There has been an expectancy of change at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters at Delhi’s Ashoka Road since the Bihar results came in. Sometimes the air thickens with a sense of urgency and imminent action, as it did on November 10, when four senior leaders of the party — former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, and his Cabinet colleagues from the Vajpayee government, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar — released a statement bemoaning the “emasculation” of the party organisation by the current leadership.
Whatever the dynamic, there is now, after the > party’s loss in Bihar , a very definite feeling that “something must be done” to prevent a further erosion of the party’s political support.
Modi’s personality cult What is that “something” and who will be doing it? When Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the party victoriously in the > general elections of 2014 , the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) realised that it was an unprecedented opportunity for the organisation to mainstream its ideology. “Even more than the 1998-2004 [Atal Bihari Vajpayee government], this was a historic opportunity for the Sangh,” said a senior office-bearer of the RSS. The RSS, the ideological mothership of the collective known as the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is the political wing, swallowed its reservations against what it saw as a personality cult around Mr. Modi and his rocky relationship with the RSS in the past.
That equation has not changed even now, and the Sangh Parivar sees him as “the main bet” against ideological rivals. But while the RSS continues to endorse the government and its direction and vision, control of the party organisation is in contention now.
Mr. Shah, handpicked by Prime Minister Modi, cannot afford the same swagger he could last summer and through the victories in the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana thereafter. > Delhi and >then Bihar have been seen as political massacres, not ordinary defeats, the cumulative result of the opposition’s superior strategy and, importantly, the BJP’s missteps.
The > BJP’s formulaic election campaign plan of projecting the Prime Minister aggressively, with decision-making extremely centralised, is not working for State elections any more. According to those holding various conversations assessing the party’s defeat in Bihar and Delhi within the Parivar, this happened because of a failure of communication. This involved sidelining of State leaders, with a top-heavy approach, where feedback from leaders and workers outside the charmed circle of the party chief was neither solicited nor acted upon.
“All these complaints have been articulated at very senior levels, and while the statement of party veterans like Advaniji have not been acted on yet, it has put the matter out in the open,” said a senior leader in the BJP.
The anticipation of action, therefore, is on two levels. In the next clutch of Assembly polls — Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — the old formula of projecting Prime Minister versus the opposition’s state satrap will not be continued. The announcement that Union Sports Minister >Sarbananda Sonowal will be the BJP’s Assam unit chief indicates that he will be projected in the Assembly elections. “Of all these States going to the polls, Assam and West Bengal are very important to the Sangh Parivar in an ideological sense,” says a BJP office-bearer. “The RSS has worked in these areas a lot in the past, but politically, the BJP has not been able to make much headway, except in the last General Elections. Repatriation of > illegal Bangladeshi migrants and >cow smuggling across the porous border here are major ideological issues for the Parivar. In the General Elections, in West Bengal and in Assam the results were encouraging, therefore the RSS is determined that the mistakes of Bihar and Delhi are not repeated.”
Therefore, change in strategy would not suffice, organisational correctives are also needed. Hence the appointment of Mr. Sonowal, and indications of a prominent role to be given to actress and > BJP member Rupa Ganguly in West Bengal .
In May 2014, the victorious team of Prime Minister Modi and Mr. Shah faced no resistance in dominating the party government and the party. And Mr. Shah did so with aplomb and his personalised style. He met people by appointment, and designated a day every month for a “durbar” like interaction with party workers, seeking favours or addressing grievances. The party president’s office that used to be an open house for workers earlier became a much more subdued space.
In November 2015, much wiser after two defeats and no longer protected by the cloak of invincibility, that will have to change. A second term for Mr. Shah in January is still not an impossibility. It will be a negotiated deal though, with adjustments and accommodations.
‘No longer certain’ “The last time round nobody could gainsay what was being done, as electoral results were being delivered,” said a senior leader of the BJP, who is now out in the cold. “Therefore the assumption was that whatever was being done was the correct thing. This time, however, that certainty is gone.”
Instead, Mr. Shah may have to yield a little, and accommodate a lot more. More than anything else, he will have to break out of his rather taciturn demeanour and have conversations across the board with partymen and women even if the exercise yields insights he may not particularly care for. More than anything else, that is the expectation in the party. Of Acche Din of another kind.