Wonders never cease. The tumult at the apex of the Bharatiya Janata Party comes just at the time when there are signs of a recovery of its flagging fortunes in the urban centres of north and west India that powered its ascendancy in the Nineties.
Rumbles in the BJP indicate all is not well at the top even as spaces open up for the parivar in politics. Its president, Rajnath Singh, was being somewhat premature in predicting he was the groom in a triumphal bridal party march to New Delhi. Let alone be the groom, he is as yet unsure of whether the elders of the party, L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have left the field clear for him. But the focus of the media and analysts has rightly been on the struggle for the second slot between the party chief and the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi.
Such a struggle has a clear sociological and political basis. It was Gujarat and then Uttar Pradesh where the party displaced and took over the opposition space from anti-Congress centrist parties. In the former, this eventually led to the dissolution of the once-invincible combination of the lower castes, adivasis and minorities that had put a seal on power in Gujarat. In UP, the drama soon got out of hand and Rajnath Singh was himself a witness to the rapidity of the decline of the saffron party to the sidelines as the Dalits and backwards took over the political space.
Yet, the sparring comes against the backdrop of the recovery of the BJP in the urban local bodies. The first signs were in the north Indian state in the winter of 2006. It did especially well in the large cities: Varanasi and Allahabad for instance voted for the BJP. In the smaller towns of Uttar Pradesh, it continues to be in a state of crisis. A similar holding of ground has been witnessed in the great metropolis of Bombay and also in cities like Nashik and Nagpur.
There is no doubt that urban UP or urban Maharashtra is often at odds with vast expanses of the countryside. But there is no denying that the BJP and its allies have recouped since their disastrous showing in metropolitan India in 2004, when they were reduced to three seats in the big four cities of the country.
None of this can quite set at rest the rumblings in the organization. When confronted with setbacks in the past — as in 1984, when it was a distant second to the Congress — the party was able to re-package itself. Advani became its sole general secretary the year after the Lok Sabha polls, and in 1986, for the first time the BJP had a president other than Vajpayee. K.N. Govindacharya as the political secretary to the party president honed the team into a cohesive whole.
There is little by way of comparison with the present situation. Vajpayee became the first prime minister from the BJP and there is yet little sign of his being “tired or retired”. Even the present round of changes had his imprimatur and eventual public approval. The former prime minister is the swayamsevak with the widest popular acceptability, the only one who ever came close to being a public icon in independent India in a manner no one outside the Nehru family ever has.
As for Advani, there is again no sign of his having yielded place to a new generation. The problem is that the larger political scenario is a very different one from that in the late Eighties, when he worked his spell on the voters. It is worth noting that in 1989, when the BJP won over one in four municipal seats in UP, he was quick to use this to advantage in negotiations with V.P. Singh. Today, there is no such bandwagon in the offing and the saffron party itself is still unclear on how to seize the high ground.
The changes in the party and the fraternal organizations are not unrelated to the changes in the larger socio-political scene. None of these has been as disabling as the way in which the BJP in a very short time got used to the trappings of power. The protracted crises of leadership in the Congress and its inability to forge a larger front till the eve of the 2004 general elections also bred certain complacency in the sangh.
The chemistry of the sangh and the party is also quite unlike what it once was. At issue is not a division between political tactics and ideological projects, or even one of moderate versus hardliner. The problem is of the sheer size and reach of the BJP as compared to the other front organizations in terms of its resources and appeal.
Despite its defeat in the general elections, the party is still a major player. Nowhere is this more starkly evident than in Gujarat where it has won three state assembly elections in a row and where its chief minister is trying to forge a new public identity not as a proponent of divide and rule but of economic modernization. Narendra Modi has at his command the machinery of a state government, something neither Rajnath Singh nor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionaries do.
Further, the party remains the locus of ambitions for spreading the message. This is evident in eastern UP, where Mahant Avaidya Nath’s status as a party leader has been central to the militant postures that have played so central a role in the recent communal conflagration on the eve of the state assembly elections.
The problem is that unlike in the Eighties or the Nineties, there is no clear direction from the top. The party’s surge really began under Advani’s leadership when it set the political agenda, took out its successful rath yatra, toppled a government it had helped create and emerged as the premier opposition in parliament for the first time in history. The demolition of the Babri Masjid showed the limits of the politics of polarities. It also opened the way for Vajpayee’s eventual return to centre-stage and at least — so far — put the prime ministership out of reach of Advani. The latter could lead the surge, but it was the former who would stand at the summit.
There are many reasons to believe that the next leadership will emerge form the ranks of those who lead in the states. Modi would be an obvious choice, but as long as it relies on allies, it is difficult to see him at the apex of a coalition. His image is far more polarizing than Advani’s ever was. He remains strong in Gujarat, but as the 2004 general elections showed, he is not invulnerable. For the record, the Congress led in 92 of the 182 assembly segments in the state that year.
It is significant that Rajnath Singh’s views on the contentious cultural issues are a reiteration of the RSS line. Modi is indeed re-packaging himself but when he steps out of his native Gujarat, his core appeal still rests on the events of 2002.
It is here that the contrast with the late Eighties and Nineties is most stark. Despite continued terrorist outrages, there are no major signs of the kind of polarization on communal lines that was so marked at that time. Further, economic issues are not quite the natural terrain the party is at ease with.
There is, of course, no dearth of opportunities to take on the ruling coalition in the weeks and months ahead. Inflation is at a high not seen since the winter of 2004. Agriculture continues to be in crisis. Urban voters in India, most so the middle class, are instinctively anti-Congress and were among the first to rally to the BJP and its lineal ancestor, the Jana Sangh. Rural producers, at least in north India, never really came around till as late as the Nineties. But to bring them aboard, it needs to broadbase its appeal via an economic agenda.
The challenge before the BJP is less about who its leader will be — either now or in the near future. It will be much more about what kind of alternative it has to offer the country at large.
The bread-and-butter issues are what are coming to the fore in politics in every state. To paraphrase the party’s own line, roti more than Ram occupies today’s voter. Just as the National Democratic Alliance was swept out of power by a wave of discontent, there are signs of a storm brewing on the horizon. But the premier opposition party is yet to end its round of internal blood letting and work out how to tap this disaffection.