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Friday, April 16, 2021

The politics of hurt

The theme of victimhood is costing the BJP

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
April 15, 2009 1:35:15 am

If you were looking for unexpected insight into the troubles of the BJP,you need look no further than L.K. Advani’s response to the spirited,and on-the-mark,attack on him by Manmohan Singh. His response was a mendacious distinction to the effect that while his attacks on Singh were not personal,Singh’s attacks on him were. But more significant was his claim that he was “hurt”. In using this one little word,Advani unconsciously revealed more about himself and his party: both thrive on a constant play on the theme of victimhood. The minute the Congress ratcheted up the heat on Advani’s record,he retreated into playing victim. Try as much as it can,the BJP struggles to rise above a discourse of victimhood,one that has increasingly less resonance.

In a way Modi’s barb about “buddhi” Congress was also an unconscious tribute to the Congress. It did not occur to Modi to ask why,despite all its problems,the Congress has had such longevity and staying power. Such self-reflection would have been deeply out of character. But more importantly,it leads the BJP to misdiagnose the political challenge its faces. The core challenge can be described as this. The Congress has a lot to answer for. Often those sympathetic to it feel the most let down and betrayed by its hypocrisies,ineptitude and weakness. But most of those who pillory the Congress do so with the sense that the Congress does not live up to its own best ideals. They attack the Congress in the name of an idea of what the Congress should be. It is the ideal of the Congress that makes its realities look sordid. But the same cannot be said of the BJP. The dominant idea that holds it together is not an affirmative one; it is a negative one,powered largely by a politics of resentment. It has no high ideals,only grudges to nurse.

There was a historical moment when in the late 20th century those grudges had some political traction. There is no doubt that the BJP,for a brief moment,looked empowered by a range of constituencies feeling anxious. The critique of pseudo-secularism had real resonance,the promise of tapping into an Indian cultural ethos seemed to be alluring to some,the sheer idealism (even if often misplaced) of its cadres seemed a refreshing change from the cynicism Congress years brought,and the relative newness of its leadership seemed to offer a plausible alternative. But all of this has for the moment dissipated.

First,the BJP’s critique of pseudo-secularism itself became obsolete because of the shifts in the ground realities of Indian politics,particularly the transformation in Muslim politics. But more importantly,it could not dissociate that critique from a politics of hate. At the state level,Gujarat,Karnataka,Orissa and even Rajasthan,there is little doubt that the BJP’s grassroots tactics are deeply polarising,if Mangalore and Kandhamal are harbingers of what BJP politics can bring. And the BJP’s response to them is still the discourse of “justified” revenge.

Its promise of tapping into an Indian intellectual tradition was not entirely off the mark. But its concrete articulation was laughable in its results. It produced virtually nothing of lasting intellectual interest,and was deeply embarrassing to the tradition in whose name it claimed to speak. Its attempt to colonise Hinduism ended up diminishing it. Post-Mandal,it had benefited from people looking for a party ready to articulate a genuinely anti-casteist position. But its caste politics ended up looking like any other party’s. There was a generation attracted to the idealism of the RSS. But,as the RSS acknowledges more than the BJP,it has a challenge mobilising well-meaning young people. Instead of dedicated idealists,the BJP has now empowered a whole range of lumpen elements that make some nostalgic for the RSS of the old. It is not an accident that even the RSS is more lukewarm to the BJP. Power of course sullies the reputation of the best of politicians; and the BJP was no exception.

There is of course the hope that the BJP will settle into a right of centre party in broadly economic terms. But there is no evidence of this. Even if we grant Modi substantial credit for Gujarat’s economic success,it is not a nationally replicable model. Its core is not an ideology but an efficient authoritarianism. We may clamour for it,but let us not call it ideology. After Vajpayee,it has consistently had a leadership vacuum. If one measure of the longevity of a party is its ability to attract the next generation,the brute fact is that the BJP does less well than the Congress. Modi is the obvious face of the next generation in the party. But the baggage he carries,and never fails to remind one of,will place limits on his possibilities,unless there is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. But it is more likely that all the others in the second tier of the BJP,who with the exception of Shivraj Singh Chauhan,have no base. And as weak leaders most of them are likely to gang up against someone capable of wielding real power over them. One sign in the Congress’s favour is that in the age group thirties and forties,it has a more plausible cast of characters than the BJP.

Advani was right in one sense. Singh attacked him personally. But what was meant for him could have easily been applied to the party. Its biggest ideological asset is to convert strength into weakness. Its entire politics was constructed around the majority as a helpless victim,unable to stand up for itself. In a way,this demeaned most Hindus even more than it demeaned the BJP’s opponents. But its problem is that without that “hurt” factor nothing makes it distinctive. So it has to once in a while keep reverting to it. Why else would a supposed strongman like Modi be so upset if someone simply pointed out that internal communalism is a serious danger to India?

Electoral fortunes depend on a lot of things. But the very longevity of the Congress is a sign that there is something about it that is worth salvaging. But all that remains of the BJP is a long sulk,one that will haunt it even when it is in power. A party whose leader is so quickly “hurt” is a party with no foundations.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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