The resistible rise of Modi

BJP’s troubles are set to multiply: it will either continue to suffer from a leadership problem or lose more allies

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Published: June 21, 2012 3:43:17 am

BJP’s troubles are set to multiply: it will either continue to suffer from a leadership problem or lose more allies

In the post-Bofors context,the BJP had made a name for itself against a corrupt Congress: it was clean,it was a party “with a difference”. After six years at the Centre and at the helm of many state governments,this myth has imploded. Today,even as the Sangh Parivar supports the Anna Hazare movement,its own political wing is struggling with scores of serious cases of misdemeanour,including that of businessman Anshuman Mishra and former Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa,not to say anything of the induction of former BSP leader Babu Singh Kushwaha whom the BJP has previously denounced as “tainted”.

But this is nothing compared to the development of a much more serious disease,by RSS standards — the rise of indiscipline. In February,after leaving the BJP branch of Himachal Pradesh,rebels led by four-time MP Maheshwar Singh announced the formation of a new political outfit named Himachal Pradesh Lokhit Party (HPLP). Last month,in Rajasthan,Gulab Chand Kataria announced a yatra to protest Congress governance in the state. The state party leader,Vasundhara Raje,however,thought that only she could convene a yatra. Having had her authority challenged,Raje complained to BJP President Nitin Gadkari,threatened to resign,and had 52 of 78 MLAs back her. And now,BJP CMs are congratulating Pranab Mukherjee for the strong chance that he may be president,even though P.A. Sangma may be their official candidate.

There is nothing new in factional fights at the state level — Virendra Kumar Sakhlecha,Kailash Joshi and Sunder Lal Patwa were similarly at loggerheads in Madhya Pradesh,as were Kalraj Mishra,Lalji Tandon and Kalyan Singh in UP. But this time,factionalism reflects a crisis of leadership at the top level — state leaders behave in such a manner because they do not respect their leaders,including the party president,Nitin Gadkari. In fact,one has to go back to the struggle between Balraj Madhok and the Vajpayee-Advani duo in the late 1960s-early 1970s to find a similar crisis of authority and similar disputes at the highest level of the decision-making process.

For four decades,from the early 1970s until the 2009 election,the Jan Sangh and then the BJP benefited from the exceptional domination of two leaders — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani — who not only alternated in power at the helm of both parties in a perfectly harmonious way,but who could also project two complementary faces,one moderate and one radical, usually with the full support of the RSS.

The defeat of Advani’s BJP in 2009 marked the end of this cycle. Not only because Vajpayee was now out of the picture,but also because the RSS asked Advani to step down in a rather unceremonious way — and he resisted. Anxious to restore the party’s fundamentals,the Nagpur-based RSS leaders imposed Gadkari,who has no other source of legitimacy.

After setbacks such as the UP elections,Gadkari was bound to be attacked by rivals. Advani,who skipped the party rally that followed the national executive meeting this month,wrote a bitter post on his blog and attacked Gadkari for undermining the party’s campaign against corruption. Narendra Modi,who is a strong contender for the post of prime minister in 2014,also turned on Gadkari. He demanded that Sanjay Joshi be eased out from the party’s national executive,and threatened to skip the executive council if this was not done. Few BJP presidents had been blackmailed that way before — and Modi won.

Indeed,now the BJP has become a party with a difference,and a big one — it has no leader worth the name. Such a situation cannot last for long when the general elections are round the corner. Modi may well try to fill that vacuum,seemingly the most popular among the Indian urban middle class,which is not that concerned with democracy but wants growth. Large sections of the corporate sector are prepared to fund him. He may not be the preferred choice of senior RSS workers who believe in organisation above ego,but their clout was limited even in 2007,when he won in Gujarat for the second time. In the 21st century,elections are not won by swayamsevaks in khaki shorts canvassing door to door,they are fought the populist way by leaders benefiting from the needed media exposure — and money.

To counter Modi,a coalition may take shape across the board,gathering together his opponents in the BJP and in the rest of the Sangh Parivar. This irregular coalition may support Gadkari,Advani or someone else of their choice as prime-ministerial candidate in 2014,knowing that none of them could give a decisive fight. To see whether his rise is resistible,we may have to wait for the Gujarat elections. Are Indian voters — disillusioned by the Congress and others of the political class,and affected by the economic slump — willing to turn to an authoritarian and inegalitarian administration?

Either way,the BJP’s troubles are set to multiply. It will either continue to suffer from a leadership problem or lose more allies. The NDA has shrunk from 17 parties to seven since the late 1990s. And the selection of Modi as a candidate for prime ministership would alienate more allies,including the JD(U) — which is already supporting Mukherjee for the post of president. The disintegration of the NDA,if it continues,will accelerate the formation of a third front under the aegis of regional parties like the JD(U),Nitish Kumar being a credible candidate for PM himself. This is the scenario that may unfold even if Modi is not the BJP’s chosen leader,given the steady rise of state parties at the expense of the national parties over the last 20 years.

Jaffrelot,co-editor of ‘Muslims in Indian Cities’,is a senior research fellow at CERI,Sciences Po,Paris and professor of Indian politics and society at the King’s India Institute,London

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