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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Making haste slowly

BJP can’t exploit its political chances till it puts its defences in order.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
September 15, 2011 3:26:11 am

The shameless drift of the UPA has certainly buoyed the BJP. But the jury is still out on whether the party can fully come to terms with the obdurate realities of Indian politics. At the moment,the BJP’s strategy seems to be this. The UPA is giving such a huge target that no matter where the BJP shoots,it can hit the bull’s eye. But there is a real danger in indiscriminate shooting if your own defences are not in order.

The fact of Indian politics is that much of it is local. There are moments of crisis,where a party can hope to mobilise on a national wave. But we are not at that moment yet. The BJP’s ground-up strategy looks as shaky as that of the Congress. The BJP’s weakness in Uttar Pradesh is still a huge handicap. Nationally,it is competitive in probably close to 200-odd seats. It will have to peak simultaneously in all of those to be a serious contender. A national campaign may energise some of its cadres,but if it is not matched by local depth,the party may still remain a flotsam on the top.

The second challenge is leadership. L.K. Advani has tried to seize the initiative by calling for an anti-corruption rath yatra. But the dividends of such a move are doubtful. The BJP’s own anti-corruption credibility is by no means unimpeachable. Advani has often been better on vague rhetoric than on governance details. In the current atmosphere this can be politically counter-productive. Instead of contributing to a more nuanced debate,the BJP will plunge headlong into acceding to over-the-top demands from civil society. There may also be an outbidding war in the BJP. Varun Gandhi’s pre-emptive interventions,coming out in support of Anna Hazare before anyone else,and his rather pointed question on the BJP’s silence on the Reliance CAG report,suggest potential for embarrassment from within.

But Advani is also,at this moment,a symbol of the BJP’s governance failures and ideological confusions. In the last decade,his three singular contributions to the party have been to make its talk about internal security look hollow,to veer the party away from being a force of economic reform,and to mistime political interventions. The cash-for-votes scam will yield political dividend only if there are startling new revelations. It is a slender basis for political mobilisation.

BJP supporters are enthused by Narendra Modi. Even his detractors grant him this. He has shown great administrative acumen. In an age of indecisive mendacity,he satisfies yearnings for a leader who can decide. He has a mass base,to the extent that any politician in India does. In principle,the courts can still embarrass Modi. But the fact that the Supreme Court referred a potentially embarrassing case back to the lower court has been a victory of sorts for him.

But too strong a projection of Modi complicates issues for the BJP. The BJP’s hardcore supporters tend to be an oddly apolitical bunch. Their own sense of certainty makes them tone deaf to the circumstances of politics. Politics at a national level requires a capacity to be able to negotiate diverse constituencies. Hazariprasad Dwivedi’s sage observation that “Bharat ka lok nayak wohi ho sakta hai jo samanvaye kar sake” remains as true now as ever. Semi-presidential politics can work at the state level. But it does not automatically translate into the capacity to inspire confidence of a wide range of political sensibilities and allies. This is generally a challenge in a large parliamentary system. This is why state leaders are unable to transcend their states. And the BJP should not descend into the self-defeating narcissism of thinking that it does not need a strong NDA. Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the BJP an unparalleled advantage in part because his persona,for all its failings,could project a credible liberality. Machiavelli warned that we should esteem those who are liberal,not those who decide to become one. This warning still hovers over any assessment of Modi. But he will be more acceptable if he is ensconced in a structure that is more reassuringly liberal than he is.

Modi is,however,a shrewder politician than his supporters are. His new letter is less about making a play in national politics than it is about consolidating Gujarat. One ought not to exaggerate the significance of recent elections in Gandhinagar. But no one in power for long durations is invulnerable. His supporters argue that his refusal to tender an unequivocal apology for the 2002 riots stems from an uncertainty over what the legal ramifications of even a political statement might be. But the truth is that there was fairly widespread tacit,if not explicit,ideological approval of the riots. The issue is not whether Modi apologises,but whether Gujarat can have a genuinely candid conversation about that horrendous episode. He has managed such an identification of himself and Gujarat,that at this juncture he cannot be seen to apologise without betraying Gujarat. The very context that gives him his political strength makes reinvention difficult. This does not rule out his prospects entirely. The more dysfunctional democracy becomes,the more yearning there will be for figures like him. But his supporters are underestimating his challenges.

Modi’s strategy is to change the subject: concentrate on economic success. But the paradox at the national level is two-fold. While the BJP wants to own Gujarat’s economic success,it is for some reason strangely reluctant to press for key reforms and become a party of aspiration rather than a party of mere opposition. But the more Modi is in the limelight,the less the conversation will be about reform. Unfortunately,there are still enough political elements in both the BJP and the Congress who want to make national politics a debilitating debate over secularism. Both may yet oblige each other. But it is probably more in the BJP’s interest to not fall into the trap.

There are three big pluses for the BJP. First,the way it handled the Karnataka crisis by using internal party democracy showed a degree of institutional maturity. Such institutional invention might be the best way of coping with a leadership crisis. Second,the UPA is determined to run the economy into the ground; inflation will remain a potentially explosive source of discontent. Third,anti-Congressism now has a genuine momentum. But the BJP will have to avoid a politics where each leader upstages another,where it indiscriminately latches onto agendas it will regret and where it underestimates its need to build broad coalitions. It needs to make haste slowly.

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

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