Even six months after the general elections, the premier opposition par- ty seems at odds with itself. There is little sign of the purposeful and well-crafted campaigns that were its hallmark when it was out of power in the Eighties and Nineties. Many put this down to a divergence between the compulsions of hard-line Hindutva and the need to retain links with allies. But the malaise goes deeper still.
The extent and nature of the crisis may not be evident from the bare statistics. In May 1986, when L.K. Advani had become president, he headed a party with 2 Lok Sabha members: he now has 137. The party was not in power in any state then: it presides over six today. It even forms the single largest force in Karnataka, though it fell far short of power. It also knits together and leads a bloc of 180-odd MPs in the Lok Sabha.
But the contrasts with the past stand out. Relations between fraternal units of the sangh are strained, pointing less to implacable divisions and more to genuine confusion over tactics and strategy. In his first spell as party president, Advani had struck an aggressive and strident note on issues of ideological import to his wider parivar. The Ram temple issue was only adopted as 'ideological mascot' in the run-up to the 1989 general elections, after the waters had been fully tested by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
This time, the VHP leaders are saying openly and in public what many of them felt in private. The party let down the cause. The movement had struck fertile soil but the National Democratic Alliance government failed to live up to it. In contrast to the Nineties, the many voices in the parivar are singing out of tune with each other. Then there was not only a unity of purpose but also clarity about what to do and where to strike.
Now, the absence of power at the Centre rankles deep. The cultural activities of the sangh as a whole and groups like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, in particular, will continue apace. What they seek is a hitching together of these parallel strands into a larger fabric with political symbol and emblem providing the synergy. Yet, such strategies have largely failed in recent times.
State assembly elections have gone the Bharatiya Janata Party's way as in 1991, when the Ram temple issue helped overcome caste divisions in Uttar Pradesh. Much water has since flowed down the Gomti and the party is fighting for survival in the state. In Maharashtra, which heralded the coming of age of the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in 1995, it has suffered a humiliating defeat. The party's oldest and most steadfast ally, the Shiv Sena will have to reconcile to a decade of rule by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine. Gujarat alone looks like a citadel but there are factors at work in the state that seem not to work beyond its borders.
Times and men have also changed. Unlike in the Eighties, when Advani was the only symbol, there is now a Narendra Modi waiting in the wings. Then, the Congress was unwilling to take on the sangh and contested the right to play the Hindu card at the polls. Now, the Congress not only heads the government but flanked by strongly anti-BJP allies, it is also willing to call the bluff.
The map of India does include six states with BJP chief ministers, but they look more like fortresses under siege than bridgeheads for advance. Uma Bharti, who led the party to a historic win against a strongly entrenched chief minister last winter, is not only out of office but also a thorn in the flesh, both in Bhopal and Delhi. The catch is she is hurting her own party more than the Congress.
The revival of the fortunes of the older party among the voters has been supplemented by a near- total isolation of the BJP except for a few allies, some of whom are developing cold feet. In UP, the strong centre of the Ram temple movement, the recent by-elections found it fighting to retain the third place. Ram Vilas Paswan's continuance in the Manmohan Singh-led government in New Delhi makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to tie up with the BJP as he had in 1999.
In the peninsular region, things are worse. N. Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party has entered the fray for the municipal polls on its own, snapping ties with the BJP. Any revival of the former chief minister's fortunes hinges on the saffron party not taking up an ideologically charged campaign.
In the years of its growth, it was possible to first develop a core appeal, and then step back and accept a minimal agenda. Now, caught up in a retreat, the sangh is taking aboard slogans like the Bangladeshi influx and the rates of growth of minority populations. Again, there is a clear contrast between their limited appeal and utility in terms of mobilization and the huge impact of the Ram Mandir issue between 1989 and 1992. Then, a significant section of Hindus identified with stridency, seeing in it a mirror of deeper anxieties. Now, the entire grammar of the parivar seems out of tune even with core voters. What may well be at play is a rallying call for the cadre and little more.
Not only is the BJP a force without a clear direction. It also confronts a revitalized Congress that has not only a battle-hardened Sonia Gandhi but a clear line of succession ' in fact, if not in form ' with Rahul Gandhi's entry into the Lok Sabha. Advani is 78 and Vajpayee will be 80 years old next month. The second-line leaders may be warring with each other, but it is difficult to find one among them with the skills of manoeuvre.
Parties have to change with the times if they are to be in the reckoning. The problem for the BJP is that it is caught in not one but two time warps. One is the Partition mind-set of much of its leadership that embraced the idea of an eternal clash of civilizations long before Samuel Huntington articulated it. The other is an unwillingness to engage in the day-to-day issues of governance in a way that provides a meaningful alternative to the Congress's way of ruling India.
Instead of serious introspection over where it erred, the party and the parivar, led by their parent organization, are reiterating their own core message. There is a sincere belief that if only they had stayed with the militant Hindutva message all would have been well. It does not still seem to have sunk home that the broader alliance with other non-Congress parties itself began to splinter after Gujarat. It also has not occurred to any of the leaders to look beyond, and without, at the face of an India that is rapidly evolving in directions which the saffron family failed to anticipate.
This will give the ruling coalition the time to get on with governance. But it may also open up spaces for other opposition forces to regroup. The divided Hindu family may find its political space shrinking as fast as it expanded over the last couple of decades.