The past few weeks of political upheaval in Maharashtra have two important take-aways. First, that the BJP leadership, which kept projecting itself as an “outsider” to Delhi, has perfectly adapted to the Delhi culture and, second, the BJP’s rapid Congressisation.
First, about the BJP’s Delhi-centric handling of various states. It was in 1978 that Sharad Pawar broke away from the Congress’s Vasantdada Patil government in the state to become chief minister at the age of 37. Pawar, then, belonged to Congress (Urs) which was formed by veteran Congressmen like Yashwantrao Chavan and Devaraj Urs, then Karnataka chief minister, who had left Indira Gandhi after her debacle in the post-Emergency elections. A senior minister in the Patil ministry, Pawar sensed the opportunity and grabbed power with the help of the Janata Party that also had the Jan Sangh — the earlier avatar of the BJP — and socialists together.
Unlike the Janata Party experiment, Sharad Pawar had offered a stable and efficient government in Maharashtra. However, the Janata Party experiment was a failure and Indira Gandhi was back in the 1980 elections as prime minister. The first thing she did was to dismiss the Pawar government in Maharashtra. She couldn’t tolerate the young regional leader’s challenge to her. That was Pawar’s first brush with the Centre.
The second was when Sushilkumar Shinde, Vilasrao Deshmukh and others rebelled against him after Pawar’s not-so-strong victory in the 1990 state assembly election. The revolt had the tacit support of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who wanted to clip Pawar’s wings. It served the purpose. Pawar was weakened. The third and final point of friction that Pawar had with the Congress’s central leadership was in 1991, as he took a shot at the prime ministership after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Narasimha Rao, more experienced in understanding the Delhi dynamics, out-manoeuvered Pawar.
In all this, Maharashtra always had a grudge against Delhi — that it tramples upon regional sentiments and ignores, or humiliates, regional leaders. For the Congress, it soon became the template, which was evident in the way it handled various state satraps, be it NT Rama Rao of Andhra Pradesh, Ramakrishna Hegde of Karnataka, Devi Lal of Haryana or Yashwantrao Chavan of Maharashtra. In fact, it was this insensitive, Big Brotherly attitude of the Congress that gave rise to many regional parties all over India.
The BJP’s behaviour over the past 5-6 years is the same as that of the Congress of the Eighties and Nineties. The saffron party’s approach in handling both parties, first the Shiv Sena and then the NCP, was like that of the Congress and its methods were not just unwise but politically incorrect too. The BJP didn’t even realise that being dismissive of these outfits has, in fact, resulted in the party blinding itself and offers limited elbow room, necessary in a tightly-strung political atmosphere.
This put the process of Congressisation of the BJP on the fast track, the second take-away of the just concluded saga. The only difference between the two, however, is that while it took the Congress over 60 years to earn the hatred of almost every political outfit in the country, the BJP seems to be reaching there in just around six years.
The self-goal the BJP scored in Mumbai is nothing short of spectacular. Ahead of the recent assembly elections, the BJP seemed comfortably on its way to a second term. Devendra Fadnavis was certain, it appeared, to retain his grip on the saddle. The stage was set for the continuation of saffron rule in India’s richest state. But BJP leaders’ Delhi-centric vision changed its fortune.
It began with a slew of mindless defections, a la Congress style, ahead of elections. The BJP imported a number of discredited leaders from parties hitherto labeled by it as corrupt. Most of the leaders were either from the Congress or the NCP. And some like Ajit Pawar, whom former Chief Minister Fadnavis had relentlessly targeted as someone who deserved to be in jail. Ajit Pawar was at the centre of the BJP’s attacks in this campaign. Incidentally, it was the same Ajit Pawar with whom Fadnavis later tried to form the government, displaying all the signs of hubris and brazenness reminiscent of the Congress.
Also coming into question, as of now, though in hushed tones, is the BJP’s style of functioning. The Congress had its high-command and powers to take a final decision always rested with its First Family. The BJP may not have either but there are very few individuals — probably less than a handful — involved in the final decision-making. Peeved by the seemingly unstoppable defections into the party, one very senior party functionary, clueless about the goings-on in the party recently, felt so helpless that he thought of staying away from elections.
Another common factor between the new-look BJP and the old Congress is its complete disregard towards the party’s local units. Many in the state BJP were averse to some of the things that eventually turned out to be the party’s nemesis in the current assembly elections, for example, importing various leaders from other parties or engineering defections in the NCP. But there was no one to take note of these local leaders as the Delhi leadership was busy plotting a power grab through any means possible.
This could be a paradox of our democracy. On the one hand, we have our own GOP in the Congress which is caught in a time warp and on the other is the BJP, which tries harder and harder to look different from the Congress but ends up looking more and more like it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 28, 2019 under the title ‘New look BJP, old Congress’. The writer is editor, Loksatta