| Trading secrets
A civilized country is one where people don’t have to waste their time on politics. — Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, now looking forward to another term in office, can with some justification claim some credit for the subtle change of emphasis in the public projection of the BJP. This change was obvious in the way the election campaign was orchestrated in the three states which the BJP won from the Congress at the beginning of this month. Gone was the trumpeting of Hindutva and the Ram mandir despite the presence, as the chief ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh, of Uma Bharati, the fire- eater of the party who had egged the crowd on to bring down the Babri Masjid about a decade ago. The BJP election campaign revolved around issues of development and governance. Ideology was put on the backburner as election managers like Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan, armed with computers and detailed electoral rolls, did the number-crunching and concentrated on ground realities. To win the elections, the BJP, in a deliberate move, took its ideology out of its politics.
This change has been long in the making, with Vajpayee as its architect. He first created a distance between the government and the sangh parivar, and then between the BJP and the more extreme elements of the parivar. He made it clear that his government was committed to economic reforms and had no time for the nonsense propagated by the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch. It was clear from his policies and his public pronouncements that issues like the Ram mandir in Ayodhya were not on his list of priorities. This shift was largely determined by the reality of running a coalition government. It would not have been possible to hold together a gimcrack coalition like the National Democratic Alliance on the basis of a programme driven by religion and communalism. The pressures of leading a coalition and being in office had dictated changes within the BJP and in its priorities.
The conventional wisdom about these changes is that they feature a fundamental and permanent change in the BJP’s approach to politics and India’s problems. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the BJP has abandoned its core ideology of Hindu majoritarianism and Muslim hatred. Office, it is argued, has tamed the BJP. There is not enough evidence to quite support this reading of affairs. It will be some time before the Gujarat pogrom can disappear from public memory. The shadow of Narendra Modi as an important BJP leader looms large over whatever the BJP does and over whatever pose the BJP adopts.
It will be prudent, on the basis of current performance, to take a more nuanced view of the BJP’s tactical position. The BJP has not abandoned Hindutva, which remains its last resort of popular mobilization. This ace need not be played at all times. At other times, other cards not overlaid by any obviously tainted ideology can be used to win elections against an opponent that has no cards to play at all. It can be said with a degree of pathos that a weak and directionless Congress is the best safeguard against BJP’s Hindu fundamentalism. Against a weak Congress, the BJP can always claim the middle ground of Indian politics and pretend to be a better and more reliable version of the Congress. In a political environment that is not in its favour, it can always fall back on its core ideology.
The parallel is striking with the other cadre-based and equally fundamentalist (on a different ideological programme) party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). If the BJP’s road to power was through a rabble-rousing ratha yatra, destruction of a mosque and violence, the CPI(M)’s journey to Writers’ Buildings was prefaced by street-fighting, destruction of government property on a large scale and violence. To this the CPI(M) added an outstanding election machinery, which is also something the BJP has picked up, as the recent assembly elections have amply demonstrated.
But the more important parallel lies elsewhere. The BJP and the CPI(M) have both shed their militant image. The CPI(M) has shed its fundamentalist opposition to capitalism, and now appears as a middle-of-the-road party, eager to woo investment and befriend capitalists. The CPI(M) is as pro-reforms as the BJP, as pro-governance as its saffron rival and as keen to project itself as the natural party for office and government. Both parties have made serious attempts to rein in their more extreme and irresponsible front organizations — the trade unions in the case of CPI(M) and the Bajrang Dal et al for the BJP. It should surprise nobody that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee counts Vajpayee and Advani among his supporters. Similarly, it should not be a surprise if both the CPI(M) and the BJP fall back on their old ways when circumstances change and the occasion so demands.
As the BJP gains respectability and comes to be recognized as a party that is responsible, it will win new friends. There will be enough people around to jump on the saffron bandwagon, which is on a roll. Unknown virtues will be discovered in the BJP and its ideology. More people will begin to identify India with “Hindu”. Here, too, the BJP will be on a path prepared by the CPI(M). As the left has gained dominance, people previously known to be hostile to communists have made friends with them, sought office under state patronage and even begun to spout the CPI(M) version of Marxism. Dissent comes with great difficulty to people on the make. In New Delhi and in Calcutta, winning friends and influencing people are the buzzwords.
Where does that leave India’s most endangered species — the independent and rational men and women, unwilling to be lured by politics, power and patronage' The answer to that question might well prove to be the basis of the claim that India is still a civilized society. They will have to prove that they are willing to stand up and be counted. Hic Rhodus, hic salta: here is the rose, dance here.