Lotus Longings: False Dawn Ahead

Nothing seems to be going right for the premier opposition party even though the objective conditions for it ought to enable its lotus symbol to bloom. The immediate rumpus or rather the series of unseemly fracas involve senior leaders questioning -- either openly or implicitly -- the ability of the leaders at the apex. But this only points to a larger sense of a loss of direction.

The first off the block was a man senior to LK Advani and a veteran of many a battle: Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Long seen as a close confidante of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, his open espousal of corruption charges against his own party's former state government in Rajasthan (his home terrain), have dented the BJP's image.

Add to this the manner of the endorsement of Narendra Modi by two leading captains of industry has signaled that the twilight of the Advani era is seeing new battles unfold. Modi is by far the front runner in the next generation, but the timing seems to signal that he may not be willing for such a long wait after all.

Finally, the straw that will endanger the camel's back is the exit of Kalyan Singh from his parent party. Uttar Pradesh was the base of the pyramid for successive Vajpayee-led governments in New Delhi. Though well past his prime, Kalyan Singh was the only leader of note with a backward class background and the clout to rally party workers together. His joining hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav will ensure that the Hindutva party will remain in single digits in a state with 80 Lok Sabha seats.

If its bastions are unsafe, then the allies are equally restive. The present set of alliances was stitched together through much patient work by Advani and a hand picked-team in the 1990s. Since then, many allies have put down roots and emerged as stronger players in their own right. Even those still in its company now do not look at it for leadership.

This is clearest with its oldest and time-tested partners. The Shiv Sena is up in arms over a border dispute with BJP-ruled Karnataka. Nitish Kumar has bound down the party in Bihar where minorities are more secure than ever. In Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal has gone ahead with his son's installation as heir apparent. More ominous is the absence of any ally in key southern states: Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Given this scenario, the leadership ought to have redefined the party's own role. That it failed to do so was apparent in the winter state assembly polls. Where it won, the issues were connected more with governance and less with ideology. And when it did play the terror card, it simply boomeranged. Far from a defender of an India under assault, it came across as a partisan outfit dividing Indians when they were uniting at a time of adversity.

This is by far the most serious issue that confronts a party taken to such heights by the Vajpayee-Advani duo. The former was able to chart a middle course combining a distinctive appeal with a broad acceptability. This has proved more elusive since its fall from power in 2004.

The crisis has deepened as wider, secular changes in the polity have a counterpart within this large political formation. Modi is a leader of a new sort, combining regional roots and administrative abilities with his backward class status. Can he take the next logical step? Will he strengthen the party -- or weaken it across the larger spectrum of opinion?

In this Advani-led phase, the party had the choice of carving out a larger social and economic agenda that would appeal to the emerging and growing middle class, both cosmopolitan and regionalist. This may not have given quick electoral dividends but would have prepared it for an India that is more urban and educated as the years roll by.

Instead, the party chose to launch all out assaults on the Manmohan Singh government even on issues such as the nuclear deal where its heart was not fully in the fight. True, the BJP has a lot of fight in it, but unless it gets its act together, 2009 may well be the year of a false dawn.