Take Bihar, one of only six states where the BJP is in power. Its coalition with the Janata Dal (United) under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is critical for its National Democratic Alliance. By improving Bihar’s administration and economy, Kumar has become India’s most respected Chief Minister.
Without the NDA, the BJP cannot remotely hope to win power outside Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and, possibly, Rajasthan. But the NDA has steadily shrunk as parties dissociate themselves from the rankly communal BJP. They don’t want stigma-by-association via Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Milosevic Modi, who led the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. He’s a persona non grata for many Indian states and parties, and in the United States and the European Union.
Therefore, some NDA parties insist that the BJP exclude Modi from election campaigns or public meetings. This was the understanding with Kumar. But at the BJP’s June 12-13 national executive meeting in Patna, Modi was the lead speaker.
Modi launched a loud advertising campaign claiming that his government had generously helped Bihar during last year’s floods. The advertisements crudely tried to exploit the issue politically. Livid, Kumar called them “vulgar” and cancelled a dinner for BJP leaders.
The BJP has recently lost two major allies: Mamata Banerjee, whose star is rising in West Bengal, and Naveen Patnaik, whose party won Orissa Assembly elections without allying with the BJP. Kumar is therefore the BJP’s most valuable ally.
Why did the BJP antagonise Kumar? The answer is, the Bihar BJP’s Thakur-Bhumihar faction hates Kumar. It feels that BJP Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi has let him overshadow and marginalise the party.
However, the balance of power tilts naturally towards the JD(U): its base is far broader than the BJP’s, which is confined to a few upper castes. If the BJP’s national leadership had real political sense, it would have restrained the recalcitrant faction.
Instead, it caved in and fielded Modi as its topmost leader in Patna. Modi spoke there like the unbalanced politician he is, criticising the recently enacted Right to Education–a worthy step if there was one–as intended to “pauperise the BJP’s state governments”.
Kumar is an astute strategist, who has consciously cultivated Mahadalits (the most backward Dalits), Extremely Backward Classes (among the OBCs), and socially, economically and educationally backward Muslims. If he decides to contest the coming Assembly elections alone, the BJP will face a rout in Bihar, possibly worse than what it suffered in Uttar Pradesh.
Kumar may not go this far unless he feels convinced that the JD(U) will win in a likely four-way contest against the BJP, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (probably allied with Ram Vilas Paswan). This would depend on his assessment of political trends and social group/caste alignments and inclinations.
However, it has long been clear that Kumar is deeply averse to Hindutva and only a reluctant ally of the BJP. Further alienating Kumar will be a costly blunder. Letting loose a hardline Hindutva figure like Modi on Bihar will alienate many broadly secular Hindus, as well as Muslims, who form 16.5 percent of the population–without winning the BJP a sizeable chunk of even upper-caste votes.
BJP president Nitin Gadkari lacks mature political judgment. He is a greenhorn in national politics, who doesn’t understand the political complexities of the Hindi heartland. He is easily manipulated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which appointed him. He has no independent base. He is proving the biggest flop the BJP ever pulled off.
Many BJP leaders studiedly ignore Gadkari. Barring Sushma Swaraj, all prominent leaders including LK Advani and Rajnath Singh boycotted a conference he convened in Mumbai in preparation for the national executive–although Singh was in Mumbai.
Gadkari lacks the resources or ability to contain Advani’s overbearing influence. The Prime Minister-forever-in-waiting was stripped by the RSS of his last office as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. But he can’t overcome his addiction to mess with the party’s affairs.
Advani continues to make major organisational-political decisions. His decision to nominate maverick lawyer Ram Jethmalani from Rajasthan for the Rajya Sabha elections has antagonised many cadres. Jethmalani had quit the BJP calling it communal, and contested a Lok Sabha election against Atal Behari Vajpayee. BJP MLAs had to be kept locked up in a resort to ensure that they would vote for Jethmalani.
The BJP’s leadership crisis is indeed grave. But that isn’t its sole crisis. The party lacks programmes or policies that offer a credible alternative to the United Progressive Alliance. Even when criticising the UPA’s patently misguided agendas–such as the nuclear liability Bill, public sector divestment, its militarist anti-Naxalite/Maoist strategy, or its handling of the Bhopal disaster–the BJP is too reactive to be convincing.
Unlike the Left, which opposes the very principle of capping liability for nuclear accidents, which potentially have catastrophic consequences, the BJP only wants the Rs 500 crore compensation ceiling doubled. But a Chernobyl-type accident will wreak damage running into lakhs of crores.
The BJP sounds hypocritical on the Union Carbide gas-leak disaster in Bhopal. It was in power in Madhya Pradesh for much of the time after the 1989 settlement but treated the victims with the utmost callousness. Bhopal rehabilitation minister Babulal Gaur has said that the BJP gave them no help when in power nationally. But he’s also on record as saying there’s no contamination of the plant site and water supply. But many surveys–Indian and international–have found chemical poisons, including carcinogens.
Senior BJP leader and lawyer Arun Jaitley has certified that Dow, which bought Carbide, is not liable for cleaning up the site. The BJP thus sides with corporate criminals. On containing Maoism and jehadi terrorism, it is squarely on the UPA’s Right. Its policies are a prescription for more disasters.
Equally important, the BJP is gripped by an ideological identity crisis. It has failed to distance itself from the RSS and define itself as a “normal” party. It remains stuck in the antiquarian, anti-modernist and sectarian notion of Hindu Rashtra. It has no strategy for political mobilisation, which can shore up its sinking base.
As multiple crises undermine its credibility and appeal, the BJP’s influence is shrinking. Can it resist further contraction and marginalisation? Does it have a long-term future?
The honest answer is, the BJP’s fate does not lie in its own hands. It can become a force only if its opponents blunder and if it gets readymade issues like Shah Bano, or if it can recreate the moribund Ram Janambhoomi movement.
Alternatively, the BJP could gain only from some extraordinary but unforeseeable events like, say, an Indo-Pakistan war, to end which the Indian government accepts a bad compromise, or totally fails to act in the event of yet another Mumbai-type terrorist attack.
None of this seems likely. The most plausible scenario is that the BJP, wedded to a foul exclusionist ideology, will continue to be at one extreme of politics. Its committed upper-caste, upper-class elite support base will remain too small to form the core of a broad social coalition.–end–
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi