Jyotirmaya Sharma

In many ways, the root of the problem lies in an authority crisis within the BJP.

IF THE effervescence surrounding the rhetoric during the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) national executive last week was to be even momentarily ignored, a number of interesting pointers towards the future of the party suddenly become visible. There is a significant section within the party as well as in the Sangh Parivar that has argued for the BJP's return to the 'core' values of Hindutva.

The BJP recognises that it can no longer recycle the 'magic' of Hindutva as it was able to do in the 1980s and the 1990s. This has a lot to do with the compulsions of coalition politics, but that is not the only reason. Hindutva's mix of religion and politics worked as long as the BJP was not in power and remained largely an untried and untested alternative to all other political formations in the country. Its quasi-religious invocation of Hindutva attracted a certain constituency of people who were attracted by its seeming loftiness of purpose and pandering to crass identity politics by deflating the difference between nationalism and Hinduness.

Six years in power and a severe brush with democratic politics has unmasked the moral pretensions of individuals who were the chosen carriers of this ideology. This goes beyond the internecine warfare being waged within the party or the scams that get exposed with metronomic regularity. Rather, the voting public seems perplexed by the spectacle of not only the BJP's hunger for power but also its juvenile restlessness when out of office.

Their woes are further enhanced by the lack of clarity as to what constitutes Hindutva. There are those who articulate Hindutva purely in terms of a certain cultural primacy of what they perceive to be a timeless, unbroken tradition of Hindu culture and civilisation, while others propose a more aggressive and threatening version of this ideology. Both versions, when applied in the public realm, however, degenerate into the worst kind of communal and divisive politics.

Swatantra Party model

Many political commentators have recently suggested that the only choice left before the BJP is to transform itself into a viable conservative party. The Indian political space, they suggest, lacks a well-defined and cohesive right wing alternative like those in Europe and the rest of the world. The model in India to emulate would be the brief and unsuccessful Swatantra Party experiment. If only the BJP were to abandon its communal and religious orientation, it could emerge as a credible conservative alternative in the Indian political arena.

A closer look at the alternative suggested above would reveal even this to be an unsuitable alternative for the BJP. The free market-economic reforms agenda has belonged to the Congress since 1991. Attempts to hijack it through the India Shining campaign only brought grief and political wilderness to the party. The Congress has also claimed, especially since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, to be the true custodian of issues of national security and defence policy. The Left, now supporting the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), articulates a brand of swadeshi better than the BJP or the Sangh Parivar. The UPA and the Left also have conclusively appropriated the social agenda that was anyway never part of the BJP's vision.

Ideological differences within political parties in India have often been resolved through a split. While it might seem that these splits are a result of personal ambition or even wilfulness, the history of splits reveal a subtle working out of the need for ideological reorientation. The BJP is not in a position today even to take that leap and save itself from oblivion. This is largely due to an excess of ideology on the one hand, and a multiplicity of interpretations of ideology. Added to this is a certain moralistic and sanctimonious strain in defining ideology that leaves little room to make stark political choices.

In many ways, the root of the problem lies in an authority crisis within the BJP. The BJP has always been bereft of a rich political tradition in contrast to the Congress. It has little in the name of inheriting the mantle of the Freedom Movement or the mystique of the Nehru-Gandhi family. At one point it seemed conscious of this deficiency, and worked hard to create a halo around the persona of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. The epigonic leadership of the RSS, however, has ensured the systematic discrediting of these two individuals in recent months. Ambitious individuals, popularly called the second generation of leaders, within the BJP also joined cause with the RSS in demystifying the importance of the Vajpayee-Advani duo in the name of not promoting building of a personality cult around certain individuals.

Despite its claims to internal democracy, the BJP has always depended on an authoritarian figure issuing commands and the rank and file of the party, in turn, has rendered unquestioned loyalty and admiration to its leaders. The recent insistence on collective leadership is a sure recipe for further anarchy and a war of all against all. Abdicating the centre of authority to the RSS, which has never been part of the democratic process, would not work either. The current leadership of the RSS does not inspire the same reverence and awe as did figures like Golwalkar and Deoras.

This is the dilemma that stares the BJP in the face. If it embraces Hindutva wholeheartedly, it alienates a significant number of Indian voters who have seen through the deception of a divisive rhetoric. It will also portend the end of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). If it abandons Hindutva, it will be reduced to nothing more than a loose coalition of regional interests represented by powerful local satraps. Either way, it faces a crisis that refuses to resolve itself.