Journalists and columnists have to be alert to the possibility of being overtaken by events, which was the case this week with tracking the Bharatiya Janata Party becoming as dizzying as watching an action sequence in fast motion. Barely did one disastrous development unfold when another upstaged it : Vasundhara Raje's rebellion, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat's virtual quit notice to the BJP leadership, Jaswant Singh's expulsion followed by his 24 into 7 TV interviews, Arun Shourie's masterly lampooning of Rajnath Singh in blazing arc lights — and now B.C. Khanduri following in Ms Raje's footsteps.
For a brief while during the Budget session of Parliament, the BJP actually looked in better shape than the Congress. The party, which had wallowed in destructive self pity for five long years, seemed to have put that inglorious chapter behind it.Yet only days later, the nightmare has returned to haunt the BJP, except this time it is bigger and scarier than anything the party has previously known.
Difficult as the BJP's 1980 birth was, it was attended by hope and enthusiasm — led by a youngish team, the party had a new agenda to follow and new ideas to implement. In the nearly three decades since then, the party has seen many lows: It was reduced to two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, lost two confidence motions, in 1996 and 1999, and suffered a shock defeat in 2004. Intermittently through this time the party was shunned as an untouchable. Yet the BJP remained largely united, and it never lost its derring-do: its PR machinery was the best in the business, able both to magnify the smallest gain and spot the silver lining in the darkest cloud.
This quality — or the X-factor to use a term in fashion — was perhaps the reason why the BJP unfailingly overcame its many crises, and it was made possible by a combination of credible leadership and careful strategy. Most of the BJP's current problems have a history — internecine quarrels, confusion over ideology, the see-saw nature of the BJP- RSS relationship, all go back at least a decade. What is unprecedented this time is the concerted attack on the leadership. When a Uma Bharti or a Kalyan Singh or a Madan Lal Khurana rebelled, it was the rebel who cut a sorry figure; the leader's stature and standing remained undiminished by the mudslinging. By contrast today Mr. Jaswant Singh has emerged a hero while Mr. Shourie has successfully reduced the leadership to a laughing stock.
Mr. Shourie calls Mr. Rajnath Singh “Alice in blunderland” , and the party chief asks for a “clarification.” Mr. Singh must pray that he does not get another literary bombardment in response. The devaluation of BJP leadership started after the exit of Atal Behari Vajpayee, and this happened because those who replaced him had no grassroots appeal. Lal Krishna Advani could not pull off the transition from Hindutva ideologue to popular leader.
Mr. Rajnath Singh remained a courier for the RSS while Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, though smart, competent and high on aspiration, suffered from not having popular constituencies. In the end, it is the quality of leadership that decides the future of the party, that shapes strategy, that inspires the cadre, instilling hope even in adversity.
The leadership also sets the parameters for other relationships — whether with the allies or with the RSS as in this case. The BJP's 2009 election campaign illustrates this fact. For the first time in two decades, the party went into an election looking unsure and downbeat. This despite the incessant “L.K Advani for PM” promos. As the allies departed from the National Democratic Alliance, hardly anyone in the BJP believed it could win, and soon it was a reversal of roles between the Congress and the principal Opposition party.
The Congress was uncharacteristically aggressive, returning fire for fire, while the BJP stumbled, unable to tarnish a Prime Minister who unbeknown to the BJP seemed to have gained in popularity. As the campaign wound down, the sound effects were more around the Third Front with speculators placing it ahead of the BJP. So where does the party go from here? The situation has been compounded by the diverse nature of the mutinies. Mr. Shourie and Mr. Sudheendra Kukarni (Mr. Advani's campaign manager) have both risen in support of Mr. Jaswant Singh. Yet Mr. Shourie has called upon the Sangh to bomb out the headquarters and is also rooting for Narendra Modi.
On the other hand, Mr. Kulkarni is convinced that salvation can come only under Mr. Advani's leadership. Mr. Jaswant Singh is thankful for the solidarity from Mr. Shourie and Mr. Kulkarni but wants the Sangh and Mr. Advani both ousted. The Leader of Opposition is himself against the Sangh, obliquely telling it to steer clear of the BJP's internal matters, which, judging by Mr. Bhagwat's recent incursion into that territory, is not going to happen. With his presidential tenure coming to a close, Mr. Rajnath Singh has been playing the RSS tune as well as reposing faith in Mr. Advani.
Two broad currents
Yet the BJP is not quite the maze it appears. That there are two broad currents in the party is evident enough. The Shourie school of thought and Mr. Advani's more calibrated move for independence from the Sangh. Mr. Advani's appreciation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's 1947 secular vision was a step in this direction. When he said the unthinkable in 2005, the Sangh clobbered him with the party standing in respectful attention. Today Mr. Jaswant Singh has made Jinnah legitimate, and there are many more in the BJP, including Ms Swaraj and Mr. Jaitley, who want the party to jettison its exclusivist approach.
That some pro-BJP voices outside the party have joined the campaign for modernisation is an indication that this is no longer an impossible mission. In a May 2009 blog titled “Junk the H-word', Swapan Dasgupta argued that Hindutva had become “a millstone round the BJP's neck.” He wrote: “The BJP should quietly shelve Hindutva in the same way as Nehru shelved Gandhism and Narasimha Rao dispensed with socialism.” The suggestion here is that the BJP should recast itself as a liberal, modern, right-wing-party – a Christian Democratic framework adapted to Indian conditions. But to do this quietly is easier said than done in a party closely monitored by the RSS, and whose every action is fodder for TV headlines. Secondly, there is the credibility of the leadership. Will Advani and co dare to effect this change in the deafening noise for their removal? It is precisely their lack of accountability that has emboldened Ms Raje and Mr. Khanduri.
And there is a third problem. The former BJP ideologue, K. N. Govindacharya, explained this in a conversation with The Hindu. According to him, not more than 35 MPs out of the BJP's current Lok Sabha strength of 116 can correctly identify Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Even fewer are likely to have read his seminal treatise, Integral Humanism. That ought to smoothen the way for a split in the parliamentary party. Yet at the ground level, attitudes continue to be rooted in values that form the Sangh's core beliefs. Saffronites form a large contingent in the BJP's national council (working committee), and according to Mr. Govindacharya, close to 85 per cent of the rank and file identify with the Sangh.
This is not to say that the RSS is invincible. Far from it, the Sangh is almost a spent force: the footfalls in the shakhas have decreased, the organisation's once powerful affiliates, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, are in a disarray (not many in the Sangh can name the VHP's current chief), and at 59, Mr. Bhagwat could be Mr. Advani's son. Yet should Mr. Advani and others break away from the Sangh, they might find themselves without the mass support needed to make the project a success — for the simple reason that while they changed for reasons of expediency —half-heartedly at that, considering their support to Varun Gandhi — they didn't influence the cadre which remains virulently anti-Minorities. Besides, with the Congress today occupying the 'left of centre' (aam admi) and *right of centre' (market economics) spaces, the BJP would need to be really inventive to carve out a distinct identity.
But yes, there was one man who could have done it but did not: Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mr. Vajpayee deferred to the RSS when pushed to the wall but mostly did as he pleased. Remember, he went to Minar-e-Pakistan much before Mr. Advani and Mr. Jaswant Singh made Jinnah famous? Mr. Vajpayee's ideology was hazy and flexible, which was an attraction for alliance partners. Outraged as the RSS was, it was helpless in the face of his popular appeal. Yes, Mr. Vajpayee failed to punish Mr. Modi and paid for it with the loss of allies. And typically he left his fight with the Sangh incomplete. But for the BJP he will forever remain the X- factor that made hope possible even in defeat.