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Monday, October 25, 2021

Like Blair,like BJP?

Reorienting political parties is difficult but it can be done

Written by Dhiraj Nayyar |
May 28, 2009 12:31:54 am

The BJP may not see too many silver linings in its electoral defeat,but it may like to note that it still has marginally more MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha (116) than the Congress had in the 13th (114). And just as critics then wrote off the Congress as a political force for the near future,critics will now write off the BJP. It took the Congress only five years from that lowest point to recapture power at the Centre and an additional five to cross the 200 mark on its own. Yet,the work for the beleaguered BJP on its comeback trail may be harder than it was for the Congress. For one,by the time the next general election comes along,the BJP will have been out of power for 10 long years,a period long enough to drain

a party of its most important resources — money and people.

Also,for the BJP,the defeat in 2009 will be harder to digest and rationalise than the defeat in 2004 — the easy explanation then was anti-incumbency (NDA had won two general elections and spent six years in power). And the party ended up only seven seats behind the Congress,hardly an emphatic loss. This time round,the party has ended up 90 seats short of the Congress,a devastating result against an incumbent government it viewed as weak and incompetent. Clearly then,the party has at some point lost the pulse of the electorate. However,the BJP’s internal interpretation of how the party must respond is likely to be quite different from the liberal intelligentsia’s view which necessitates the conversion of the BJP into a moderate (Hindutva abandoned) party of the centre-right. Influential parts of the BJP and RSS may argue that being the liberal B-team of the Congress isn’t going to win the party support from either its core base or independent voters.

If the BJP does indeed choose to lurch towards its Hindu core rather than against it,its response will not be dissimilar to the response of parties elsewhere in the world who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of power,and more importantly the wrong side of majority public opinion,for a lengthy period of time.

Consider the examples of Britain’s two major parties to understand the BJP’s predicament. The liberal view of the BJP’s reinvention argues that the party should do something similar to what Tony Blair did to Labour — jettison its most abhorrent and unpopular agenda completely. Blair,in 1995,forced the Labour Party to abandon the notorious Clause IV in its constitution,which promised “common ownership” of means of production. That signalled an important break from Labour’s unpopular socialist past and made the party genuinely electable.

However,that moment was 16 long years in the making. Labour had been in opposition since it lost the 1979 general election to Margaret Thatcher. It was obvious to all (except the party itself) that Labour’s brand of politics and governance had lost all legitimacy amidst the economic stagnation (and the display of party-backed trade union power) in the ‘70s and the Conservatives had caught the pulse of the people with a promise to free the economy from state control and bust the unions. Instead of rethinking its ideology,Labour’s initial response in opposition was to lurch further to the left,most notably under the ineffectual leadership of Michael Foot in the ‘80s. That met with more electoral humiliation in the two general elections that followed. Then came the somewhat modernising Neil Kinnock,but despite bringing the party closer to the centre,he lost the 1992 general election to John Major’s fairly incompetent Conservative Party. People were still uncertain about Labour’s socialist agenda — and only the final repeal of Clause IV changed that perception for good. But it took time.

The Conservatives in the UK had a similar experience after they lost power to Labour in 1997. At some point,during their 18 years in power,they lost touch with the fact that people had tired of rightwing Thatcherism and wanted something different. The removal of Thatcher as PM in 1991 was just tokenism in the name of change as the party had clearly not modified its ideology. The Tories were,not surprisingly,humiliated in 1997. In response,they lurched further to the right in their initial years in opposition. That made the Tories more unelectable and they were handed successive defeats in 2001 and 2005 by Blair,riding over his own unpopularity after the Iraq debacle.

It has taken more than a decade for the emergence of the more moderate and youthful David Cameron to make the Conservative Party fit for a possible election win in 2010 — but in order to gain credibility with the voters,the Conservatives have dropped their hardline rightwing agenda (which lost its relevance in the early ‘90s) and now sound

almost to the left of Labour.

In the US,John McCain,despite being fully aware of the unpopularity of the Bush-era Republican Party’s rightwing agenda,made the fatal error of lurching to the right (his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate was the final straw) when the people of the US were looking for a change in the opposite direction. McCain was never a hardliner,but his example shows that when parties become unpopular,their initial reaction is to seek refuge in their core constituencies — it’s just that core constituencies rarely elect parties to majorities.

So,experience from elsewhere suggests that it may take more than a while for the BJP to actually move convincingly to the centre-right,from their inherently rightwing agenda. And experience from elsewhere also suggests that to actually convince people about its changed agenda,the BJP will need to,at some point,have a dramatic Blair-Clause IV type of moment. This will require a clear change in its manifesto,goals and relationship with the RSS,not just rhetorical liberal references from one or two leaders. Perhaps the most difficult of all will be to severe the umbilical cord with the RSS; that is akin to asking the Congress to drop the Nehru-Gandhi family,and will not happen any time soon,if ever. However,it is in the interest of competitive democracy that the BJP form a credible alternative to the Congress in 2014,whatever the actual outcome.

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