Thursday, October 28, 2004

BJP Faces a Crisis of Strategy

by Praful Bidwai

THE victory of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party led Democratic Front (DF) in the Maharashtra assembly elections will go down as a political landmark. The result is all the more creditable because the ruling alliance faced heavy odds both from the burden of incumbency and from a rebellion by dissidents in the two parties. The DF admittedly provided a shabby government, whose top leader (Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh) had to be changed midstream and his deputy (Mr Chagan Bhujbal) was dropped because of the Telgi stamp-paper scandal.

Under the DF, India’s second most populous state - and its most industrialised one - sank under a debt mountain of nearly Rs 100,000 crore. Hundreds of farmers committed suicide under the impact of a drought and the DF’s mismanagement of relief provision. Even more shamefully, 3,500 children died of malnutrition. This created a fertile ground for an unambiguous electoral triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena. Yet, that alliance managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory! The DF did reasonably well in all the six regions of Maharashtra, although in Western Maharashtra, its undisputed fortress, it lost some ground to Congress-NCP rebels. The voter emphatically rejected its communal rivals and affirmed the secular, inclusive politics centred on livelihood issues, on which Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Sharad Pawar concentrated their campaigns. They were rewarded with 141 seats in the 288-member assembly, seven more than their 1999 total. With its Left allies, the DF can now sew up a clear majority.

The Sena-BJP campaign was fettered by the failing health of star performers like Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and Mr Bal Thackeray. It was further affected by the BJP’s demoralisation from the loss of power at the national level and by the bitter succession battle in the Sena. But this only partly explains the defeat suffered by the Right-wing alliance. A much weightier factor for the debacle was the erosion of the BJP-Sena’s appeal and social base, even in regions considered their strongholds -Mumbai, Vidarbha and Marathwada.

Clearly, the Congress’ traditional constituencies like the urban poor, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis are returning to it as the party gets revitalised. The Congress-NCP’s increased attraction seems in no small measure attributable to the Left-leaning Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance government and to the waiving of power charges in agriculture and other “populist” measures taken by the DF.

The BJP-Sena further damaged themselves by running a highly divisive, vitriolic and negative campaign. During his sole public rally in Mumbai, with Mr Vajpayee, Mr Thackeray launched a vicious attack on Mumbai’s immigrant community, which forms 60 per cent of its population, and he brazenly peddled “sons-of-the-soil” Maharashtrian chauvinism. Rather than counter this with moderation, Mr Vajpayee acquiesced in it. This cost the BJP-Sena many non-Marathi votes. Given the BJP-Sena’s shrinking social base, and its unconvincing programmatic alternative to the DF, its so-called “development” agenda did not sell.

Nor did its Hindutva appeal. BJP ‘master-strategist’ Mr Pramod Mahajan turned out a dud in his home state: his much tom-tommed “micro-management” did not work. The BJP’s cynical calculation, namely that the Bahujan Samaj Party would eat into the Congress’s votes, enabling many easy Sena-BJP victories, went awry. Nor did the fiery rhetoric of Ms Uma Bharati, fresh from her rather ludicrous Tiranga Yatra, or the demagoguery of Ms Sushma Swaraj, back from a pro-Savarkar demonstration at Andaman Jail, produce results. Supposedly more “sophisticated” leaders like Mr L K Advani too failed to make an impact.

The BJP had reckoned that a victory in Maharashtra would enable the National Democratic Alliance to present its Lok Sabha debacle as an aberration, a freak phenomenon, or a flash in the pan. The NDA would resume its interrupted victory run and reaffirm its claim to being the “natural” party of governance, while undermining the UPA’s credibility and its chances of completing its full term.

The opposite happened. After Maharashtra, the UPA has consolidated itself. By-elections in other states too showed that the Congress has expanded its social support-base. In the UP by-elections, it pushed the BJP to the fourth or fifth position. The next round, due in February in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana, could result in a further setback to the NDA. That defeated, beaten and increasingly fragmented alliance is on the ropes in these states.

In Bihar, Mr Laloo Prasad’s RJD and the Congress make a formidable combination. In Jharkhand, Mr Shibu Soren’s “martyrdom” through his resignation and arrest will work against the BJP. And in Haryana, Mr Bansi Lal’s re-entry will help the Congress immensely. And in the round that follows in 2006, with elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP is not even in the reckoning.

The Rashtriya Swabhiman Manch, recently formed by Mr George Fernandes, Mr Chandrasekhar, Mr Subramaniam Swamy and Ms Sushma Swaraj, was to be a step towards dislodging the UPA government. Now, these leaders have been put out of business at least for a while. And it is highly unlikely that Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, leave alone Mr M Karunanidhi, will quit the UPA.

Today, the BJP faces a three-fold crisis — a crisis of strategy (it has no coherent counter to the Centre-Left); an organisational crisis (its leadership structure is dysfunctional and has seen four presidents in six years, three of whom did not complete their term); and a crisis of leadership succession. It is too heavily invested in globalisation and Right-wing neo-liberalism to be able to pursue an independent policy.

The BJP is too deeply mired in Hindutva to be able to broaden its appeal beyond a small, bigoted Hindu minority. It is too cravenly devoted to power to be able to rejuvenate itself when out of office. Today, the BJP is in danger of becoming too dependent on the RSS for coherence, mentorship, and votes.

Mr Advani’s very first decision after becoming party president was to pay his respects to RSS leaders on Vijaya-Dashami Day in Nagpur! Over-dependence on the sangh parivar could be suicidal. The BJP has tried every trick in the Hindutva book, including Savarkar, Tiranga and terrorism. It conjured up the spectre of Muslim demographic colonialism, and played the anti-Pakistan card. Nothing has worked. As Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani fade out, the party seems set for prolonged exile.

Source: The Navhind Times, October 28, 2004

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