BJP: In need of reinvention

The verdict is out. The Bharatiya Janta Party has bitten the dust – the second time in five years.

Akrita Reyar The verdict is out. BJP has bitten the dust – the second time in five years. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, it was often said that the Congress did not win the election, BJP lost. The difference in seats between the two parties was slim. BJP had, at that time, slumped to 138 from its previous tally of 183 in 1999, while the Congress had grabbed 145, just sufficient to cobble an eclectic coalition that could herald them into power for the first time since Sonia Gandhi took part in active politics. The way it was…. The BJP growth trajectory is public knowledge. It started as Jan Sangh and gave a tough fight to the increasingly autocratic Indira Gandhi, but soon enough found it difficult to keep her down or out. After Bharatiya Janta Party was born in 1980, it failed to make a dent in the bastion of Delhi politics and returned to Parliament with just two seats in the 1984 elections. Then came the grand idea that captured the imagination of the nation – a Ram temple at Ayodhya. Lord Ram, is many senses, is the essence of Indian identity and life. The BJP could not have got a greater raison d`être. Millions genuinely believed that their God needed to be consecrated in his land of birth. And BJP held that promise. Whipping up emotions during Rath Yatras, which left bloody trails, the saffron party catapulted into centre stage with 89 seats in 1989. Igniting their hopes like never before to wrest power at the Centre, the BJP capitalized on a Congress that was withering without the Gandhi name. After losing the 1999 confidence motion by a single vote, the BJP won a sympathy wave and was voted into power; the party thus, at last, realized its long cherished dream and went on to complete its five-year term as a coalition head of the National Democratic Alliance. The BJP all the while positioned itself as a party with the difference; where democracy and not dynasty decided leadership. It was a party with a shrill patriotic pitch. Besides championing the cause of Ram in his home turf, it was against over-indulgence of minorities, wanted a common civil code, abolition of Article 370 in Kashmir and show that it was tough on terror etc. After the five-year period that the people gave NDA as an opportunity to fulfill some of their oft-repeated promises – there is no Ram temple, no uniform civil code, Article 370 is still around and about tackling terror – they freed Maulana Masood Azhar, who now runs terror camps in Pakistan. Besides, most of their policies on foreign affairs, economy etc pretty much resembled those of the Congress. About party discipline, Uma Bharti tore it to shreds when she walked out of the BJP meet slamming LK Advani in full public view. By 2004, much of the hype around Hindutva had fizzled out and people were again beginning to seek answers to Roti, Kapada Aur Makan. Quite out of touch with the ground sentiment, BJP launched the India Shinning campaign that cost tax payers a whopping Rs 500 crore. Stung by the irony, BJP were voted out. The way it is…. After the drubbing it received on its glitzy 2004 campaign, BJP this year went on an all-out attack mode against the Congress. Probably it took the negative element too far, with people being uncomfortable with Advani’s constant tirade about the ‘weak PM’. Not only is Dr Manmohan Singh seen as a decent man, and an astute economist, he came across as a man quite determined about what he wanted, especially after he staked his post to push the Indo-US nuclear deal through. The reality of the matter is that it was in fact the BJP that had initiated the ingenious Indo-US nuke deal. Its U-turn on a deal, which is so critical for the energy security of the country, exposed a hypocritical side that put party’s interest ahead on that of the nation’s. Then came the final nail, the Varun Gandhi vitriol, which was too nauseating even during the rhetorical times of elections. Advani, who was all the while trying to remodel himself as a moderate a la Vajpayee style (remember the Jinnah episode), again took the extreme right position when defending Varun and thus alienating the Muslim population. The defence, in addition to the fact that the minorities were already uncomfortable with the BJP, after the spate of anti-Christian attacks, did not help matters. The party then pulled the controversial Narnedra Modi in the middle of the elections as a star campaigner which confused matters. Advani was inadvertently relegated to the second position. And thus the shock defeat. The way it probably needs to be… India, today, has shown great maturity in voting for issues of governance and stability. BJP’s vote share has declined in all states except in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. The party needs to draw lessons from this. The challenge for the BJP would be to come up with some fresh thinking about what it has to offer in terms of taking the country forward. For that, it needs to get rid of poster boys, who are determined to hold on to a medieval mindset that advocates cutting people’s hands and legs. Nor is this a clash of weak and strong wrestlers. But the point here is, do we need an alternative. The answer is a clear yes. Two-party system is the most effective model in a democracy. Too many parties are like too many cooks who spoil the broth while a single party system is fraught with danger of becoming autocratic, corrupt and unaccountable. There is scope for a second national party, but it must be one that provides meaningful opposition. Not one that exploits emotive issues or wears a phony mask to carve out vote banks for itself. The way BJP has been perceived so far, it would be impossible for it to take a leftist position. If it takes a Centrist position then it would start looking like a replica of the Congress, and the people would anyways prefer the original. As a political commentator put it, there is room for a centre-right party, but not a Hindu right one. It is this space that the BJP could possibly occupy. But here too, it needs to come up with a positive, progressive and inclusive agenda and set aside its mythological baggage and all the negativity it has come to be associated with. The next question India will ask is about the programme that the party brings with it and how it would help improve the lives of the ordinary citizen. The democracy within the BJP is worth emulating. Rahul Gandhi has already taken a page from the book and organized Youth Congress elections, something that was unheard of so far. Mere jingoism and lack of substance will no longer work. If a party risks toeing such a line, it underestimates the intelligence of the people. The simple truth is that while you can fool some people some of the time, you certainly can’t fool them all the time. With a dramatic decline in its vote share, now consistently over two elections, the BJP needs to either desperately reinvent itself or face the stark possibility of losing relevance.

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