What was the big story from the BJP’s silver jubilee conclave in Mumbai? On the face of it, there were two contenders — the sex scandal that claimed Sanjay Joshi, and the underlying factionalism that saw the usual mix of off-the-record statements, on-the-record denials and elder statesman-like sulks.
Yet, somehow, all this was besides the point. What was undeniable — and to the adherent, undeniably disheartening — was the sombre realisation that the past year had left the BJP bereft of two trademark qualities: certitude and self-assuredness.
As the pralaya of 2005 concludes, will a new era dawn for the BJP in the new year, with a new president taking office? It would be prudent to temper optimism. The sober assessment is that the wrenching process of evolution — ‘generational change’, as the convenient shorthand goes — will continue.
If, in 2005, the BJP slipped back, in 2006, it will need to work hard to just stay where it is. Actual movement forward appears a prospect for another day.
The BJP is now a party where nobody has a mandate but everybody has a veto. No one stakeholder can push through a purposeful agenda, but a whole variety of them — the RSS, the Atal-Advani duo, the ‘second generation’ — can scuttle rival plans.
It would be useful to look at the party’s predicament through the prism of phrases and themes deployed in Mumbai. First, of course, would be the Sanjay Joshi tapes episode.
An RSS pracharak’s sex life is not a subject of mass obsession or even interest. It is not going to win or lose the BJP too many votes. Even so, that a Sangh code — pracharaks voluntarily commit themselves to celibacy — has probably been breached is an issue that will exercise and anguish insiders.
What has not helped is that, over the past week, Sangh and party circles have been swirling with rumours of other such tapes, allegedly featuring other functionaries. In the end, the rumours may turn out to be only rumours and completely untrue. This may be just a one-off deviation.
Yet the fact that these stories have currency at all, that they are being circulated in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and intrigue cannot help morale. Individuals make mistakes, and can be punished or forgiven. What is more difficult to deal with is the idea that ‘honey traps’ may have been used as instruments of factional politics, perhaps blackmail too — even if in only one state.
At the heart of the BJP’s crisis — and the ‘cash for questions’ scandal was another manifestation of this — is a simply unacceptable quantum of moral and financial corruption. If this is the price to pay for power, many who supported the party before 1998 and continue to do so now will wonder if those six heady years were worth it.
To be told — to quote proceedings in Mumbai — that political corruption is of the Congress’ making and that the BJP’s ills are actually to be blamed on ‘‘Congress culture’’ is less than convincing. It is a reasoning that may even be described as, to use a word popular these days, stupid.
Is the difference between the Congress and the BJP, then, limited to positions on the Nehru-Gandhi family? If this is so, all talk of an alternative political tradition must surely seem a hoax. A sustained spell in government has turned the BJP into a flabby and — given the record of senior members — somewhat compromised political organism.
In many ways, as Rajnath Singh will remember, the atrophy of the party in Uttar Pradesh, after a spell in power between 1997-2002, presents a worst case precedent. That period was so intoxicating that, in the words of one Sangh old-timer in Lucknow, ‘‘even RSS workers moved from bicycles to big cars’’. Regional tragedy is now national nightmare.
The journey to BJP 2.0 cannot begin without the party subjecting itself to a rigorous detox regimen. It needs to cleanse itself of disreputable hangers-on, fixers and touts; every party has these, but in recent years the BJP has shown a special gift for attracting them. That process of dry-cleaning must be the first task for 2006.
The second party priority also figured in Mumbai, unfortunately as innuendo and private complaint — not open discussion. Frankly, the BJP’s leadership in the Lok Sabha has been found wanting. That Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were all denied the opportunity to stand for election in May 2004 is now a spectre coming back to haunt the party, parliamentary session after parliamentary session.
The differential between the quality of opposition in the Upper House and Lower House is just untenable. At some point in 2006, this imbalance will need to be redressed.
Third, confusing as this may sound, the coming 12 months will see the gradual conversion of de jure to de facto. Rajnath may be taking over as president, but he is not going to have a free hand, even if acting collectively with other contemporaries.
The old guard will still exercise a certain control, still seek to influence key decisions and policy formulations. Whether it is taking tough disciplinary measures or augmenting the party in the Lok Sabha, the Vajpayee-Advani generation is hardly likely to be the agent of change.
As such, playing transition catalyst is incumbent upon the Sangh. The BJP is looking to it searchingly. As it readies for the Pratinidhi Sabha in February, the RSS should be ready with the answers.
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