A Party in Search of an Auspicious President

With Advani back at the helm of the BJP, the long expected reorganisation of the party has finally begun. Advani has started its third presidential term by paying a highly symbolic visit to the RSS headquarters at Nagpur and accusing the Congress of ‘appeasing’ the Left and playing with the country’s security. Another old war horse of the BJP, Madan Lal Khurana is also likely to end his gubernatorial sojourn in Rajasthan and return to Delhi to revive the party’s sagging fortunes in the capital.

In the aftermath of the Lok Sabha poll debacle the party top brass has periodically been going into an introspective huddle, but nothing definitive seemed to have emerged so far from such soul-searching exercises. Introspection apart, during the last six months the party also launched at least four high-profile campaigns – the anti-Sonia crusade, the tirade against tainted ministers, the tiranga yatra and the Savarkar satyagraha. All of them began with a promising bang but ended with a rather pitiable whimper. And now the Maharashtra election results have signalled that there is no early end to the BJP’s bad patch. In such a situation, what other option did the BJP really have other than turning once again to Mr. Advani!

The BJP’s present phase can perhaps be compared to the crisis the Congress faced for much of the 1990s. Nothing seemed to be going right for the Congress as the party kept tumbling from one poll debacle to another. Like the BJP experimenting with its string of presidents from Murli Manohar Joshi and Jana Krishnamurthy to Bangaru Laxman and Venkaiah Naidu, the Congress too spent not a few years under Narsimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri. But at the end of the day just as the Congress went back to Sonia the saviour, the BJP too has now returned to Advani the charioteer.

But even under Sonia Gandhi, the Congress has experienced little positive revival – witness Bihar and UP, and now Maharashtra. If the Congress has come back to power at the Centre, it has essentially been by default as the BJP lost ground after Gujarat and had to pay the price for the deepening agrarian crisis. It now remains to be seen what Advani can deliver for his crisis-ridden party. Those who are expecting Advani to rework the aura of his Ayodhya campaign would do well to remember that it was Advani who had scripted the ‘feel-good’ fiasco and the Bharat Uday yatra he undertook during the last elections only helped illustrate the BJP’s fading fortunes.

It is true that Advani’s has been the biggest contribution to the phenomenal rise of the BJP in the post-1977 era. The BJP has so far passed through two crucial phases in its evolution. In the first phase Advani led it from the front, making the most of a favourable national and international climate to secure a powerful identity for the party and set an agenda for national politics that was tailormade for the BJP’s growth and consolidation. In the second phase his role was more of a backseat driver or at times that of a co-pilot, enabling the BJP to forge a coalition and return to power for a full term after being pulled down prematurely in the first attempt.

But the BJP’s otherwise smooth rise has been punctuated by two major jerks causing countrywide convulsions, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and more recently the Gujarat genocide. The BJP has definitely had to pay a big price for these two chapters; after Ayodhya the party has never really been able to retrieve its position in UP even though it did manage to share power with the BSP a couple of times, and now following Gujarat the party finds itself weakened in its earlier stronghold of western India. And beyond its traditional pockets, the party has also had to suffer quite heavily in all its potential growth regions except Karnataka.

Some friends of the BJP would like to see it grow as a robust rightwing party avoiding ‘aberrations’ like Ayodhya and Gujarat.  Well, for the BJP Ayodhya and Gujarat are not aberrations, but major milestones, and the ideology of Hindutva is bound to propel it periodically to more such milestones. When the BJP talks of returning to its ideological moorings, it talks not merely of more market and less government, an agenda that all governments have been pursuing for at least the last two decades, but precisely about more Ayodhyas and more Gujarats that give the BJP its ideological fervour. India has so far rejected this ideology, but the RSS cannot be expected to give up so easily.