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BJP at crossroads

LK Advani displayed rare grace and dignity in defeat. He behaved in the finest democratic tradition by announcing his decision to step down as Leader of the Opposition.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | New Delhi |
May 19, 2009 12:47:11 pm

Indian politicians do not generally believe in stocktaking and holding themselves accountable. They prefer to brazen it out. Neither Jayalalithaa nor Mayawati,for instance,is willing to introspect over poll reversals,preferring to blame other factors.

LK Advani,however,displayed rare grace and dignity in defeat. He behaved in the finest democratic tradition by announcing his decision to step down as Leader of the Opposition and own moral responsibility for the BJP’s electoral setback. Advani knows that he has come to the end of his long political career of over half a century. As one of the slogans in this campaign proclaimed,”Abhi nahi,to kabhi nahi (If not now,never.).

Advani’s journey in politics began in the 1950s when,as a promising pracharak,he was assigned by the RSS to the newly-formed Jana Sangh party,which came into being as a response to the trauma of partition. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had joined the infant party slightly ahead of him. Vajpayee was the orator and the public face. Advani was more the backroom boy and invaluable organiser and assistant. But as the party grew in strength,Advani emerged from Vajpayee’s shadow to occupy a prominent position in his own right.

Advani really came into his own after he espoused the cause of building a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya in the late eighties. His Rath Yatra campaign succeeded in galvanising support for the BJP. The Ram Mandir movement boosted the strength of the BJP from two MPs in 1984 to 88 MPs in 1989. It also reinforced Advani’s own image as a Hindutva hardliner.

It was perhaps in an attempt to change this image that four years back on a visit to Pakistan,Advani praised the founder of Pakistan’s original secular spirit,and called for a re-look at Jinnah’s role in history. In the bargain,he ended up alienating the RSS. After the Jinnah fracas,Advani went for a while into semi-retirement,but was later rehabilitated.

It was but human for a man who had devoted his life to building up the party from scratch,not once but twice,(first the Jana Sangh and then the BJP) to expect that he should be given at least one shot at the prime minister’s post. Advani refused to see that at 81,he did not present the picture of a dynamic and modern candidate. But contrary to expectations,Advani ran a vigorous campaign which had the Congress running scared,after complacently assuming at the start that this election would be a walkover.

A seasoned campaigner like Advani,however,stumbled badly in hitting out personally at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,calling him “weak” and “nikamma”. He also miscalculated by not sticking his neck out to take a moral position on Varun Gandhi’s hate speeches.

Earlier,he had refused to condemn outright the hooliganism and violence of Sangh-related outfits in Mangalore and Kandhamal. Many of the hoodlums who have entered Sangh-inspired fringe organisations took the Hindutva agenda to mean minority-bashing and moral policing. Advani preferred to look the other way and failed to take a tough line against such unacceptable behaviour. And this certainly did not convey the image of the Iron Man that he wanted to project.

With Advani having indicated his desire to opt out of active politics,the BJP is at a crossroads – the fact that Advani has subsequently allowed himself to be persuaded to stay on for the time being notwithstanding. When the inevitable happens,the BJP will find itself without either of the two stalwarts who led the party from its inception,and remained its guiding lights for half a century. What direction the BJP takes post this electoral setback could well depend on who becomes Advani’s eventual successor.

Will the successor acquiesce to the RSS diktat which means promoting an agenda which is not just divisive and outdated,but increasingly unrewarding in electoral terms? Or will he have the courage to carve out a new path which projects the BJP as a responsible national party,which is an acceptable electoral ally to most other political parties?

When the BJP introspects on its defeat,some factors should be a source of concern. The party has lost in most big cities,and is no longer the first choice of the middle class and the youth. These were once the BJP’s core strengths.

Today,many die hard older BJP voters confess that their children do not seem inclined to vote for the party. There is also the very real problem of the minorities’ distrust of the party,which makes the BJP a pariah with other parties keen to harness the large Muslim vote share. Unless the BJP attempts to project itself as an inclusive outfit with forward-thinking policies,it could regress further into an insular,narrow-minded party increasingly out of sync with the electorate of the twenty-first century.

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