Isolating the BJP

06 May 2009
Sending the Bharatiya Janata Party to the margins of politics and consolidating progressive secular forces should be the voters’ topmost priority, argues Praful Bidwai.
The spin doctors of the Bharatiya Janata Party, always more media-savvy than any other party’s supporters, have launched a concerted campaign to claim that the Congress has squandered away its early lead in the electoral arena, the Third Front has not managed to make much headway at half-time, and the election’s momentum has shifted decisively in favour of the BJP. This campaign has taken three forms: the planting of heavily slanted stories and personality-based features in the media, especially television; unsubstantiated claims about the BJP’s better-than-anticipated performance in several States in the first three phases of polling; and the orchestrated promotion of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Minister-in-waiting after L.K. Advani, who seems to be faltering as his more dynamic opponents put him in the dock. Thus, several news channels and newspapers have run stories on BJP leaders, which vest unique talent, vision and strategic foresight in them. For instance, an English-language channel ran an outrageously one-sided biographical feature on Advani, in which apparatchik after BJP apparatchik lavished praise upon the man and rationalised his hate-driven communal politics. In a pretence to “balance” the poorly disguised hagiographical account – which was overwhelmingly biased in Advani’s favour in a ratio exceeding 10:1 – it interviewed two critics, including this writer. The channel promised to carry my brief comment in full on the content of Advani’s ideology and politics; on his claim that he personally and decisively broke the stranglehold on Indian politics of the one-party dominance system under the Congress; on the role of his 1990 rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya; and on the political legacy that Advani leaves behind. In what was broadcast, more than 90 per cent of the comment was edited out, including the most important remarks on how the BJP under Advani’s leadership introduced a remarkably bitter and confrontational style of politics in India, and how it cynically stoked anti-minority prejudices and victimhood-based self-perceptions of “history’s wrongs” against a manufactured notion of “Hindu India”. One comment traced the growth of Hindu-nationalist politics to the Jan Sangh’s devious entry into the Janata Party and its exploitation of the anti-Congress popular sentiment engendered by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. The programme trivialised the secular critique of Hindutva and the BJP’s divisive and violent methods of political mobilisation. It glorified Advani as a much-misunderstood person, but as the logical Prime Minister-in-waiting. It papered over his praise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah by virtue of his being the founder of Pakistan. It erased the whole significance of the poisonous Ram Janmabhoomi movement that brought the BJP to power nationally. The second prong of the pro-BJP media campaign is equally interesting. It is as if “the party with a difference” had suddenly overcome all differences within its leadership and dramatically expanded its appeal and vote share everywhere. The spin doctors claimed that the BJP would not only win 15 to 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh (against 10 in 2004), but also double its tally in Bihar (five), and greatly contain its losses in the central States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It had won 56 of the 67 Lok Sabha seats in the region in 2004 but performed relatively poorly in the Assembly elections in 2008. At minimum, it is claimed, the BJP would ensure hung Assemblies in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and compel other parties to ally with it, thus ending its growing isolation. These claims, especially those about the BJP’s Lok Sabha performance in the central States, defy credulity. It seems counter-intuitive and highly unlikely that the BJP can repeat the 2004 score (25 of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, 21 of 25 in Rajasthan and 10 of 11 in Chhattisgarh). It is plausible that the party or the National Democratic Alliance it leads could improve its tally in small States such as Jharkhand, Assam and Haryana, and to some extent even in U.P. But it is highly unlikely to do so in bigger States such as Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, where it performed above its weight five years ago. At any rate, the purpose of making these claims seems related more to generating propaganda and drumming up support for the BJP than to anything else. THE MODI BOGEY Finally, take the Modi bogey. It was started by Arun Shourie and Arun Jaitley, two of the BJP’s more “Westernised” leaders, who probably have no illusions that the post-Godhra violence was even remotely spontaneous, and not instigated by Modi for deplorable political ends. The bogey’s function is to try to shore up the BJP’s sagging appeal by offering a younger alternative to the ageing Advani, and more important, to conjure up the impression that the BJP still remains a legitimate and natural claimant to the nation’s top political job – when in reality it is in danger of losing seats and becoming more isolated than ever before. However, as this column has argued right since 2002, particularly after the two post-pogrom Assembly elections in Gujarat, Modi is the logical successor to Advani – not as Prime Minister but as the BJP’s topmost leader and best-known public face. He long ago overtook other “second generation” claimants, and is now the BJP’s star campaigner, and internally, the most favourably viewed and applauded leader. The party has accepted and sanctified his ascendancy with complete and profound cynicism. It has normalised his blood-soaked version of Hindutva in theory and practice. The BJP’s defence of Modi even after the Supreme Court ordered the Special Investigation Team to open up the Gulberg Society case will be long remembered as the most brazen justification of mass murder ever proffered by a political party. Why, Arun Jaitley dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and timed to coincide with the polling in Gujarat, and even predicted that Modi “would turn it to his advantage”. This, when there is compelling evidence that Modi, his ministers and senior police officials ensured that Gulberg’s Muslims would not be protected from marauding attackers and former Member of Parliament Ahsan Jafri’s countless pleas for help would go unheeded. Eventually, at least 38 Muslims were hacked, speared or burned to death and 32 went missing. Make no mistake. A vote for the BJP could soon become a vote for Narendra Milosevic Modi. Even in the extremely unlikely event that the BJP does spectacularly well and Advani leads the next coalition government, it will only be a matter of time before Modi takes over from him. To achieve that goal, Modi may for a while omit all references to the Ram temple and stop abusing and threatening Muslims. However, violent Hindutva is inseparable from and integral to Modi’s politics. He personifies it. Modi will forever remain associated in the public mind with the worst-ever state-sponsored pogrom of a religious minority in independent India. This makes it imperative that all citizens who value democracy, the rule of law, public decency and pluralist secularism consciously vote to defeat and isolate the BJP. It remains the greatest menace to Indian democracy and the biggest obstacle to building a tolerant and inclusive society in which all citizens are equal and none feel disempowered or disenfranchised. The Congress and a host of other parties, including caste-based regional parties, doubtless have their faults. Some of them may even have been complicit in the rise of Hindutva or passively tolerated it, or at least failed to resist it. But they can never be equated with the BJP, which proactively seeks to transform Indian society into a Hindu-supremacist entity and which vehemently rejects the project of building a pluralist multireligious society with real civic and political freedoms and rights, which respects diversity and difference. So we citizens have a historic chance in this election to send the BJP into the political margins. If it ends up with 110 or fewer seats, the BJP will soon lose the one advantage it has which outweighs its own positive (but extremely limited) appeal: its status as a coalition partner of choice, which does not threaten its allies, and can be an asset to them. Once this happens, the BJP may well spiral down to a political presence, weight and salience similar to that of right-wing parties of the past such as the Jan Sangh, the Swatantra Party or the Rama Rajya Parishad. It bears recalling that the Jan Sangh would normally have 25 to 35 Lok Sabha seats until it merged with the Janata Party. The real battle for the soul of India can begin once the communal threat represented by the BJP recedes. This will involve a series of struggles over social visions, programmes and policies that can take India forward towards a firm embrace of modernity, openness, inclusion, equality and justice, besides a new deal for the wretched of the Indian earth. Through which agencies and political coalitions this will be accomplished remains unclear. But the Left and the emerging Third Front must have a major role here. That role will probably fall in place only after the election results come in and hard political bargaining begins. Meanwhile, defeating the BJP must top our agenda.•
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.