One party, many voices


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THE dying moments of the year 2000 found the ruling National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi in a mood of uncertainty, with the ‘consensus’ that cemented the 24 party coalition under strain. Contrary to expectations, it was not the contradiction between the BJP and its regional allies that increased concerns about the viability and coherence of the government. It was the sharpening of ideological debate within saffron ranks that acted as a catalyst. Having pushed contentious issues under the carpet for the better part of two years, leading lights in the party have decided to bring them out into the open. At another level, disquiet over the possible fallout of globalisation has led some ideologues to publicly voice concerns about the fate of swadeshi.

On both counts, secularism and swadeshi, being in office has only sharpened the gap between precept and practice. Heading a multi-party alliance government has not made things easier. All the more, when key allies such as those in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are due to face state assembly polls a few months from now, and may well be made to account for the actions or utterances of their larger partner.

The slowdown in the economy, both in industry and, as a result of the drought, in agriculture, could not have come at a worse time. In the absence of a ‘feel good’ factor, the pressure on government will only mount. Yet, given the ideologically grounded nature of the BJP, it is the ways in which its leaders perceive issues that will be central to the manner events play out in the coming months.

It all began with the Union home minister’s presence at the huge camp held in Agra to commemorate the 75 years of the existence of the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. There was a new hint of steel in L.K. Advani as the government at the Centre entered its second year. Only a few weeks earlier, at the Nagpur conference of the party, a new line of moderation had seemed in the ascendant. Muslims, in the words of Bangaru Laxman, the first southerner and Dalit to head the party since its inception, were ‘the flesh of our flesh and the blood of our blood.’

The Congress-like umbrella seemed to be passing into Hindutva hands: recognise our power and we will be your protectors. Even the massacre of pilgrims in Anantnag and subsequent attacks by mujahids in the valley did not make the government slacken its search for a new dialogue with militants. The doubters were silenced and Prime Minister Vajpayee seemed firmly in command. Since Agra, however, we appear to have entered a new phase of uncertainty. Or rather of the anxieties fuelled by the BJP’s public espousal of its old certainties.

The polity as a whole will be affected by any shift of power equations in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nothing was as notable about Vajpayee than his willingness, for the first time in many years, to move if ever so slightly to grasp in his hands the rhetoric that so many of his colleagues excel at but which he normally shuns. First came his declaration at Staten Island, New York that he was a swayamsevak first and foremost. As a former editor of Panchajanya and a pupil of the late Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, he could scarcely have ever said anything else. But the timing and manner of the statement was significant.



The rich and influential community of non-resident Hindu India responded warmly to his peroration. By December, the temple had climbed back onto the agenda. It was ‘an unfinished task’ for the prime minister even as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad got all set to move to the next stage of construction of the temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya itself. This was not the first time he had played a saffron card while in office. Two years ago, he had called for a national debate on conversions while visiting the Dangs district in Gujarat. As if to complete the role reversal, Advani went to the dargah of the Chishtis in Ajmer.

But the Ram temple issue is different. It was the centrepiece of the party’s bid to carve out a distinctive ideological space for itself in the late 1980s; it also formed the fulcrum of unity between the non-BJP parties in the United Front coalitions of 1996-98. No single issue – not Kashmir, not personal law – has ever animated sectarian divisions the way this dispute has.

It is easy to ascribe the shift in equations to the poor performance of the party in the urban local body elections in Uttar Pradesh. In many towns, its vote banks among the upper castes simply collapsed. Even the Congress did far better than in the past. True, the voter cast a plague on all parties. But given the rock solid base the Hindutva groups had built for themselves in the towns and cities, the results must have come as a shock.

But, U.P. only sets the immediate context. It cannot explain why Vajpayee took the initiative. The other, more convincing explanation is that given the absence of alternatives for his regional allies, Vajpayee decided to continue his party’s bid to enlarge its own field of play. The BJP’s participation in coalitions has often seen it turn weakness to virtue by taking every inch of public space available to propagate its own worldview.

Just when independent commentators were trying to work out the reasons behind the Laxman rekha at Nagpur, the prime minister steered the ship back on course. There is little doubt that by his words he has at one fell swoop rallied the entire Sangh Parivar and all its front organisations behind him. He stands out as their ultimate trump card, the real mascot of an advancing assault on what they like to call the crumbling legacy of ‘pseudo-secularism’. What makes this prosaic is the background of the Advani-Vajpayee relationship, in which the latter plays the ‘moderate’ to the former’s ‘extremism’.



Few individuals have had as long and eventful a political partnership as the two men at the helm of the saffron party. For decades, they have complemented each other – the one with a mellow, moderate image and the other with a reputation for telling it like it is. Their membership of the parent organisation goes back many years: Vajpayee joined before the outbreak of the Second World War; Advani in 1942, the year of the Quit India movement.

Few analysts go a step further. Both men have a lineage of service to the Sangh in former princely states. But the prime minister cut his political teeth in two cities: Lucknow, with its rich composite culture and the kingdom of Gwalior, neither ever a hotbed of communal tension. But Advani was a Sindhi victim of Partition whose assignment lay in Alwar, a rare north Indian state marked by vigorous ethnic cleansing. So far-reaching was the process that even V.P. Menon condemned it. It was here, in the highly charged climate of Alwar, that Advani began his slow ascent to the top. The difference is not in ideology but in the approach to specific issues. Perhaps it reflects a critical period in their formative years, before they formed the now famous partnership.



It may explain why the veteran Communist Hiren Mukherjee could address Vajpayee with the words, ‘My dear Atal’, in an open letter in 1979. Such an epithet would be unthinkable for any other member of his party. In its search for a place in the polity, the RSS had to go beyond the charmed circle of the Maharashtrian Brahmins who had formed and led it through long years. It is perhaps no mere coincidence then that the two most significant figures it has put on the national stage should embody two very different ways of furthering its ideology. One builds on the bitterness of the 1940s on both sides of the border, the other underplays it. Neither may differ on the fundamentals, but their paths to the goal have often been different.

As long as the Bharatiya Jan Sangh was a minor player in Indian politics, much of this did not matter. Both served in the first non-Congress regime under Morarji Desai. There the differences begin to emerge in the public eye. True, they had more to do with style, but they also had some relation to substance. The external affairs portfolio brought out the pragmatist in Vajpayee, with a strong emphasis on the basic continuity in foreign policy. Defending what had seemed abhorrent to him while on the opposition benches was not a problem. Advani soon ran into heavy weather, earning brickbats for ‘packing’ the state-owned media with saffron fellow travellers. The break-up of the Janata Party was as much about jobs for the boys as about differences in ideology.

When they launched the BJP in the summer of 1980, it was clear whose line took precedence. Having been in a loose coalition, the Sangh now wanted to be free of the encumbrance of the socialists who would question its own sway. But the focus lay on stepping into the Congress’ shoes. Even when the latter appropriated the saffron card, Vajpayee held back. Once the drift set in, the parent body switched to supporting the Congress tricolour. In turn, it was hailed as a ‘nationalist organisation’ by the general secretary of the Congress, Shrikant Verma. By the end of the eighties, that phase was over and the BJP took to the streets with the Ram Mandir issue. Congress-like postures gave way to khaki uninterrupted.



Succeed all this did and beyond all expectations. The soft-spoken former editor matured into a demagogue overnight. On his return to Ayodhya following his release from confinement in Bihar in late 1990, Advani was introduced to the audience as ‘India’s future prime minister’. But that was not to be. Like a genie out of a box, Narasimha Rao had the hawala cases registered. A perceptive reporter present at one of the first public rallies in support of Advani made a striking observation. He was still in charge, but the body language had changed. The former foreign minister was back at the helm of things.

In a sense, this has also reflected the electoral dilemmas of the party. To go that last and final step it needed to use the mukhota or mask. Much time, effort and energy has been expended on finding out how true a believer the man is. But this misses a deeper point. Namely, that to rule India, there is no alternative to the politics of accommodation. If one wanted to sound mathematically proficient, we could argue that the lowest common multiple is what can hold a government or, for that matter, the country together. Nothing else works.

Each of the three Vajpayee governments has been a coalition. Sushma Swaraj once called the United Front a twelve-headed monster. The only way to replace it was for the saffron party to cobble together an apple cart of its own. And as early as 1996, the President’s address contained no references to three most publicly controversial aspects of the Hindutva agenda.



It is not clear where that leaves the Union home minister. At one level, the slow saffronisation of society in general, the media and the middle classes even more so, makes it easier for the country to come to terms with him. The central ground of politics has indeed shifted. But the inescapable problem is that the very features that make an Advani-like figure so attractive to his party make him a liability for its allies. He prefers ‘the hard state’ in a society known for its fluidity and openness. No wonder he has tried so hard to square the circle, by emphasising how ‘governance precedes ideology’.

No wonder that the same home minister who expressed disquiet about the Kandahar hostages deal was silent at the sight of his home secretary posing with masked militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Conversely, his first overseas visit was to Israel where he publicly proclaimed that the two countries shared a common problem: cross-border terrorism. Such polemics have had an unintended effect. On his own visit to Israel, the External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, widely seen as a ‘moderate’, berated Muslim vote bank politics for holding India’s foreign policy hostage for several decades. Having set the markers, Advani needs to do little more. Given the lay of the land for the votaries of Hindutva, his colleagues often have no option but to play the same game.



There is a second related issue which springs directly from his oft-made observation that the BJP is now ‘a natural party of power’. Anyone would agree that the road to economic reform is littered with difficult, unpopular decisions that will pinch the purse before they spread the wealth around, if at all. Through its dizzying ascent in the nineties, the party was out of power most of the time. Whenever in office for a full term, it failed to reconcile the gap between the imperative for market-friendly reform and the need to generate fresh welfare schemes for its own survival.

Even its recent setbacks in the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat local polls are a reflection of this fact. In the former, it has yielded significant ground to its arch rival, the Samajwadi Party, particularly in the small towns that are so crucial to political mobilisation in the state. Over time, the party’s stranglehold on various levels of government in Gujarat did not deliver results. Targeting Christians was an easy option given such a record of poor governance. Equally so in Uttar Pradesh, where party managers never lost sight of the fact that the only time they secured a clear majority was in 1991 in the wake of the temple agitation. Far from moderating its manner, the compulsions of politics have driven the party to experiment ever more boldly with direct mobilisation for the cause. And what better way to do so than to begin some symbolic work at Ayodhya while there are still BJP-led coalitions in power in both Lucknow and New Delhi?

There is little doubt that the Sangh has been seriously exploring the option of reviving the line of explicit Hindutva. It is possible that this is mere preparation for the post-Vajpayee phase. Such was the message of its Agra conclave. It may, however, be some consolation to those who view this prospect with concern, that the same record played twice does not sound quite as good. The question of questions was and is whether the Vajpayee period will deprive the movement of its core message and leave it directionless much like its prime opponent now is.

It is precisely to check such a sense of drift and to embolden his rank and file that Vajpayee spoke up on the Ram temple issue. Despite the wishful thinking of latecomers to the bandwagon, he has never been anything but a firm believer in the tenets and principles of Hindutva. The practical politician in him, with decades long experience in public life, was willing to de-emphasise ideology in order to stitch together an alliance. But that is not the same as surrendering ideology.



In fact, the Vajpayee approach has accomplished more than the rath yatra brand of mobilisation in two distinct ways. The precedent lies in the way that the Congress in the provincial ministries of 1937-39, wooed the civil service and the business community with its ‘moderation’ and ‘spirit of compromise’. The BJP too has used its spell in power to reach out to significant but highly influential groups in the government and among the intelligentsia to gain a legitimacy it lacked in the past.

Further, the positional warfare the Sangh is so adept at requires that it not only hold office but also control the key ministries of internal security, culture, information and education. It is a Vajpayee as head of the coalition that enables Murli Manohar Joshi to advance saffron agendas in education faster than many realise, and let an Advani try and change the discourse about national security in significant ways. By eschewing the big issues, the Sangh advances on a number of fronts. The party with a difference gains more when it adopts a low-key approach. By neutralising lower caste leaders like Paswan and Nitish Kumar, it sows dissension in the ranks of those who in the past led upsurges against its own brand of mass politics.



The National Democratic Alliance may well continue in power due to the absence of a visible alternative. But the BJP has served notice that it will not sit back and watch its agenda diluted to nothingness. Whether or not its allies distance themselves, as they most certainly may have to, this will act as a stimulus to efforts at opposition unity. The Congress is still unclear but the decks are being cleared for a revamped Third Front.

But the key lies not so much with the sectarian versus pluralism debate as in the economic realm. Even the seasoned hands at the head of the BJP, who have been so adept at running rings round their secular critics, will not find it easy to explain away the rise in prices of food and fuel. The former General Secretary K.N. Govindacharya hopes to capture the opposition space by providing a release valve for critics of reform. He has an uphill task given his close association with today’s rulers.

It is now upto the forces opposed to them to forge more than a front and come up with a workable programme that gives them a sense of purpose. There are indeed many voices in the ruling combine, more so in the Sangh Parivar. But over the last year, they all seem more out of touch with the popular mood than in a long, long time.