BJP: up for grabs


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‘It is ideology alone which sparks enthusiasm in the party workers and reinforces their commitment to idealism. Also, an ideology is needed to establish a political party’s distinct individuality.’

Report of Working Group to BJP National Executive in Bhopal, July 1985

‘This is a party of idealism. Ideology is our strength. Idealism is also our strength. Our idealism is nationalism. You should not identify this or that programme or issue with the ideology. These are in consequential to them. However, the fundamental ideology is nationalism. For us, nationalism is above everything. Nation first and then only party. The nation-first party.’

L.K. Advani, speech to the BJP National Council in Nagpur, August 2000


THERE is something like a great scare that precedes the result of every general election in India. In 1998, even as the mass of urban voters were enthused by the prospects of a BJP government led by the genial and affable Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a sense of nervousness was visible among the rarefied cosmopolitan classes. In the party circuits of Mumbai and Delhi, it was fairly common to encounter Indians working in multinational undertakings swearing they would emigrate if the BJP won the election. ‘They are a backward lot, they will take the country back to the medieval ages,’ was the refrain.

Today, another election later and with Vajpayee nearing three uninterrupted years in office, those notables haven’t become NRIs. The MNCs are content with the prevailing order and there is talk of India joining the league of economic superpowers. If there is dissatisfaction, it is primarily in the ranks of the saffron faithful who struggled hard for two decades and more to transform the BJP from a fringe phenomenon to the largest party in the Lok Sabha. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an outfit promoted by the RSS, has spoken of launching a ‘second war of Independence’, and in a fit of rhetorical exuberance a veteran RSS leader even referred to Vajpayee as a gaddar (traitor).

Being part of a larger family whose every movement and pronouncement is dissected and over interpreted, the BJP’s apparent convulsions have become the subject of intense speculation. If party president Bangaru Laxman is to be believed, the BJP is undertaking a transition from ‘Hindu nationalism’ to ‘nationalism’. If the die-hard secularists are to be believed, the turbulence is a wonderfully contrived sham. The RSS, according to them, wants to keeps its foothold in the opposition space so that if something goes wrong, the BJP can revert to its moorings. And there is a third school – with a disproportionate representation in the permanent bureaucracy and an ill-informed English language media – that juxtaposes Vajpayee, the moderate and modernizer, against L.K. Advani, the hardliner and Hindu nationalist.

For those interested in history – and the past is very important in the BJP’s self-perception – almost every contemporary trend has a precedent. When it was established in 1980, the BJP didn’t set out to become a renamed version of the old Jan Sangh. It wanted to be a more cohesive and disciplined version of the Janata Party that emerged before the 1977 election with the blessings of Jayaprakash Narayan. No wonder, and despite the serious misgivings of leaders like Vijaye Raje Scindia, it embraced a mysterious doctrine called ‘Gandhian socialism’ which was to coexist with its very own, home grown ‘integral humanism’.



Equally, the BJP in 1980 didn’t comprise entirely of old Jan Sanghis and those with RSS links. There was a conscious attempt to reach out to people like Ram Jethmalani, K.S. Hegde, Sikander Bakht and Viren Shah. In other words, the constant cooption of people from other political traditions was central to the BJP’s bid to project itself as the national alternative to the Congress. The induction of politicians from the Janata Dal and the Congress between 1994 and 1998 wasn’t symptomatic of opportunism as some purists made it out to be. It followed the logic of the BJP’s bid to be more than the Jan Sangh.

Paradoxically, the establishment of a more wholesome version of the Janata Party wasn’t at the cost of the RSS. Indeed, it was the ‘dual membership’ issue that provoked the split of 1980. There is an umbilical cord that links the BJP to the RSS. The debate in the party is not over ties to the RSS but the extent of functional autonomy the BJP should enjoy, what Vajpayee has frequently described as the Lakshman rekha. Advani raised secularist hackles by referring to the RSS as a ‘moral influence’ on the BJP. He even compared the position of the RSS leadership to that of Mahatma Gandhi in the post-Independence Congress. What was implied is that ‘moral influence’ need not extend to direct political control. After all, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel consulted Gandhi frequently between 1947 and 1948, but rarely did his pronouncements translate into actual policy.

In actual terms, the relationship between the RSS and BJP has never followed a uniform pattern. Guruji M.S. Golwalkar, for example, was somewhat disdainful of politics. He saw the Jan Sangh as a fraternal body that could provide an outlet to those swayamsevaks with a political bent. He rarely involved himself with the nitty-gritty of the political process. Balasaheb Deoras – working through his brother Bhaurao Deoras – and Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya) were different. They were both deeply interested in politics and played a major role in guiding the destiny of the BJP, particularly during the Ayodhya movement.

Vajpayee, for example, nurtures the resentment that it was the RSS that steered the BJP away from coalition politics after the Vrindavan conclave of 1982. Likewise, there was a clear RSS hand in Murli Manohar Joshi’s inability to secure a second term as party president in 1993. And, as chief minister of Rajasthan, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s manoeuvrability was severely circumscribed by constant needling at the behest of the RSS.



However, it is worth keeping in mind that the extent of RSS involvement in the BJP has depended very largely on the ability of individual leaders to manage the relationship. When Vajpayee was party president between 1980 and 1984, there was dissatisfaction in the ranks over his repeated attempts at coalition building. In 1983, for example, the establishment of a National Democratic Front of the BJP and Charan Singh’s Lok Dal wasn’t favoured by either the party rank and file or the RSS. Yet, Vajpayee got his way because he had the stature to impose his will.

Similarly, when Advani announced in early 1996 that Vajpayee would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate, he did so unilaterally and without consulting Rajju Bhaiyya. There was skepticism in the senior BJP leadership and the RSS over the wisdom of the move. But Advani – who based his decision on Vajpayee’s ability to draw in more coalition partners and secure an incremental vote – stood his ground. Indeed, Advani quite openly faulted Vajpayee for heeding K.S. Sudarshan’s late-night advice in 1998 and not inducting Jaswant Singh as the finance minister. That reversal sent out very wrong signals and disturbed the BJP-RSS equilibrium during the 13-month Vajpayee government. The balance was restored after the 1999 election.



The broad lesson to be drawn from this brief survey of BJP’s history is that there is no one pattern. The party definitely enjoys a special relationship with the RSS but the management of this relationship is eminently negotiable. It has become even more so with the acquisition of political power by the BJP. Today, despite the latter’s awesome cadre strength and the range of its activities, the BJP is actually much bigger than the RSS. Though the BJP still needs the discipline and dedication of ordinary swayamsevaks during elections, in social terms it encompasses a much larger section of Hindu society than does the RSS.

The constantly waning appeal of the RSS shakha, the inability of its leadership to look beyond a culture of asceticism and self-denial, and the craving of the ordinary swayamsevak for the influence and authority that comes with political power are some of the factors responsible for the BJP’s success in overshadowing the RSS. From being a virtual extension counter of the RSS, the BJP has moved on. The RSS will continue to be an important input in the BJP but it will no longer be the decisive input. The trend is irreversible although it may be a few years before the RSS leadership acknowledge the phenomenon formally.

In fact, it is rapidly becoming a misnomer to talk of a single RSS lobby in the BJP. There are many swayamsevaks but a diminishing number of them look to Nagpur for daily guidance. They are increasingly being guided by political impulses in which the acquisition and retention of power is the primary consideration. An examination of the factional alignments during the 2000 organisational polls in the BJP would show that far from there being a single RSS lobby, there are many lobbies where swayamsevaks are leading lights. Even full-time RSS pracharaks deputed to the BJP don’t appear to be following any common agenda and some of them are openly at loggerheads with it.



Not that the BJP leadership didn’t anticipate the problem. One of the great dilemmas Hindu nationalism has faced is that there is no obvious link between Hindutva and governance. Hindutva is primarily an emotional commitment to cultural norms and a way of defining national identity. Its importance is paramount when issues centred on these themes top the national agenda, as happened during the Ayodhya movement. However, in more normal times, Hindutva isn’t a guide to action. It may be, as Advani said in 1994, the BJP’s ‘ideological mascot’ but that’s of little help in providing suraj or good governance. When political power was a distant dream, the BJP could afford to gloss over these shortcomings. No longer.

The deft bid to replace ‘Hindu nationalism’ with ‘nationalism’ and ‘ideology’ with ‘idealism’ are symptomatic of the leadership’s bid to take the party beyond Hindutva. But it is an uphill task. Apart from a loose and nebulous commitment to deregulation, decentralisation and swadeshi, economics was never a critical part of the party’s agenda. Party notables, all bound by a common faith in Hindutva, have been unable to arrive at any meaningful consensus over economics. Constituency compulsions, social background and narrow vested interests have played a part in determining individual stands on the Vajpayee government’s rush to discard India’s socialist legacy.



There is, for example, little in their stands to suggest that Arun Jaitley and Uma Bharati belong to the same party. One speaks the language of Thatcherism; the other of radical left populism. No wonder the government’s reforms have followed a top-down diktat thrust. Consultation and democratization of decision-making carries the risk of dissensions at various levels. In her vocal intervention at the Nagpur national executive meeting in August 2000, Sushma Swaraj gave a foretaste of this. ‘If you want the party to spread the word about the government’s good work in the economic sphere, shouldn’t the government first convince us?’ she asked.

For the moment these complexities have been glossed over. The assertion of Indian pride at the global level – the nuclear status of India, the achievements in information technology – and strengthening national security have been stressed because these are concerns dear to the BJP constituency. But sooner or later other issues will have be confronted. The RSS has already begun questioning the erosion of national sovereignty under the WTO regime. RSS chief Sudarshan has imbibed the mass of literature circulated by the anti-WTO protesters in Seattle and is busy disseminating that message in the shakhas. The RSS has also linked nationalism with uncompromising opposition to foreign investment in consumer goods.

These issues have a gut appeal to many who entered the BJP via the RSS but the response among the BJP’s middle class supporters is more mixed. A large section of them expect the party and its government to come out openly in favour of public sector disinvestment, a low tax regime and minimum government interference in daily life. They have little sympathy for the RSS’ advocacy of a spartan society governed by curbs on consumption. Their vision of nationalism is that of an assertive India completely at ease with Indian values combined with western technology and consumption patterns. A vision that mirrors the experience of the very successful Indian diaspora, particularly in the US.



The extent to which the BJP will succeed in incorporating these aspirations into its formal agenda of governance will depend very substantially on the economic record of the Vajpayee government. The greater the urbanization of India and greater the growth of the middle classes, the more the modernizers in the BJP will prevail. Conversely, an economic setback will propel the traditionalists into the forefront.

For the BJP, the experience of the Vajpayee government is going to be critical. Having already established its Hindu nationalist credentials, it is desperately looking for add-ons to enhance its appeal. It is making the transition from being a vibrant protest movement into becoming a governing coalition. This won’t happen if it shapes itself into a doctrinaire ideological grouping, either committed to market economics or national capitalism. To be successful, political parties in India have to be grand coalitions but with distinctive personalities. The BJP has acquired a distinct personality and a defined ethos. It is now in search of causes that can blend idealism with good electoral politics.

It’s a party still in the making and up for grabs.