In 1979, against a backdrop of unceasing strikes, soaring inflation, a million people out of work and economic decline, the British electorate voted out the Labour government of James Callaghan and installed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. That marked the beginning of 17 years of Conservative Party rule, a defining period of contemporary British history which came to an end when Tony Blair refashioned the old party of socialism into New Labour.
When Thatcher first stepped into 10 Downing Street, few in either Britain or elsewhere imagined that the next four elections would be won by the Conservatives. A committed free marketer who introduced 'monetarism' into the political lexicon, Thatcher's robust advocacy of radical economic reforms, particularly privatization, was thought by the chattering classes to be crazy. While traditional Tories lamented her disdain for consensus politics, old-style socialists salivated at the prospect of the heightened class conflict.
There were only a few who appreciated the hegemonic reach of Thatcherism. One who did was, ironically, a Marxist. In an article, 'Forward March of Labour Halted' published in 1979 in Marxism Today, the journal of the now-defunct Communist Party of Great Britain, the historian Eric Hobsbawm warned against left-wing exuberance. The apparent political clout of the labour movement in the Seventies, he argued, had to be weighed against the steady decline of British manufacturing. The implication was clear: the working class lacked the depth to engage Thatcherism in a frontal combat.
Predictably, Hobsbawm's cautionary advice was greeted with left-wing outrage. He was denounced for his apparent capitulation to the newfangled Euro-communism that was then the rage in Italy. Both the trades unions and the Labour Party believed that Thatcher lacked the imagination and the resilience to push through her agenda. The British labour movement, it was felt, was far too strong and well-entrenched to be kicked around.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Labour Party lurched sharply to the left and destroyed itself in internecine ideological warfare. The trades unions followed suit, entered into a pitched battle with the British establishment culminating in the year-long and violent miners' strike, and came out the loser. The backbone of the working class movement was broken and a triumphant Thatcher was able to usher a radical transformation of British society ' for the better.
On the face of it, it may seem singularly inappropriate to draw upon the British experience to glean insights into contemporary Indian politics. However, I find irresistible parallels between the Britain of the Eighties and the ongoing churning process in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
That the BJP is in a crisis has been frankly acknowledged by no less a person than its newly-installed president, L.K. Advani, at his first press conference on October 20. Although Advani did indicate that the crisis is nowhere as profound as the one Jan Sangh faced in 1953 after its founder, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, died, or the one the BJP confronted in 1984 when it was reduced to two Lok Sabha seats, there is no doubt that unexpected defeats in this year's general election and the Maharashtra assembly poll have devastated the party's morale.
For a start, the forward march of the BJP from two seats in 1984 to 182 seats in 1999 has been halted and reversed. It has lost its largest party status ' a position it maintained in the elections of 1996, 1998 and 1999 ' to the Congress. It also lost its traditional hold on the country's urban constituencies.
Secondly, the party is gripped by an existential dilemma centred on its ideological personality. Having shifted tack from the assertive Hindu nationalism of the early Nineties to focussing on development and governance, it is unsure whether to stick to the text of the Vision Document 2004 or return to the 'core issues' of the past.
Finally, the BJP is confronted with a restive support base that contrasts its own proclamations of rectitude with the disrepute of some of its functionaries during the six years in power. For a party that had elevated a variant of Puritanism into an ideal, the transition to bulging war chests proved somewhat unmanageable. Along with its political problems, the BJP is now confronted by an erosion of its image in the eyes of its traditional supporters. The Tehelka shots of a former BJP president casually accepting wads of currency notes from a self-proclaimed middleman damaged the party far more than the leadership cares to admit. It demolished the party's sanctimoniousness and established a moral equivalence between it and the Congress.
The BJP's response to defeat has been curious. A shell-shocked party was initially engulfed by denial, a phenomenon that ended with the Maharashtra outcome. Then it undertook a programme of mindless confrontation, both in parliament and outside. Unfortunately, none of these programmes elicited any significant public response. In particular, the party was shocked into the realization that 'Hindu' causes, like the tiranga agitation in Karnataka and the Savarkar episode, drew yawns even among the middle classes that have traditionally favoured the BJP. Considering that the party had put Hindu nationalism on the backburner for six years ' the mobilization in Gujarat was Narendra Modi's own local initiative and was shunned by the central leadership ' there was even a crisis of credibility. The party's supporters could not adjust to the constant twists and turns.
Like the British labour movement in the Eighties, the BJP was guilty of trying to do too much too soon. It conveniently side-stepped a rigorous post-mortem of the 2004 verdict and imagined that a few early blunders of the UPA government would generate a mass upsurge. In short, there was a belief that shrillness and frenzied activity would restore the saffron morale and paper over the internal cracks.
The calculations were based on the silly assumption that a political party must be in the business of either agitation or governance. An opposition party has the luxury and the freedom of doing neither. Hyper-activity, particularly along a confrontational path, can be self-destructive if it is undertaken without careful pre-meditation. This is precisely what happened to the Labour Party and the British trades unions in the Eighties.
The BJP stands in danger of repeating that experience. In trying desperately to nip the United Progressive Alliance in the bud, it has exposed its own divided flanks to a counter-offensive that is centred on public generosity towards a regime that has just about begun its innings. Unless it effects a strategic retreat, the BJP stands in danger of repeating the mistakes the anti-Thatcher forces committed in Britain two decades ago. There is the additional danger of conceding the opposition space to the two Communist parties.
Parliamentary politics may seem unglamorous in a country like India. Yet the BJP today has little choice but to put its energies into the debating chambers. Anti-incumbency takes time and rigour to nurture and the BJP will be guilty of adventurism if it attempts a quick-fix. It has to first set its own house in order, digest the message of the 2004 verdict, purge the unwholesome from its ranks and bring some conceptual clarity into the party before mounting an assault on the Manmohan Singh government.
As party president, Advani's job is not to facilitate more yatras and agitations. His primary responsibility is in the realm of ideas. It was an idea that brought the BJP from the fringes to the centre. Only new ideas can restore the party's fortunes.
Those who don't learn from history are invariably condemned to repeat it.