Events, as any serious student of history knows, often have unintended consequences. Thus the United Progressive Alliance government can breathe a sigh of relief that both Houses of Parliament supported the government’s decision to allow foreign direct investment in retail trade; similarly, parties like the Trinamul Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that opposed the government’s decision can lick their wounds. Another political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is probably hugely satisfied that while openly opposing the decision, it has actually got the decision it covertly desired. The BJP sees victory in defeat. The chief ministers of BJP-ruled states and national level leaders like Arun Jaitley have good reasons to feel happy about the outcomes of the vote in the Lok Sabha and the Upper House. The BJP has within it very strong reformist elements even though there are occasions when they cannot quite venture out into the open from their closets. The principal reason for this is the BJP’s umbilical relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which remains a very staunch swadeshi organization.
This places the BJP in a peculiar predicament in the current context. There is a general election coming in less than two years’ time; the party also has to find a leader for itself. Given these two critical factors, the reformists in the BJP cannot afford to completely alienate the RSS and other extreme elements within the sangh parivar. Reformists in the BJP now feel the absence of a strong leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who could, on very important matters, take on the full might of the RSS. The latter’s influence on the BJP is always on the increase when the BJP is out of office. The influence declines when the BJP is in government. This seesaw of influence is an integral part of the complex relationship between the BJP and its parent body based in Nagpur. The reformist elements are thus happy that the UPA has pushed through a measure the fallout of which may not be altogether popular, especially among traders, traditionally the BJP’s base in north India. Thus, the BJP, or more precisely the reformists, have reason to feel happy. They have the reform they wanted without alienating either their base or their parent — or, to give a Hindu twist to the same statement, they have their Ganges water without having to drink it.
The ambivalence of the BJP is a major symptom of a more profound problem. The ambivalence indicates that even after two decades, economic reforms have failed to gain strong roots in the country. No political party has fought to dispel the notion that reforms are invariably anti-poor. This means that no political party is willing to muster the political will to fully liberalize the economy. Reforms have become the government’s last resort — the economy’s life-support system.