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Bharatiya Janata Parties

BJP is,for all practical purposes,a collection of six or seven state parties

BJP is,for all practical purposes,a collection of six or seven state parties

There is a remark attributed,perhaps apocryphally,to Arun Jaitley to the effect that most Indian politics is mathematics. As a piece of political analysis,this remark is insightful. Indian politics is,in this view,not driven by ideology or charisma. It is constituted by the mundane activity of stitching together narrow interest-driven coalitions. And electoral fortunes,for the most part,do not turn on massive changes induced by immense persuasiveness of candidates. They turn on small swings,and contingent management of interests.

But if this political analysis is taken too literally,it can become spectacularly self-defeating. It can make politics a passive waiting game. As the BJP prepares for its national executive meeting,its strategy,if it has one,is to deal largely in irrational numbers. It has little presence in Uttar Pradesh; it is increasingly vulnerable in states it has ruled for a while. Since the last election,it has not expanded its presence. Elections are about the ability to project credibility. On law and order,Chhattisgarh’s Maoists sent a reminder of how inept its anti-Maoist strategy has been. On corruption,Karnataka is fast turning into UP,with government officials fearing for their lives. On the economy,the BJP has chosen the strategy of avoidance. Instead of giving an alternative to old-fashioned caste politics,it has reproduced the worst versions. In a Parliament session where it could have had the government on the mat for one of the most spectacular economic mess-ups in the last two decades,it simply used up its powder for cartoons and cricket. The most polished in the BJP cannot keep its resentful illiberalism long suppressed. It is simply waiting for the Congress to make more errors to give it a lift. To make matters worse,internally,the BJP itself is faced with a series of simultaneous equations it

cannot solve.

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Most commentators assume that the BJP’s central dilemma is between Hindutva and a more centrist position. But,arguably,this is not its biggest dilemma. It will never be able to persuade die-hard antagonists. Regrettable as it might be,it can probably get away with a game of calculated ambiguity,so long as it is not deeply polarising or violent. Its central dilemma is that it does not understand what federalism means for Indian politics.

If politics has become genuinely federal,then there are implications for how political parties are organised. In an ideal situation,state-level leaders and units have to believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between them and the central leadership. Association with the central leadership enhances the prospects of local units. But if the central leadership does not significantly add to the state units’ prospects,or worse still,is a liability,then the central high command has little authority over the states. On the other hand,a party composed entirely of state units can have no coherence at the centre,and cannot project itself as a national party. This is the basic structural dilemma facing the BJP. It is,for all practical purposes,a collection of six or seven state parties. The central leadership,such as it is,brings little gain to these different leaders. To compound problems,this leadership,unsure of its own foundations,is liable to meddle in local factional fights. The BJP’s problem is that it has no centre,of any kind,that is an asset to states.

To keep the illusion that it has a centre,the BJP has only one of two strategies. One is defer to its traditional centre,the RSS. The problem is that this is a vanishing bet. The RSS is important in new and peripheral areas. But in its core base,the RSS is a diminished force. It has simply not understood the profound changes that have swept modern India; the average age of its cadres does not reflect new India. The RSS exercises influence not because it has genuine power,but because there is no alternative centre.

Since L.K. Advani’s myopic misjudgements,the BJP has been groping for a leader. There is a great clamour for Narendra Modi. Even if we grant him his administrative acumen,his ability to give the BJP a direction is limited. Despite the reprieve he has got in the court,he is still a polarising figure. He will have to come up with some spectacularly convincing gesture of contrition to be acceptable to BJP’s potential allies. There is also a curious and potentially fatal omission in his strategy to make himself nationally acceptable. His communication blitzkrieg has something oddly technocratic about it. He is still persona non grata in Bihar. He did not take any special initiative in campaigning in UP. If he is a potential prime minister,his energies would have been directed to mass engagement across the country. But that is exactly the one thing he is not doing.


The only long-term solution for political parties is to have serious institutional reform in how they are run. But no incumbent leader wants this. And there is the paradox that a leader must first acquire authority to do this within current institutional rules. It is said,with some justification,that any party that wins in India will look a bit like the Congress. But the real issue is,which Congress: the idea or its debased version?

At the moment,the BJP is looking more like the debased version: it matches the Congress’s petty-mindedness with its own display of small egos,the Congress’s corruption with it own,the Congress’s inept economics with its own economic mendacity,the Congress’s foul-ups on federalism with its own brand of centralisation,the Congress’s lack of honesty and self-critical culture with its own intellectual closures. We can debate structural issues to death. The BJP will get a lot of advice from its faithful on what to do. But the harder issue to come to terms with is this: there is a kind of inchoate lack of will that characterises the party; it is as if it has no sincere ambitions left. Much of its leadership is doing what it does,not because it sees a point to it,but because it does not have anything else to do. This is an ultimate kind of nihilism,politics as casual play,increasingly disconnected with everything around it. The real ailment gripping all parties is a kind of unthinking casualness. There is no sense of seriousness about the great human drama unfolding in contemporary India; no sense of the demands of this historical moment. Mostly what you are getting by way of politics is vacuous manipulation. And there is a real danger that despite propitious circumstances,the BJP may will itself to zero gains.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,

First published on: 22-05-2012 at 02:34 IST
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