In early 1991, when the ramshackle Chandra Shekhar government was at the helm, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader hosted a small dinner for the then party president, L.K. Advani. For the BJP, those were heady days. The Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra of Advani had transformed the political mood, led to the fall of the V.P. Singh government and catapulted the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to the top of the agenda. From a party on the fringes, the BJP was moving fast into the centre-stage, transforming the language of discourse, incurring the hysterical displeasure of the intelligentsia and, simultaneously, gaining the enthusiastic support of the middle classes.
The conversation at dinner veered inevitably to the next general election that everyone knew could not be averted for long. “Is the BJP going to come to power'” someone asked hopefully. After an uncharacteristic pause, Advani retorted with a counter question, “Is the BJP ready for power'”
Some 13 years later, the mood is markedly different. With the 13th Lok Sabha living out its final months, the BJP is once again itching to go. The economy is on a roll, the middle classes are basking in a new-found consumerism, the opposition is dispirited after unexpected poll reverses and the stock of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, equals that of Jawaharlal Nehru in his heyday. The editorial classes have pronounced the BJP-led coalition as the favourite and TV chat shows are asking, “Is BJP the new party of governance'”
Of course, there is a sting in the tail. Anxious to justify their retreat from implacable hostility towards the saffron dispensation, the editorial classes have pronounced that the old BJP, if not dead, has been decisively emasculated by a crafty Vajpayee. Consequently, it is said, the combination that is offering itself for re-election in 2004 is a new, pragmatic, non-doctrinaire BJP. Just as Tony Blair created a New Labour and ushered the party of Kier Hardie and Nye Bevan into the 21st century, Vajpayee is credited with blunting the Hindutva fangs of the BJP. We have not moved, argue the apostles of new enlightenment, it is they who have changed.
Since electoral politics is all about maximizing votes, it is extremely unlikely that the belief in a zero ideology saffron zone will be seriously contested, except by secular fundamentalists who will continue to invoke M.S. Golwalkar’s writings of the Thirties. Like President Ronald Reagan overcame the social disabilities of the Republican Party by appealing to those who came to be known as the Reagan Democrats, Vajpayee has successfully nurtured an important cluster of erstwhile Congress voters.
The Vajpayee Congressmen have a high level of comfort with the prime minister and see in him the epitome of old-fashioned decency, tolerance and consensus politics. If the BJP is perceived to be sectarian and radical, Vajpayee is held up as the ideal of common sense and moderation.
On his part, the prime minister has carefully and shrewdly nurtured this incremental support. His image management has been exemplary. He has carefully distanced himself from the more abrasive manifestations of Hindu nationalism, without, at the same time, detaching himself from his ideological roots. He has neither allowed himself to be pushed by the parivar nor has he pushed the parivar beyond a point. He has been selectively accommodating and unflinching. He has simultaneously reassured both the ideological centre and the right and convinced them of his own indispensability. Like his policy on Pakistan, Vajpayee can talk the language of mushy sentimentalism and hawkish belligerence without either side nurturing the grouse that he has crossed over to the other side. He has mastered the art of ambivalence.
However, to conclude that Vajpayee’s success in emerging as the great consensus builder owes totally to spin is unwarranted. If the National Democratic Alliance begins the run-up to the general election as the clear favourite, it is also due in very substantial measure to the Vajpayee government’s success in transforming the ideological personality of the country and shifting the agenda decisively to the right. The process of change is still incomplete but there is no doubt that the India of 2004 is a different place from the India of 1998.
The inability to gauge the shift is largely due to a limited understanding of what constitutes the BJP agenda. Since the party’s great leap forward in 1989 and 1991 was occasioned by the aggressive movement for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, many have assumed that fostering sectarian tension is at the heart of the BJP’s Hindutva. Consequently, the shift from agitation to negotiations on Ayodhya is perceived as a shift away from ideology and a turn to pragmatism. Since the December 2003 state assembly elections were fought and won by the BJP on mundane development issues, gloating secularists have rushed in with obituaries of Hindutva.
The reports of the death of Hindutva are exaggerated. Ayodhya remains the most potent symbol of Hindutva but it does not constitute its totality. Hindutva is an ideological movement for the mental transformation of India. It is geared to establishing the cultural underpinnings of nationhood and restoring national self-confidence — what a senior BJP cabinet minister, a well-known “moderate”, once described to me as the process of putting cement down the Hindu spine. Hindutva is a state of mind, not a common minimum programme involving 24 parties.
Judged from that perspective, the Vajpayee government’s commitment to Hindutva in its widest sense is undeniable. Beginning from the 1998 Pokhran blasts and culminating in the Shining India campaign, the government has changed the way India looks at itself. The country’s foreign policy is decisively less squeamish and more assertive, economic decision-making is less bound by post-colonial inhibitions, the choice of technologies is no longer governed by a preference for the shoddy and mediocre, and culturally the younger generation stands more distinctively self-confident. Equally, the future vision goes beyond survival strategies and is focussed on making India a developed nation by 2020. In a narrow, denominational sense, there is a greater and more conscious sense of Hindu pride, something that was markedly absent during the five decades of Congress rule. It is a pride that has also rubbed off on the successful Indian diaspora.
What is equally remarkable is that the slow emergence of India into a nation oozing self-confidence and willing to connect with the world on equal terms, was effected despite the unyielding hostility of the intelligentsia. Indeed, this must be one of the rare instances in history when a profound transformation of the national mentality has been in motion without any meaningful input from intellectuals as a class. The limited creative inputs have come from a burgeoning entertainments industry, a fact that could goes some way in explaining the refreshingly uncluttered stream of middle class self-expression.
Needless to say, the process of change begun in 1998 remains woefully incomplete. Under Vajpayee, the Nehruvian consensus that shaped nation-building for 50 years has been challenged. Yet, it has not been replaced by an equally enduring alternative. That is the project that should be foremost in the minds of the BJP strategists as they prepare for an election that will determine India’s future governance and, more important, its personality. There is a lot more at stake in this year’s general election than the formation of a government.