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Saffron Blunderland – Can the Saffrons bounce back?

September 10, 2009

The BJP would bounce back in the near future much on the lines of a Shav (dead body) metamorphosing into Lord Shiva.
Mohan Bhagwat, RSS Supremo talking to media in Delhi

There are rare moments in the trajectory of a modern democracy where one is witness to the apparent implosion, albeit in a slow motion, of a political party. Today, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal opposition party in India, which was yearning to reach the citadels of power just a few months back, presents such a spectacle. With two consecutive defeats, in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections, followed by the factional bloodletting which is now reaching its pinnacle, the ‘Party With a Difference’, as it used to describe itself,  presents a pale shadow of its earlier self. It is a sign of the tremendous crisis faced by the party that for the first time in its 29-year old history, the top leadership of its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), recently had to intervene to put the house in order. Apart from newly-appointed RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, a number of other senior leaders literally landed in the capital to hold consultations with the top brass of the BJP to find a solution to its seemingly intractable problems. The latest news is that BJP President Rajnath Singh and leader of the opposition L K Advani have been ‘persuaded’ to relinquish their posts. A search is on for possible successors.

On the surface, this crisis can be seen as a product of the expulsion of senior leader and MP Jaswant Singh for writing a book on Partition sympathetic to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and critical of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Despite being one of the founders of the party who held important portfolios like finance and external affairs under the Vajpayee dispensation (1998-2004), Singh was not issued any show cause notice nor did the leadership deem it necessary to give him an audience before summarily expelling him. All the same, perhaps more telling than the badly-managed removal of Singh was the TV interview given by Bhagwat, just a day earlier, about the need to curb factional squabbles within BJP. It was an indication of things to come.

As of now, the warring factions within the party – represented by the followers of Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh – appear to have formally buried the hatchet to show a united face, and to keep the RSS in good humour. There are, however, enough indications that this will prove to be a transient phase, undoubtedly giving way to further factional fights in the near future. It is clear that in the currently unfolding post-Vajpayee, post-Advani scenario (two ‘Swayamsevak’ stalwarts who ruled the roost for more than fifty years), none of the second rank leaders want to remain embroiled in the latent intra-party power struggle. The question naturally arises, what does the future hold for the party? Will it be able to rise from the ‘ashes’, to quote Mohan Bhagwat, or will it crumble into a marginal player like its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jansangh. Ultimately, an accurate assessment of the evolving situation is possible only if we understand the underlying party dynamics leading to its present predicament.

Dissenters unwelcome
It goes without saying that the roots of the turmoil within the BJP go much deeper than the two reasons – the party’s consecutive defeats at the hustings and the ‘free for all’ which has ensued at the top – analysts are presenting. Looking back, one can see that things would not have come to such a pass if the party leadership, including its mascot and projected prime minister, had accepted moral responsibility for the resounding defeat and relinquished their posts. Perhaps it could have paved the way for serious introspection at different levels, helping to reinvigorate the party. Interestingly while the central leadership was allowed to go scot free for its acts of omission and commission, the same yardstick was not applied in case of the state level leadership. It was for everyone to see that neither Advani, who led a very personalised election campaign, nor Party President Rajnath Singh, who failed miserably to steer clear of controversies, engaged in serious self-criticism. In contrast, the central leadership had no qualms in compelling state leaders to resign from their posts as a means of taking moral responsibility for the disaster. Thus, despite majority support in the legislature, B C Khanduri was asked to step down from the post as chief minister of Uttarakhand. Similarly, Vasundhara Raje, the former chief minister of Rajasthan is being pilloried to leave her post as leader of the opposition.

The BJP’s two greatest weaknesses have been its inability to attract new social forces, especially the youth, to its side and its inability to project an accommodation agenda acceptable to other political formations. These are two sides of the same malaise: the party’s failure to present an inclusive, forward looking vision in tune with the changing times. The party’s inability to steer a course independent of the exclusivist RSS, which has had no qualms in legitimising indiscriminate violence against minorities as some sort of a ‘final solution’ has also made its position more vulnerable.

Scholars, including Lord Meghnad Desai and Amartya Sen, have always entertained a hope that the BJP would one day remove the albatross known as the RSS from its neck and evolve into a rightwing party – in the mould of those in Europe – ready to function in a multireligious and multicultural scenario. There is a resonance to this idea within the BJP itself, largely among the moderates or the modernisers. For them, it is important that the party keep aside ‘ideological issues’ which sound ‘sectarian’ and ‘divisive’ and focus on issues which attract the middle class and the young. Their insistence is that the BJP embracing modernity, be in a position to forge broad alliances and relegate identity politics to the backburner. Another section, in contrast, wants to keep the umbilical cord with the RSS intact. Indeed, this group wants greater RSS intervention in the functioning of the party, with the strong belief that the formation should continue as a Hindu Party committed to Hindu interests, even if such an approach proves electorally counterproductive.

Apart from this tension about identity politics, there is also a divide brewing on the direction the economy should take. Interestingly, a majority of the party members have no qualms in embracing the path of neoliberal reforms initiated by the Congress. Only a minority promote the Swadeshi agenda put forward by the RSS. Another little discussed aspect of the BJP’s evident failure to attract new voters has to do with its six year performance, from 1998 to 2004, at the Centre. There, it proved itself as bad as the Congress, even worse in some cases, on issues of governance, transparency and accountability. In fact, the large hiatus between precepts and practice was very much evident when many of its stalwarts – who were schooled in RSS mould since childhood – were caught on camera in sting operations accepting wads of cash (Tehelka Sting Operation, 2001; Cobrapost-Aajtak Operation, 2005). The irony of this, considering the RSS’s regular paeans to ‘character building’ was not lost on the people.

These realities help identify a number of the underlying problems that have contributed to the present chaos in the party. To begin with, the absence of any real internal democratic mechanism to choose a leader acceptable to ordinary party workers as well to the general voting public is greatly detrimental. To add to this, that RSS intervention is necessary to resolve complex leadership battles will only further facilitate increasing interference by the Swayamsevaks. These RSS Pracharaks, who have no accountability to the people and have a ‘Jurassic Park’ mindset vis-à-vis India’s future, can only complicate matters further. The increasing stranglehold of the RSS will also stifle the moderate voices, who have always been a minority within the party. After all, the parent organisation has always maintained that the 2004 and 2009 defeats resulted due to the dilution of the Hindutva agenda in the party. It would not brook any dissenting voice on this issue.

Societal woes
In this impending post-Vajpayee, post-Advani phase, the party will be all the weaker with the loss of these two faces of Hindutva – one moderate and the other hardline. Indeed, the two leaders could have helped facilitate a forging of alliances much as they did during 1998-1999, which brought the party to the centre stage of Indian politics. Is the BJP now condemned to remain in the wilderness for the foreseeable future? Broadly speaking, there are two countervailing factors which could prove a blessing in disguise for the Saffron party. The first has to do with the neoliberal economic reforms and its continuing impact on the broad masses of the people marked by their further pauperisation. Meanwhile, the second has to do with the social, cultural and intellectual bases of communalism which still remain intact.

In today’s globalised world, where one witnesses schisms at various levels, conflicts between different communities within the boundaries of a nation state always bear the possibility of taking a violent turn. What is important is that effective steps are taken by the state for the maintenance of the rule of law to prevent a riot-like situation. In India, with its billion plus people, the track record of the state as well as civil society vis-à-vis management of such inter-communal conflicts has been pathetic. Even with secularism enshrined in the constitution, the state is not equipped to deal with communal flare-ups. With the ascendance of majoritarian formations on the national scene, there has been a huge increase in violent conflict along communal lines. At the same time, there has been a gradual deterioration in the state’s response to this strife. To understand the gravity of the situation, one has only to look at some old figures related to communal conflicts. A study by the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a Union Home Ministry body, says that between 1954 and 1996, almost 16,000 people lost their lives in 21,000 incidents of rioting, while over one lakh were injured. Only a handful of people have been held accountable.

As noted in an editorial comment in the 29 August issue of the Economic and Political Weekly “..[t]here is an inherent contradiction between neoliberal economic reforms, which continue, and the  UPA ‘s social agenda. At present this contradiction is well under control but can unravel at any point. The UPA’s strategy of ‘reforms with a human face’ will then come under strain and could engender conditions for the re-growth of revisionist politics. The BJP may be down, but it is surely not out of Indian politics for a long time”. On a side note, the earlier avatar of the BJP, the Bharatiya Jansangh, as well as the RSS benefited greatly from the anti-Congress movements of the sixties and seventies, all campaigns which emerged on the issues of corruption, price rise and growing unemployment among the youth. A similar possibility cannot be discounted in the current context.

The Congress Party, which deftly unseated the BJP in the 2004 elections by stitching together a ‘secular coalition’ and has been able to pull off an encore in 2009, has never attempted to take the ‘anti-communal struggle’ beyond the Sarva Dharma Samabhav discourse. In fact, instead of adopting an uncompromising position on the issue of secularism to defang the hard Hindutva of the Sangh Parivar, it has had no qualms in rediscovering the virtues of soft Hindutva. Close watchers of the Congress recall with horror the way Congress embraced the path of soft Hinduism in the eighties and thus facilitated the rise of the ‘hard Hindutva’ forces. Whether it is the issue of the Meenakshipurm conversions, the killing of Sikhs in 1984 or the opening of the gates of the Babri Mosque supposedly to ‘free’ Ramlalla, the growing ascendance of majoritarian forces at the cost of secularism is clear for all to see. In more examples, the manner in which the then state government led by Congress leader Virbhadra Singh adopted a bill making religious conversions a criminal offence or the move by the Andhra Pradesh government two years back creating exclusive religious zones around Tirupati and other ‘sacred’ places had all the trappings of a soft Hindutva line.

It is for everyone to see that the communal and majoritarian construction of society and polity could not be brought on the agenda in this interregnum. No experts are needed to predict that without any perceptible change in the ‘majoritarian middle ground’ of Indian politics – a space marked by great expression of religiosity, emphasis on maintaining group boundaries, lack of awareness about blatantly communal events and minimal approval of minority interests, among other things – the material basis for the emergence of communal forces with a new vengeance will always remain.

This article appeared in Himal Southasian, September 2009

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