Many commentators commonly ascribe the failures of a party to its inability to develop and nurture a conservative constituency grounded in advocacy of free markets. The Swatantra Party founded by the late C. Rajagopalachari is cited as a test case.
There was always room for such thinking in the days of the Cold War and the pre-1991 economic model. Opposition to communism without and the traders' traditional distrust of taxmen and bureaucracies went well with the old Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The warm welcome from business interests has been reflected in the cosiness of both old, established houses from Jain, marwari and bania backgrounds as much as by rising entrepreneurial groups like the Ambanis. Even Rahul Bajaj, with his impeccable Congress family roots, donated money by cheque to the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Congress.
L.K. Advani championed the idea that the party represented the 'true' reform process in the Nineties when he developed its image as a government in waiting, but one that would be untouched by sleaze and corruption. This was why the whole apparatus targeted P.V. Narasimha Rao on the Harshad Mehta scam. It was also why the issue of telecom and roads was made so central to the image of 'Shining India' in the last general elections. The BJP was not only a party to do business with. It was the party of business.
But there are not one but two snags to this idea. For one the Jana Sangh or even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in its early days was backed less by big business than by motley groups. Loyalist princes such as Alwar and later princely households like Gwalior were its lynchpin. It was not the Tatas or the Birlas as much as petty traders and landed aristocrats that lined up with the party. Even today its many bastions lie in Rajasthan and central India where such groups were or are thicker on the ground.
The BJP from the moment of its birth has been defined less by adherence to pro-market ideals than by what it calls cultural nationalism. What matters more to the rank and file of the party is what kind of Hindu you are and how you define the essence of Indian culture. Unlike the Tory party or the pre-Reagan Republicans, there is more time for god or at least for infusing religiously charged vocabulary into politics than for the fine-tuning of economics for higher growth.
As with all complex and multi- hued parties, there was a chance to change emphasis. After all, saffron too comes in not one but many shades. Reams of paper have been expended across the decades on deciphering why and how Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee differed or did not differ form one another.
But fewer still have noted how similar they sometimes sound when pushed to the wall. It was Vajpayee as prime minister who in Goa linked the spread of violence to the growth of the number of Muslims. He had obviously not noted the overwhelmingly Hindu savarna composition of a godchild of cultural nationalism: the United Liberation Front of Asom. And he conveniently forgot who the assassins of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were.
If Vajpayee said all this when the bloodstains of Gujarat were still fresh in memory, the party went one up on him. There was much debate at the session in Mumbai. The videos issue affected a general secretary; a public interest litigation will occupy much time for the man Vajpayee designated as heir apparent, Pramod Mahajan. But no one said a word about the mass graves being uncovered in the Panchamahals district of Gujarat. Nor is there any serious attempt to check the state government's indefensible drive to bring to book honest citizens who have literally and metaphorically uncovered these dark deeds. This should set at rest any hope of a conversion to respectable middle class conservatism of a party whose rank and file see its critics not only as adversaries of the nation but as inimical to Hindutva.
There is little doubt that the spell in power did place some restraints on its behaviour. But they also led to a dangerous and misleading confidence that power was its own for the asking. In its long history of attempting to impart a sense of organizational cohesiveness to Hindus, no previous figure equalled either Vajpayee or Advani. The latter played a stellar role in unifying local discontents and Muslim-Hindu antagonisms into a firestorm via his rath yatra. While Gandhi walked to Dandi staff in hand to take on British lathis and divest the raj of its moral authority, Advani used a DCM Toyota to make intolerance respectable as public practice. This was until the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when it looked like there was no fortress his followers would not storm.
Yet, it was and is Vajpayee, and Vajpayee alone, among all the leaders of the RSS and all its fronts and associates, who stood out. This was less due to his absence of ideological conviction than his ability to play for the longer haul. His personality helped him no small measure. A man of few words, he had ambiguities his younger associate lacked. The poet had a better innings than the ex-journalist.
But it is equally remarkable in the on-going power struggle of the next generation how few have noted the signal contribution of the leaders to the triumph and tragedy of the BJP. If they raised it to a pinnacle, they also undid several second-rung leaders. Vajpayee purged the party first of Nanaji Deshmukh in 1979-80 and then, two decades later, of K.N. Govindacharya.
Advani did induct a second rung of leaders with more conscious effort to reflect the social and cultural diversity of the country. Yet he was party to the hounding out of Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Shankersinh Vaghela in Gujarat and Uma Bharti in Madhya Pradesh. No wonder that virtually all those cited as possible successors have not contested a popular election since 1999.
In 2006, the BJP surveys a difficult scenario. This is in no small part because of internal fratricide. In UP it faces the prospect of a further dissolution of social base. In central India, Uma Bharti's rath has only begun to roll. As it weakens further, many erstwhile allies are becoming assertive. Nitish Kumar reached out to Dalit Muslims, Chandra Babu Naidu is building links with regional parties. If the party has problems with allies and growing rifts within, the mood of the Congress would cause it even more concern. Sonia Gandhi has not one but two possible heirs in tow, both a generation younger: Rahul and Priyanka. Further, the Congress has taken over the pro-reform agenda. Manmohan Singh's clean image is a bigger asset than Congressmen and women are apt to admit in public.
None of this means that the agendas of the BJP are done and over with. Political currents ebb and flow. The steady spread of Maoism in the hinterland and the repeated attacks by committed Islamist terrorists on innocents will lead over time to calls for a stronger state. The dilemma of the party is that it may well be the Congress, which takes over its constituency for a strong, hard state. This is the time for deep reflection on what went wrong. The BJP's problem is that too many of its leaders have too little time. The crisis will not ebb until they find time for introspection.