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BJP's decline could be irreversible

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May 11, 2005 19:39 IST

Even one month on, the seismic waves sent out by K S Sudarshan's vitriolic public attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party's top leadership refuse to die down. The RSS sarasanghachalak shocked and surprised his colleagues because he didn't single out Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but launched a broadside against L K Advani too.

Soon, Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionaries joined him. For a while, it looked as if Vajpayee, who hasn't had a comfortable relationship with Sudarshan, and whose family was specifically attacked, might assert his authority to end the controversy.

Harsh lessons for the BJP, RSS

Instead, Vajpayee first sulked -- petulantly saying, 'I do not fear death, but I fear getting a bad name.' Then, he fired a scarcely concealed salvo at BJP President Advani, telling him to follow Sudarshan's advice and make way for younger leaders!

Yet, a day later, Vajpayee, in the Sangh's characteristic style, declared the party badly needs Advani's leadership. He again reiterated this against Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi's veiled attack on the party leadership. He has since gone out of his way to defend the RSS too. On April 26, he boasted he has been its member since childhood. He couldn't have found a worse way of humiliating and diminishing himself.

Amidst this washing of dirty linen in public, the entire top leadership of the Parivar stands discredited. Badly dented and very nearly destroyed is the cultivated image of the RSS as a 'disciplined' and 'united' organisation, where dissidence is unknown, and absolute, unquestioning obedience to the Supreme Leader is a much-prized virtue. For the first time, the sarasanghachalak was publicly contradicted by his own deputy (Mohan Bhagwat), who was forced by the BJP to reaffirm faith in the Vajpayee-Advani duo: 'the RSS has always held (their) leadership in high esteem and maintained that the party needs their guidance and leadership always.'

The BJP's image, battered by its Lok Sabha debacle and its confrontationist politics of opposition for opposition's sake, has now nose-dived to a new low. Its top leaders, who it claimed, are giants and astute politicians, have been exposed as pygmies -- petty men and women with consuming ambition but no vision, driven by parochial agendas, and lacking even a sense of solidarity, despite decades of working together in the Jana Sangh-BJP.

Meanwhile, the BJP's succession problem has proved intractable. Its former president M Venkaiah Naidu had to quit after the Maharashtra election because he could exercise no authority over his peers like Uma Bharti and Sushma Swaraj or Messrs Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh. He begged his patron (Advani) to take over. But Advani has failed to rein in highly angular leaders like Bharti. He expelled her for defying his authority, but soon had to rehabilitate her -- although not as general secretary.

Now, week after week, Bharti spews venom at Advani, threatening him with a 'Mahabharata-style' war, in which she would play Arjun, the victor! She has also declared that she has 'ideological differences' not with her successor in Bhopal, whom she regularly humiliates, but with Advani himself! (She has again backtracked, unconvincingly.)

The BJP's unending succession crisis contrasts sharply with the smooth transition in the Communist Party of India-Marxist from the Harkishan Singh Surjeet leadership to the next generation. On the yardsticks of organisational coherence, ideological clarity, and political principle, the CPI-M scores way, way above its adversary on the Right. Nominally, both are termed 'cadre parties. But the BJP is different. Within it, the cement of ideology and common purpose crumbles beside political venality and vaulting ambition.

As important as the BJP's leadership crisis and power struggle, there are changes under way in the RSS and in its relations with the party. The RSS top leadership is reportedly divided between Maharashtrian and non-Maharashtrian members. Most of the latter, barring H V Seshadri, are with Sudarshan. This is unprecedented. The RSS sarasanghachalak used to keep himself relatively distant from the nitty-gritty of politics and dirty deal-making. But since the days of Balasaheb Deoras, this has changed. Sudarshan wants a more aggressive role -- which brings him into conflict with the BJP leadership.

Yet, the RSS is increasingly clueless about what it should do to push the BJP towards a hardline Hindutva agenda, including the 'trinity' issues of the temple, Article 370 and a Uniform Civil Code. Both organisations are aware of the damage they have inflicted upon themselves and are awkwardly trying to control it.

For the moment, the BJP's 'strategy' is to deal not directly with Sudarshan, but with two second-ranking RSS functionaries: General Secretary Mohan Bhagwat and Joint General Secretary Suresh Soni. They are both in their 50s. The BJP hopes they might be reverential towards the much older Vajpayee-Advani duo.

It's unlikely that such frivolous tactics will work. The current power scuffle has produced realignments within the Parivar. On the sarasanghachalak's side are BJP leaders Uma Bharati and Murli Manohar Joshi, and the entire bunch of the VHP, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram. Arrayed against him are BJP leaders L K Advani, Naidu and Pramod Mahajan, as well as the Sangh's Maharashtrian group. Many others, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, are neutral or vacillating.

Their differences cannot be easily reconciled. For instance, for the VHP, the Ayodhya temple is a serious issue, which allows no compromise. Its importance is absolute. For the BJP, it is a political instrument and a bargaining counter, to be used with other counters. Its relative utility is a function of the political balance of power at a given time.

The RSS-BJP confrontation has to be seen in the context of the BJP's loss of national power, which has brought many frustrations to the surface. Its immediate probable cause was the RSS's annoyance at being bypassed when Advani took over the BJP, and an attack on the 'Hindu vote' concept by a BJP ideologue at a meeting of the BJP's Intellectual Cell in Bhopal at the end of March. This spat isn't the only recent one.

In 1998, shortly after Vajpayee was sworn in PM, Sudarshan forced him to rescind Jaswant Singh's appointment as finance minister, a post he had held for 13 days in 1996. Two years later, Sudarshan attacked Vajpayee's 'kitchen cabinet' and foster family, including his trusted aide Brajesh Mishra. In retaliation, Vajpayee prevailed upon Sudarshan to move from Jhandewalan in Delhi to Nagpur.

In 2002, the RSS forced Advani's appointment as deputy prime minister -- in return for promise that the Parivar would go slow on the temple. Vajpayee conceded this extremely reluctantly, without assigning any additional responsibilities to Advani. Throughout its years in office, the BJP had skirmishes with the BMS, SJM, and especially, the VHP.

The RSS and its extremist associates yielded grumblingly or pusillanimously to the BJP on many issues -- especially on its neoliberal economic policy, which was unabashedly pro-globalisation. But the BJP was in power. It could silence RSS office-bearers by offering the loaves and fishes of office. Some Sangh leaders got worried at the sight of 'soft' pracharaks leading a life of luxury -- far, far removed from the austerity of the swayamsevak's world.

They are now venting their worries over these corrosive influences because the BJP is out of power. The RSS is also anxious because attendance at its shakhas is dropping and the influx of pracharaks has greatly decreased. As always, when threatened, the RSS has returned to its hardline moorings. It wants a more pliant BJP leadership.

However, the BJP is now too big to be bullied by the Sangh. Some of its leaders calculate that the RSS's door-to-door mobilisation during elections cannot win the party more than, say, 5 to 6 percent of the popular vote, a fraction of the party's 20-odd percentage point total. They believe that the NDA allies can contribute more to the BJP than the RSS. This perception may not be correct, but it prevails.

These contrary perceptions, calculations and compulsions have precipitated a tug of war inside the Parivar, which neither side can easily win. The BJP, for its all fascination with economic globalisation, is not yet in a position to cut off its ideological dependence on Hindutva or its organisational links with the RSS. There is scope in India for a conservative Right-of-Centre party that is not aggressively communal, like the Christian Democrats in Western Europe.

The BJP cannot be such a party. The Vajpayee-Advani leadership does not have the stomach to execute such a change. If it couldn't do so while in power, it's most unlikely to do so now.

The BJP has found no issues to agitate, on which to rebuild itself. The 'foreign origins' (of Sonia Gandhi), the Savarkar quote, the Hubli Tiranga Yatra, have all failed. The party is floundering. What's on the cards now is more contention, suspicion and strife within the Parivar, more sniping at each other, and yet more disunity. That does not spell a half-way bright future for the downwardly mobile BJP. Its decline could prove irreversible.

Praful Bidwai