LOTUS EATERS OF HINDUTVA
Can Narendra Modi save the BJP from sinking into a quagmire?
Poornima Joshi Delhi
The unexpected mercy shown by the Congress’s royal chambers at 10 Janpath in sparing the nation yet another mediocrity in the form of Shivraj Patil as the party’s presidential nominee is matched in the run-up to the poll only by the predictably ridiculous performance by the principal opposition party. The BJP-led NDA has managed to bring down the already pedestrian political discourse by squabbling like a bunch of amateurs. The opposition’s delinquency has only helped a rapidly self-destructing ruling coalition into restoring some sort of order in the chaos.
If the presidential poll is a reflection of political performance and alliances to be forged in the next general election in 2014, then the BJP has clearly not been able to make the grade. Not only have two of their crucial allies, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena, deserted the NDA camp to support the UPA’s Pranab Mukherjee, skirmishes between leaders of the JD(U) and the BJP over the latter’s recently-appointed heir apparent, Narendra Modi, have become embarrassingly routine.
BJP loyalists employed by the Gujarat chief minister as foot soldiers in his march to South Block in Delhi, the latest example being Rajya Sabha MP Balbir Punj, have contributed to the public perception that the NDA is a divided house. Punj, in his latest pronouncement, said the BJP did not need to “outsource” secularism to its allies and that Modi was a “cent-per cent PM candidate”, a remark that prompted JD(U) president Sharad Yadav to ask Nitin Gadkari to “rein in” his cadre.
Indeed, the turn of events since the BJP’s crucial national executive meeting in Mumbai on May 24-25, paints a grim picture of the main political alternative to the amoral, banal and low-calibre leadership of the Congress-led UPA in its second term in office. No wonder then, that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has deemed it fit to position himself as the third alternative to the Congress and BJP in the national mainstream. Kumar has seized the moment with his fellow ‘socialist’, Sharad Yadav — both arguably the most opportunistic political specimens even among the tribe of dithering socialists, having collaborated with the BJP in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and throughout the outrage of the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in 2002.
It is a dark irony that the man who was railway minister and still refused to order a statutory inquiry when a bogey of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra was set afire on February 27, 2002, and did not think it appropriate to condemn the subsequent pogrom against Muslims, has now emerged as a symbol of secularism. Political expediency clearly outranks ideological commitment among the followers of Ram Manohar Lohia.
The broadcasting of Kumar’s lament against Modi, in a pink daily where yet another aspirant for the top post in the Hindutva party apparently wields considerable influence, has given rise to uncanny speculations. The fact that Kumar picked a correspondent from among what is known as the “favourite four — Chaukri”, a group of journalists close to a senior BJP leader, to declare that the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate should have “secular” credentials, has not been missed in BJP circles. Whether Modi’s rival to the throne did or did not play a part in Kumar’s outburst is not clear but it is sufficiently damaging and a large section of the RSS/BJP believes that to be the case. Kumar, in this interview, made it amply clear that Modi is not acceptable to him or his party.
“The NDA should declare its candidate in advance. This leader should be acceptable to every constituent of the alliance. To me, the leader of the coalition should have secular credentials. It should be someone who has absolute faith in democratic values. In a multi-religious and multi-lingual country like ours, the leader should not have rough edges in his personality. An alliance can win the confidence of the people only if the leader is seen as accommodating,” the Bihar chief minister categorically told the newspaper.
Kumar’s assertions, followed immediately by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s declaration that the “country needs a PM who propounds Hindutva” and that “Nitish Kumar is scared to call himself a Hindu” has left no one in any doubt that the RSS is backing Modi’s candidature and is not daunted by the prospect of losing allies in the process. The calculation is that once the BJP consolidates itself, the allies will rally around.
“The BJP needs to improve its tally… Secularism is an excuse to dump the BJP when it is not performing well. Once we cross 200 seats in the Lok Sabha, let us see how many people reject Narendra Modi’s candidature as PM. It is all a numbers game,” said an RSS insider.
Advani is not going anywhere even if the Sangh believes they have finally been able to effect a ‘generational change’
It is clear that the Sangh, after having directly fuelled popular resentment against the ruling government through Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev’s movements against corruption, is convinced that the country is rooting for a “strong” alternative to the Congress. The belief is that regional satraps like Kumar have to focus on their anti-Modi credentials to keep the Muslims happy in the run-up to the elections. Once the BJP gains enough seats, in the post-poll scenario fresh alliances can be forged.
On the face of it, other aspirants for the top post in the BJP — LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh et al — will have no option but to follow the RSS diktat as they did when Advani was shunted out of the BJP president’s office in the wake of his “Jinnah was secular” remarks or when the Sangh picked Gadkari from the boondocks to be appointed BJP president ignoring the claims of Swaraj, Jaitley, Ananth Kumar, Manohar Parikkar
However, politics is a game of possibilities. The strongest possibilities being entertained by other aspirants is the rejection of Modi by allies such as the JD(U) followed by the party performing poorly in the Lok Sabha polls. In such a situation, a more ‘acceptable’ figure such as Advani or Jaitley can emerge as the NDA’s consensus candidate for the PM’s post. While the RSS may be determined to keep Advani out of its calculations, the veteran warhorse seems equally committed to keeping his prospects alive.
So, while columnists close to Jaitley and Modi harp on how Advani is not keeping up with the times and his word is no longer final in the internal matters of the BJP, the self-appointed Loh Purush is still out to prove his mettle. In widely circulated blogs, Advani holds forth on all contemporary political issues; telling the BJP that it is not being able to project itself as a viable alternative to the Congress, and, in his latest musings, blaming the Congress for the BJP putting up a mockery of a fight in the presidential elections.
Sample the latest that has only served to highlight the BJP’s failed strategy in the presidential poll. “This question is often hurled at us in the BJP as if by deciding to support PA Sangma, sponsored by two eminent chief ministers, against Congress’s Pranab Mukherjee, we are doing something improper. I hold that the answer to this question depends entirely on the attitude of the ruling party,” Advani said.
Advani went on to elaborate the course of events, revealing the content of his conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, apparently, called him to seek his party’s support for Mukherjee within minutes of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi announcing his candidature. “My comment was: ‘You are now only informing us; would it not have been better if you had consulted the opposition before making the announcement?’ His reaction was: ‘Well, it is never too late to mend’,” said Advani.
The opposition’s delinquency has only helped a rapidly self-destructing ruling coalition into restoring some sort of order in the chaos
Advani’s musings shed a light on just how badly the BJP has managed the presidential poll. The Congress displayed unusual maturity by refusing to make the kind of inappropriate pronouncements that Swaraj did by branding Vice President Hamid Ansari as a man “lacking in stature” and unnecessarily unveiling the NDA’s strategy to push APJ Abdul Kalam as an alternative candidate. Congress managers worked behind the scenes, stitching up alliances and bringing Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and even the Shiv Sena and JD(U) on board, while the BJP was left with no option but to back Sangma, a man even his own Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has refused to support.
“The allies have deserted us and just wait till the poll is actually conducted. We will have a huge number of people cross-voting from the BJP’s side. They did it even when Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was the candidate in 2007 and Sangma clearly does not have his stature,” said a BJP leader.
Advani has served to highlight two things. One, that whether anyone else believes it or not, Advani still thinks he is relevant to the BJP’s decision-making process. And, two, that even if he is not central to the BJP’s core functioning, the former deputy prime minister still has enough nuisance value to embarrass his party. In his capacity as a senior leader, the PM still consults him and the media believes he is saleable enough to prominently highlight his blogs. In a nutshell, Advani is not going anywhere even if the Sangh believes they have finally been able to effect a ‘generational change’.
In his shadow lurks another aspirant, Swaraj, whose stars are not shining that bright ever since Modi waded into the BJP’s national executive like a conquering hero with a new hairstyle. This meeting marked the informal projection of Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Party president Gadkari was allowed another term in office by way of an amendment in the BJP’s constitution but he accepted Modi’s superior position in the hierarchy by allowing him to hound out his long-time rival, the hapless Sanjay Joshi, a former favourite of the RSS brass and organiser par excellence, who has since been sacrificed to keep Modi in good humour.
Other aspirants for the top post — Advani, Jaitley, Swaraj, Gadkari, Rajnath Singh et al - will have no option but to follow the RSS diktat as they did when Advani was shunted out in the wake of his ‘Jinnah was secular’ remarks
Both Swaraj and Advani were not present at the public meeting in Mumbai that followed the party’s national executive meeting last month. While Modi preened for the benefit of the party faithful, the occasion was marked by the absence of the two top leaders. Advani has since taken to blogging furiously and Swaraj is sulking, putting on occasional appearances to announce the party’s support for Sangma’s candidature for president.
The situation is described by party insiders as the rippling of water in a pond where a giant stone has been hurled in the form of Modi. The RSS has decreed it to be a fait accompli with hopes of a strong consolidation in favour of what they believe is Modi’s Hindutva credentials and strong leadership abilities. However, a large section believes this is paving the way for a third front formation with a strong possibility of Kumar appearing as a favourite for the top job.
“Where are the seats coming from? We have reached a saturation point in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Karnataka is a lost cause. There is no hope in any other southern state and the situation is precarious in the Hindi heartland. With Modi’s projection, we can safely bid goodbye to Kumar and any hope of faring well in Bihar. The Hindu vote is divided on caste lines in Uttar Pradesh and Muslim consolidation can only help the Congress,” said a BJP insider.
The strongest possibilities being entertained by other aspirants is the rejection of Modi by allies such as the JD(U) followed by the party performing poorly in the Lok Sabha polls
Others say the real picture will emerge only after the Gujarat elections by the end of this year. By then, the ripples would have subsided in the BJP and alignments will become more pronounced. What is clear right now is that Modi is no Vajpayee who commands the loyalty of his own ranks and respect of the allies. He has to earn it or prove his mettle in the general election. In any event, the change of guard has, at least for the time being, only helped the ruling coalition in Delhi.