The wonder is not that the Bharatiya Janata Party anointed Pramod Muthalik for the Lok Sabha, but that it was in such a hurry to excommunicate him with bell, book and candle. Whatever their internal equations, the Sri Ram Sene leader (like the Bajrang Dal’s Dara Singh or the Hooghly-born Swami Aseemanand) represents just the kind of rabid orthodoxy that the sangh parivar’s sadhvis and sanghachalaks would like to force on people. But the urge to realize the heady Abki Baar Modi Sarkar slogan is driving a party that was historically noted for its rigid ideology and iron discipline to stoop to concessions and compromises that are usually associated with the Congress.
This is what Jaswant Singh meant when he lamented encroachment by the nakli BJP. The spectacle of hordes of film stars, retired military and civil service officers, journalists and businessmen, as well as former and sitting legislators from parties across the political board, clambering aboard what they see as the winning bandwagon further confirms the opportunism that is the principal concomitant of success in India. One also sees it in the recklessness with which the Trinamul Congress is mopping up celebrities on the smaller stage of West Bengal politics. But there is a qualitative difference. Trinamul has no particular philosophy to endorse or oppose. Persons of goodwill without a specific ideological commitment can go along with its leader’s maa, mati, manush slogan and hostility to the Left. That is not so with the BJP. Hence the enigma of the zeal with which it is courting and embracing people who were its bitter critics until only the other day.
No one is surprised if defectors of all hues cluster around the Congress because, traditionally, it has been an umbrella organization providing refuge to every conceivable shade of opinion under the Indian sun. Indira Gandhi even tried to exploit this variety by claiming at one time India didn’t need a separate Opposition. It was there in the Congress ranks. Nor would departures from the Congress fold have occasioned surprise, for malcontents have always splintered off, at least five dissidents becoming prime minister. But the BJP’s distinctive identity has always stood in the way of such movement with only a few bizarre instances of cross-border politics. N.C. Chatterjee, the Hindu Mahasabha’s founder, was elected to the Lok Sabha with Left support. One used to hear somewhat feeble (because few remembered him in the Hindi heartland) cries of “Syama Prasad Mookerjee ki jai!” at Jana Sangh meetings in north India: he founded the BJP’s parent organization after a stint as Jawaharlal Nehru’s industry and supply minister. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam’s career was equally erratic. Born and raised in the womb of the Communist Party of India, he became a prominent Congressman and worked as a junior minister under P.V. Narasimha Rao before seeing the light when Atal Bihari Vajpayee rewarded him with a more important portfolio in the National Democratic Alliance government.
These are special cases involving high-profile politicians who, it might be said, needed the party less than the party needed them. They are the political equivalent of the social luminary who can sit where he likes at table for that place immediately becomes the head. But that can hardly be said of Vidyut Baran Mahato, the sitting Jharkhand Mukti Morcha legislator who reportedly bargained so secretively over his loyalty that even the assembly Speaker was taken by surprise when his new BJP colours were unfurled. Mahato wouldn’t even glance at the BJP bird in the bush until he had the Jamshedpur nomination in hand. His switch appears to be part of a former Jharkhand chief minister’s complicated manoeuvre to oust the current chief minister. The JMM and BJP labels are too easily interchangeable in this game of expediency to be more than badges of convenience. Similarly, the abrupt transformation of a sitting Congress MP, Satpal Maharaj, into a BJP candidate is expected to lead to regime change in Uttarakhand.
In Barmer the party might try to rationalize the choice of Sonaram Choudhary by pleading he is a Jat and Jats predominate in the constituency whereas Jaswant Singh belongs to the minority Rajput community. That would indicate the BJP has abandoned its high-minded principles to play vote-bank politics with a vengeance. Given Choudhary’s inconsistency on relocating the Barmer refinery, it also indicates the party no longer sets any store by the clean record that sets Jaswant Singh apart from the rest in this murky game. As a three-time Congress MP who was vigorously attacking the BJP until recently, Choudhary can hardly pose as a credible champion of Hindu nationalism. It might be comforting to conclude from this that the BJP has mellowed. But that would be contrary to how the new leadership is seen.
It has been reiterated that the word, Hindutva, is never once uttered. But Murli Manohar Joshi wouldn’t have been bundled out of Varanasi if Narendra Modi hadn’t craved the particular odour of sanctity that Vadodara, his other constituency, can’t give him. Hindutva may not be mentioned, but its spirit permeates this election, forcing rivals into competitive displays of religiosity — Arvind Kejriwal plunging into the Ganges before setting out temple-hopping and even Sonia Gandhi inappropriately smearing her forehead with vermilion. If the BJP does want to retain the moderate image that characterized Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, it cannot do better than promote politicians like L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh, whose commitment to the Hindu identity is tempered by their inclusive nationalism.
Despite the sophistry of insiders with a ready theological justification for the most mundane tactics, that does not appear to be the aim. The attempt is to rope in as many soldiers of fortune who can help to garner Lok Sabha seats but can be counted on not to interfere with policy so long as their price is paid. Such cynical manipulation also allows party operators — Rajnath Singh, Vasundhara Raje and others — to settle old scores. Harish Meena, the senior police officer who lost his job because of BJP complaints and whose brother is a minister at the Centre, is as unlikely a saffron warrior as Allahabad’s Shyama Charan Gupta who was “not even a member of the BJP” when he was nominated, according to Ram Raksha Dwivedi, the party’s district president. The veteran Kesri Nath Tripathi, who was earlier given the ticket and found himself left high and dry when it was suddenly snatched away, was categorical that not only had Gupta not joined the BJP, he had “not resigned from the Samajwadi Party.” All that the party’s Allahabad city chief, Shashi Varshneya, would say by way of explanation was “Please don’t ask me how and why it has happened.” That hint of mystery recalled Sushma Swaraj’s suspicion — loyally slapped down by Arun Jaitley — that it wasn’t the party’s central election committee that rejected Jaswant Singh.
His is not the only denial that defies logic. Advani has been banished to Gandhinagar though Kailash Joshi vacated the Bhopal seat for him. Rajendrasinh Rana, elected to the Lok Sabha on a BJP ticket five times, attributes his exclusion to “vindictiveness”. Uttar Pradesh’s Domariyaganj constituency was bestowed on the sitting Congress MP, Jagdambika Pal, who was once chief minister for a day. The stand-up comedian, Raju Srivastava, has been poached from the Samajwadi Party. Ahmedabad East has been taken away from the sitting BJP MP, Harin Pathak, who was returned from there six times, and given to a 63-year-old actor, Paresh Rawal, who has never before ventured in politics but is currently engaged in producing what is called a “biopic” of Narendra Modi. It may be a coincidence that Rawal’s last (and first) production was titled Oh My God. Given the “Har Har Modi” chant (now technically repudiated), that might be an appropriate title for his current film too.