BJP: new composition, same stand by

27 March 2010

Is India’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party obsessed with proving itself the sectarian, confrontationist oddball of Indian politics?

Take the shenanigans of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. A Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court to probe the 2002 Gujarat pogrom summoned him to question him about his role in the killings. Many questions had been raised about his role by former Gujarat Director General of Police RB Sreekumar, countless victims, independent inquiries, and sting-operation disclosures by Tehelka magazine.

In response, Modi questioned the SIT’s legality on unconvincing grounds, and only later agreed to appear before it, gracelessly. Such disregard for constitutional values is of a piece with Modi’s past conduct. In 2002, he accused JM Lyngdoh — chief of the Election Commission, another statutory body — of an anti-Hindu animus because he happens to be a Christian. Modi was instrumental in creating the myth that the Godhra train fire was planned by Muslims, and in using the state apparatus to unleash mass-scale violence on them “in retaliation”.

As if to underscore Gujarat’s abnormality, the state BJP felicitated its newly appointed president Ranchhodbhai C Faltu by weighing him against 75 litres of blood collected from volunteers. This literal solidarity among “blood brothers” expresses militarism typical of extreme right-wing groups who define their politics primarily through hatred and “holy war” (whether dharmayuddha or jihad).

These episodes demonstrate the BJP’s rightward evolution after its two consecutive routs in national elections, and major leadership changes with LK Advani’s resignation as the Leader of the Opposition and the replacement of party president Rajnath Singh by Nitin Gadkari.

The same direction is evident in last week’s organisational reshuffle executed by Gadkari. It bears recalling that Gadkari, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, with a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background, but with no political experience outside the state’s Vidarbha region, was nominated to the BJP’s top post by RSS sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat, also a Maharashtrian Brahmin. Gadkari has repeatedly sworn his loyalty to Hindutva.

The RSS is pleased about this. Sangh ideologue MG Vaidya expressed his satisfaction with Gadkari: “After 2009, [the BJP says] Hindutva is their soul. The soul is invisible but gives urja (energy). It’s good that the same energy is being remembered in 2010.” That sums up the substance of the BJP leadership’s generational transition after the Vajpayee-Advani duo’s eclipse: the BJP is back on a track which allows the RSS to exercise greater control over it.

When Gadkari became party president three months ago, he emphasised the importance of managerial-style efficiency, besides Hindutva. Cadres would be judged entirely on their performance and merit. Gadkari promised to put the party back on an upward trajectory. But the composition of his new team, with a 121-strong national executive, belies that pledge.

The new team is glamorous (after a fashion), but inept and inexperienced. Faded Bollywood celebrity Hema Malini was made a party vice-president. Character actress Kiron Kher and soap opera star Smriti Irani were appointed to the national executive. Navjot Singh Sidhu, known for his tasteless humour and poor parliamentary performance, and charged with beating an old man to death, has been elevated to the post of secretary. So was Varun Gandhi, the BJP’s shoddy version of dynastic politics.

Gadkari was evidently keen to reserve 33 per cent of top BJP posts for women. So, five of the 11 vice-presidents are women, including relative non-entities like Karuna Shukla (Vajpayee’s niece) and Kiran Ghai. Similarly, there is greater symbolic representation for Muslims and Dalits.

But even more important is the enlarged presence of RSS cadres among BJP office-bearers, such as Ram Lal, made general secretary (organisation) with two joint general secretaries V Satish and Saudan Singh under him. Not to be missed is the appointment as secretary of B Muralidhar Rao, of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an RSS front.

Gadkari’s choices reflect the RSS’s preference for separating the party organisation from its parliamentary wing. This would strengthen its control over the party.

Yet, as things stand, the party’s Parliamentary Board, including Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley, enjoys a higher stature and more power than Gadkari’s team. Given the disproportion between effective influence furnished by parliamentary representation, and organisational posts in a party that’s out of power, this won’t easily change.

Things aren’t hunky-dory even within the new organisational set-up. Shahnawaz Hussain and Prakash Javadekar, two of the BJP’s seven spokespersons, boycotted their first meeting. Hussain wanted a party general secretary’s post. He has said he would go to Mecca and Medina, “offer my prayers, and also repent for my sins”. Javadekar is miffed because he was expecting a “bigger role”. The Thakur lobby too is unhappy at its low representation.

The southern states are poorly represented amongst BJP office-bearers through Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar, Muralidhar Rao and Nirmala Sitharaman. Although the BJP rules in Karnataka, and regards it as its gateway to the South, its sole notable representative from there is Ananth Kumar.

By contrast, tiny Himachal Pradesh is over-represented. Gadkari has a lame response to this: “I personally feel I tried to accommodate everybody. I can’t satisfy everybody. If anyone has any problem he has a right to discuss it with me.”

The new team compares extremely poorly with the BJP’s standard-bearers during its heyday, with top leaders Vajpayee and Advani, supported by second-generation leaders like K N Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and the pre-2002 Narendra Modi.

Govindacharya’s absence is especially significant. One of the ablest strategists produced by the sangh parivar, he was the architect of “social engineering” which created a confluence between Mandal (OBC parties) and Kamandal (Hindutva politics) and powered the party’s rise to power first in Uttar Pradesh, and then, nationally.

Of the BJP’s ten general secretaries, only two — Vasundhara Raje (who was forced to resign as the Leader of the Opposition in Rajasthan), and Ravi Shankar Prasad — have anything approaching a national profile. All this testifies to the dearth of talent in the BJP.

Talent apart, the BJP lacks something more fundamental: a political strategy to overcome its decline over the past decade. From a party well-entrenched in the Hindi heartland and about a dozen other states, its presence now is sizeable only in the central and western states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, in the small states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and more shakily, in Karnataka and Bihar, where it plays second fiddle to the Janata Dal (United). The BJP has suffered erosion both nationally and in major states like UP, Maharashtra and Bihar.

Only a combination of factors can stem the BJP’s decline: an ideology independent of the ultra-sectarian and communal RSS; inclusive policies and programmes; and a political mobilisation strategy that can help it rebuild its shrunken base.

The BJP lacks all three. It has decisively failed to break with Hindutva. If it couldn’t sever the umbilical cord with the RSS during its years in national power, it won’t do so now. It has no imaginative policies that can attract mass support. And it has no political strategy on any issue, including the Ayodhya temple. The future appears bleak for a party trapped between killers (like Modi), crooks (like some of its chief ministers) and clowns (like Gadkari).