani as Leader of the Opposition at least until the term of Rajnath Singh as party president ends, is unfair and fraught with danger. Asking Advani to continue till alternative arrangements were made meant only that he did not precipitate a crisis by quitting in a fit of graceless pique at being rejected by the people.

At best he was expected to stay till the current budget session of Parliament, and at least this writer expected him to resign from public life itself thereafter. The BJP can easily win the Gandhinagar seat again; else, it can afford to lose it.

What is shocking is the surreptitious manner in which Advani now seems to be prolonging his stay until such time as people forget that he is supposed to leave. Imagine a defeated Prime Minister, asked by the President to continue as caretaker PM, staying on and on… Yet this seems to be the case with Advani.

He masterminded two successive Parliamentary defeats for the BJP, and he refuses to quit except on his terms, and that too, after distributing all remaining loaves and fishes of party office to his rootless acolytes.

Answerable to none

The manner in which Advani ran his office as BJP supremo is best seen from the clout of his political adviser Sudheendra Kulkarni, reputedly the architect of his Jinnah mausoleum visit and peculiar version of history.

Kulkarni enraged the party with a puerile article defending the unforgivable, and was stripped off his membership of the national executive. But that formality did nothing to diminish his position among the acolytes, and he continued to function with impunity, again setting the cat among the pigeons with an introspective (sic) article in Tehelka, perceived as a very anti-BJP magazine.

There is, in my view, some merit in Kulkarni’s claim that the RSS did nothing to ensure Advani’s victory – this blame too vests with Advani – but what is outrageous is the fact that the Comrade has shown his true colours by demanding that BJP ‘tone down’ its Hindutva stance, when the fact is that even the whisper of the ‘H’ word was not heard in the entire election campaign.

The real joke is that when voices rose, demanding disciplinary action against Kulkarni, it was discovered that he could not be punished because – hold your breath – he had no official position in the party! Membership of the national executive was taken away four years ago, after the Jinnah controversy.

So how did Advani make a man with no official position privy to all top level meetings, strategy sessions, and even interactions between the party top brass and the RSS? Silence will no longer suffice regarding this dogged unilateralism.

Plus ça change…

Described in the infamous Tehelka column as ‘political advisor, BJP,’ Kulkarni takes upon himself the daunting task of reflecting upon the reasons for the BJP’s defeat and methods of reviving its fortunes. Like most Hindus, he managed to miss the eye of the fish, and skirted around the tail.

He said BJP did not use the five years in the opposition to construct a positive agenda that could attract the people. This is because after the 2004 defeat and the virtual retirement of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and his core group closed ranks, shunned introspection, quickly gifted Rajya Sabha seats to non-BJP persons like Najma Heptuallah and Lalit Suri, and kept a shell-shocked party in suspended animation by saying an astrologer had predicted that the government would fall in six months!!! 

The very same strategy is evident in 2009 with the gift of deputy leader of the opposition in both Houses to non-entities like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj – only this time no one is prepared to suffer in silence. 

More shameful is the swift withdrawal of Advani’s offer to resign (i.e., to not assume) the post of Leader of the Opposition. Not only did he grab it, he used the media to plant stories that he would not go till he had seen the hapless Rajnath Singh out of office – and planted his own stooge in his place!!! With Advani, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

RSS: umbilical or symbiotic relationship?

It is true Advani was the party’s prime ministerial candidate. BUT he had already scandalized the nation (and not just the RSS) with the paeans to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and had survived only because ruthless undermining of other leaders over the decades left him with the levers of power in the BJP. He had also, like Mahesh Chand Sharma of the Jana Sangh, successfully factionalized a section of the RSS in his favour. The apparent rise and rise of Narendra Modi brought his insecurities to the fore, and in 2007 he forced the party to announce him as prime ministerial candidate, even though elections were far away, and he wasn’t getting any younger. 

Ironically, the Chennai meeting in which Advani managed his inner party coup had an interesting aside. His prepared speech spoke of the BJP’s relationship with the RSS as an ‘umbilical cord;’ Advani personally changed that to ‘symbiotic relationship’ to the utter chagrin of parivar loyalists. 

Today, those who claim the RSS made him look weak should dare face the truth – Advani broke the umbilical cord and set out on a route charted by himself and his cronies. Throughout the election campaign, he campaigned only for himself – crafting himself into the party’s sole agenda and talking point – and crash landed. 

The excellent manifesto drafted by Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi was never made a talking point in the campaign, and no rapport was struck on any issue with any section of the electorate. The party did as well as it did because of the hard work of state level leaders, and failed where they were found lacking. It drew a blank in many states because of Advani’s inability to build party units in terrain he considered difficult – Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu… 

His megalomaniacal style of functioning made life impossible for leaders with their own perceptions of how to build the party, and his use of the media to announce decisions unilaterally made correctives impossible. Closetted in a cocoon of invincibility – in the party – he could not see the yawning chasm between himself and the people. He would not see that every yatra he undertook after the Somnath-to-Ayodhya yatra ended in failure; had to be called off on some pretext or other. 

Was there a larger message here? Yes; you cannot win a war on the strength of the Narayani Sena. Once Advani abandoned Narayan – Sushma had the gall to call the Janmabhoomi an encashed cheque – he should not have led an army into the battlefield. 

Congress won by default – and it is only the demoralisation of the BJP and other parties like the Left that makes them see the victory as larger than it actually is. This lack of proportion could cost the country dear in the days ahead. 

As a brief digression, I would urge the BJP to immediately open dialogue with the Left on the issue of unilateral Indian concessions at WTO; unnecessary hikes in FDI ceilings in sensitive sectors like banking, insurance, and pensions; more effective labour laws to protect workers from arbitrary lay-offs; opposition to the death-inducing GM seeds in agriculture; and other anti-people measures. The one Left action I really appreciated was opposition to the nuclear deal; defeat does not mean that we should let the non-performing pro-West Jyoti Basu tell us otherwise. Left and BJP can also cooperate on the rising Naxal menace in the country. 

The knives are out

Jaswant Singh’s proposed book on Jinnah is due in a few weeks, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which he endorses or deviates from the position taken by Advani. He was the first to raise the banner of revolt against Advani’s attempt to pass the party on to his acolytes, without introspection regarding reasons for two successive electoral debacles, and without inner party debate. Singh’s two page letter to party leaders at Advani’s residence on 11 June 2009 questioned the legitimacy of this foisted leadership. Previously, Arun Shourie also sought a post-mortem.

What is unpalatable to the Advani camp is the fact that the campaign strategy was totally run by them, centred round Advani for PM, and every other issue or leader sidelined. State and other senior leaders, who were mostly confined to their own constituencies, or relegated to second rank, cannot be held responsible for the debacle.

BJP presented the election – NOT as a Presidential contest with Manmohan Singh, but as a REFERENDUM on Advani as PM – and he was resoundingly rejected by the electorate. Any other leader, or no declared candidate, would have yielded a different result. BJP cannot avoid this truth, and as introspection will involve explanation and accountability, it is little wonder that this is being avoided, even as those responsible for the fiasco grab plum positions of authority.

This naturally intensified the revolt, with vice president Yashwant Sinha quitting all party posts on 12 June, demanding the resignation of all BJP office-bearers and members of the Parliamentary Party to own collective responsibility for the defeat.

This is an unexceptionable demand. Arun Jaitley – who thinks it proper to proceed on a family vacation abroad (!) instead of attending the national executive meeting to thrash out reasons for defeat – must comply at once. He has proved himself singularly unfit to hold high office.

Jaitley’s foreign vacation underlines the extent of alienation of the BJP leadership with the Indian reality, and if he believes he has won the “rat race for posts” and is now above accountability for the campaign he masterminded, he needs a swift reality check.

Sinha takes potshots at the BJP’s constituency-hunters - “those great leaders who can contest and win elections from anywhere in the country” (read Advani, Sushma, even Jaswant) – while he has remained rooted in Hazaribagh since his political debut.

Setting polemics aside, the letter lists issues the BJP must examine if it is to be a party with a future:

- Why has the BJP never won a seat in Kerala?
- What are the reasons for the party being wiped out in States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and most of the North-East?
- Why did the party draw a blank in Orissa, Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir?
- Why did it do so badly in Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra and UP?
- Why was performance below par in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh?
- How much support did the party garner (or not) from first-time voters, youth, women, urban middle class, government employees, farmers, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, industrial labour, and minorities?
- Why was the performance so good in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Karnataka?
- What factors made Congress the electoral winner?

Kamraj Plan and Yayati Syndrome

Way back in 1993, when the BJP, confident after the fall of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, went to the polls with the slogan: ‘Aaj paanch pradesh, kal sara desh’ (today 5 states, tomorrow the nation). It was routed in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh; it saved face by winning Delhi and enough seats in Rajasthan to form a coalition government.

The point being made is that even then, the rising vote-catchers and grassroots leaders were beginning to chaff at the utter ruthlessness with which Advani maintained his hold over the party, even at the expense of its growth. When I met Uma Bharati to analyse the reasons for the debacle, she candidly stated that the approach of diminishing and sidelining large swathes of the party, including charismatic leaders, affected the worker morale and impacted on the results. Even in those early days, she was prescient enough to suggest the need for some kind of Kamaraj Plan so that the emerging ‘geriatric club’ did not choke the party to death.

No one listened then, or since. Hence it was no surprise to see her openly challenge Advani at a party meeting he was vain and foolish enough to have telecast live (the only incident of its kind in the history of parliamentary democracy in the world, I am quite sure), and walk out in high dudgeon. That was 10 November 2004.

In the eleven years from 1993 to 2004, Advani proved he was incapable of mending his ways; the coterie proved it would not allow the whisper of inner party democracy to prevail! The consequences of this incorrigible adamancy are with us today. The fact that Uma’s own career went nowhere after leaving the party does not detract from her contribution to the party during her stay and rise. This applies equally to other leaders BJP was unable to coexist with – Kalyan Singh, Shankar Sinh Vaghela, K N Govindacharya, Tapan Sikdar.

Little wonder that even ageing leaders like Yashwant Sinha look wistfully towards a Kamraj Plan. But BJP, as I have said before, is smitten with the Yayati Syndrome. Its aged king is determined to rob the youth of his own children and grandchildren to perpetuate his rule. Now, when the kingdom has been lost, addiction for power remains.

He will have to be forced to quit – as Leader of the Opposition, and as MP from Gandhinagar.

If BJP is to have a future as a political party, it must begin with the basics – by restoring inner party debate and inner party democracy. A beginning must be made by upholding the party constitution and electing the office bearers of the parliamentary party, not filling the posts through nomination.

If this cannot be done, there is equally no need to abide by the rule of no second term for the party president. Since Rajnath Singh was never given a free hand throughout his tenure on account of Advani and coterie constantly usurping all power and decision-making, he has at least the right not to be held responsible for the defeat, which credit goes solely to the Geriatric who imagined he was the eternally youthful Fedora. 

The author is Editor,

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