Despite the media hype the BJP is certainly passing through one of the worst phases in its life, something similar to years after 1984 elections when it was reduced to two members in the Lok Sabha. But the present spell has serious political consequences for its future politics. In the 1980s, it still had hope for the future and a leadership in firm command. But now it is darker, regardless of the temporary respite, like a few recent by-election victories, and of the ruling UPA finally buckling under political pressure, and constitutional obligation, to a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the 2G Spectrum allocation scam. These short-lived gains are overshadowed by its strategic failure to locate and cultivate political allies at a time when the Congress is almost paralysed by indecision.
L K Advani, the oldest of the party’s leaders and by far the most experienced, at 84, certainly does not inspire confidence as the prime minister-in-waiting. Worse still, he seems oblivious of the fact that the role in which he has been cast is to provide an alternative to the Congress and its leaders, not to play to them the nice-guy-next-door, or even fawn on them in public. Advani is the leader who created Gen-Next. He is the person who made the BJP acceptable to many regional parties by bringing them under the NDA. Advani could have seized this opportunity and been the architect of designing a new coalition and been the new Jayaprakash Narayan.
But now, so ecstatic he’s been as the Congress’ ‘soft enemy’— psychoanalysts might discover meanings to it — that he runs to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s house to invite her to the function for his book release. His chivalrous spirit would also prompt him to invite her son, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, to his office for a cup of tea. When it involves Sonia, so prone is Advani’s heart to melt that he recently publicly regretted to her when a team of experts close to the party, comprising, among others, former IB chief Ajit Doval and S Gurumurthy, a crusading political analyst with a right mind, suggested that the Gandhis might be among the Indian nationals holding illegal accounts abroad. Sonia offered no proof of innocence, yet Advani blushed as though he’d made blasphemy.
Thanks to Advani’s magnanimity, the party with a difference has become a party of deference. And that too in the most favourable hour for it, when the Congress-led UPA has turned into a house of scams. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, universally respected till recently as a man of integrity, now does more hand-wringing for corruption in his government than the model in the Surf commercial. The UPA itself is a house in disarray, its constituents haunted by doubt and suspicion of none other than the Congress. The NCP, one of its partners, thinks the CBI inquiry into the 2G scam is cleverly targeted on its chief Sharad Pawar. The inquiry itself is getting more bizarre by the day — with the prime minister admitting that he knew about the wrongdoings all these years yet he kept quiet, and is swearing by the coalition ‘dharma’, while Kanimozhi, daughter of his flighty coalition partner M Karunanidhi, is facing police interrogation. It is more a madhouse than a coalition.
But the BJP has no alternative to offer. Advani could have seized this opportunity. His personal integrity in unquestioned. But his party is a ship without captain. Advani is totally indifferent to the restive constituents of the UPA and presents a picture of resignation. It is years now since he has lost close contacts with Pawar, Karunanidhi and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. Neither has he got time on his hand to spare on existing but largely self-supporting NDA partners — like Janata Dal(United), Shiromani Akali Dal led by Parkash Singh Badal, the TRS of Chandrashekhara Rao, the INLD of O P Chauthala, or Rashtriya Lok Dal of Ajit Singh — nor is he ready to explore new opportunities of alliance with the DMK, the AIADMK, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, or even the CPI(M).
The party’s initiative began disappearing with the tragic demise of Pramod Mahajan, a Vajpayee acolyte, who was by far the best equipped to forge an alliance in the new era. With the years, Advani’s political judgment became woolly. Murali Manohar Joshi became indifferent largely because he thought his career in politics had peaked. Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, two other senior leaders commanding the political class’ respect, were not much partymen themselves. The leadership vacuum is now being filled by its two young olds, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, both spirited debaters who are more in demand in television channels and business forums than in the company of ordinary people. Yet that’s where a good politician can gather the most valuable experiences of his trade. And, being in command of the headquarters, the microphone-loving types always stay ahead in the political turf battle of some of the party’s capable chief ministers — like Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan of Madhya Pradesh or Prem Kumar Dhumal of Himachal Pradesh.
With Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister and author of a governance model considered unparalleled by all, it is a problem of a different kind. While he is best equipped to lead the party into a new cycle of triumph and glory, he is hobbled by his past. A legal war of vendetta unleashed against him by the Congress at the Centre, and persistent campaign by an articulate segment of the civil society having strong ties with the Congress and a section of the secular BJP, has made Modi synonymous with the 2002 riots.
It is a trap from which one doubts if he can ever disentangle himself. But that has made the BJP’s leadership vacuum even more menacing. There is nobody with authority and competence left at the top who can weave a consensus across the country to challenge the Congress at the Centre. But the opportunities are so enormous!
In Tamil Nadu, where politics is divided between the DMK and the AIADMK, both having partnered the BJP in the past, there is headroom for choice. Between the two, the DMK is, to borrow a phrase from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the “known unknown”; it will invariably judge its ministerial prospects in Delhi in terms of how lucrative they are. On the other hand, J Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK supremo, is decidedly the “unknown unknown” whose approach to coalition is certainly not that of an auctioneer, though it is unpredictable.
In Uttar Pradesh, what the BSP leader and Chief Minister Mayawati, who is decidedly the mega-state’s most powerful politician, needs most is a friendly government at the Centre. That not only removes the worries regarding corruption inquiries dogging her but sets the stage for the state’s much-needed modernisation. The Congress refuses to cooperate with her for reasons related purely to the Gandhi family’s ambition. It wants Uttar Pradesh to be Rahul’s “playing-fields of Eton” from where he would win the “battle of Waterloo”.
Like either of the DMK/AIADMK duo, or Mayawati, the CPI(M) too is a potential ally of the BJP, especially after it gets the knock-out blows in the Assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal this year. But the two-party system works in Kerala, and so the CPI(M) will retain a good part of its following there. And in Bengal, the dizzy height of Mamata’s present popularity may shrink once she takes charge of the state government. And that may compel the CPI(M) to reboot itself and see the BJP without ideologically tinted glasses. And the issue of rebuilding bridges is still wide open with Naveen Patnaik of the BJD.
Rather than being drawing board exercises, much of these calculations could be a reality now if only the BJP had a leader commanding others’ trust. With the party still in the shadow of a self promoting leadership who’d rather impress drawing room crowd and corporate honchos rather than its own men and women, and represented in public by two relentless television orators, even the bravest would shun it as a potential coalition partner. The BJP now needs a leader who can lead others and not led. If the Congress has betrayed its voters, the BJP has let down its own core followers by losing its identity. For it, negativism has become its only virtue and ideological conviction its bankruptcy. firstname.lastname@example.org