DEFEAT is a bitter pill to swallow

BJP’s summer of discontent

By Haider Nizamani, Canada

Courtesy: daily dawn, Saturday, 27 Jun, 2009

DEFEAT is a bitter pill to swallow. It is more so for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which in the past has enjoyed perks that come with ruling India, the world’s largest electoral democracy.

The BJP has 116 members of parliament (MPs) after the recently concluded 15th Lok Sabha, lower house of Indian parliament, elections. In the 2004 elections it had 138 MPs; the Indian electorate snubbed the party for adopting the self-congratulatory slogan of ‘India Shining’.

Defeat has bred dissent in BJP ranks. Jaswant Singh, former minister for external affairs as well as finance minister during the BJP-led government, opened his otherwise restrained mouth to admit that during the election campaign his party talked more about the past than the future and relied a tad too much on the divisive notion of Hindutva (Indian-ness), the controversial strand of Hindu nationalism that uses the terms ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ interchangeably.

The ideology of Hindutva is the gel that binds the collective of organisations called Sangh Parivar, alluding to their intellectual antecedents concerning the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Yashwant Sinha, former finance minister and an outspoken leader, initially quietly submitted his resignation from the party post but later echoed Singh’s views on air. Not to be left behind was Brajesh Mishra, ex-bureaucrat and national security advisor during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s premiership, who also questioned the political utility of Hindutva. Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express and the host of NDTV’s popular ‘Walk the Talk’ show, maintains that L.K. Advani, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, lost the historic opportunity of attracting a wider Indian electorate when he chose not to castigate Varun Gandhi for making inflammatory anti-Muslim speeches.

BJP’s national executive committee met in New Delhi on June 20 and 21 to address the disappointing election results and issues of internal dissent and ideology. Key speeches at the meeting and resolutions tell us about BJP’s core values and the people who represent these values. Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, forcefully set the tone and tenor of the meeting nimbly echoed by L.K. Advani, the opposition leader in Lok Sabha who faced a somewhat uncertain political future.

Contrary to what Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra have been saying, Rajnath Singh wants the BJP to assert its Hindutva connection and shore up its RSS links. Hindutva is portrayed by people like Rajnath Singh and Advani as an inclusive cultural ethos but in its political manifestation it translates into unflinching support for the idea of building ‘a grand temple’ where Babri Masjid once stood and repealing the Article 370 of the Indian constitution which grants special status to Kashmir in the Indian union. These are “core issues of the unity and integrity of the country” for the BJP president and Hindutva “is the national identity of India”.

The BJP in its bid to use Hindutva interchangeably with Indian nationalism tries to appropriate India’s history in a manner which is plagued with contradictions. So much so that the Congress’ quarter century-long dominance of Indian politics following independence is read as support for Hindutva ideology. In this interpretation of Indian history, people like Abul Kalam Azad, minister for education in independent India, and Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister and self-declared non-practising Hindu, would hardly recognise themselves.

No matter how inclusive the BJP may try to sound, their notion of India is exclusive at worst and assimilative at best — not inclusive. The unity-in-diversity plank for the composite nationalism of the Nehruvian brand is anathema to the BJP. Its RSS-trained leaders rightly trace ideological roots to people like Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Jana Sangh and minister in Nehru’s cabinet who parted ways because in his estimation Nehru was soft on the Muslims, Pakistan and Kashmir.

Not to be left behind Rajnath Singh, Advani went even further back in history and reiterated modern Hindutva’s lineage with Swami Dayanand’s Arya Samaj, the 19th century Hindu reformist movement. Arya Samaj ideology glorified the Hindu past and blamed Muslim rulers for many of India’s ills.

Those within BJP ranks and analysts outside who want the BJP to water down the Hindutva polemic are overlooking the simple fact that BJP cannot cut its RSS umbilical cord. The party was founded in 1980 when the then Janata Party asked people like Vajpayee and Advani to keep either the RSS or Janata membership. The RSS is the kernel of the Sangh Parivar and BJP is mainly its political wing.

Advani and Singh issued a gag order asking all disenchanted voices from within not to air their grievances to the media, which for practical purposes means silencing voices attempting to challenge the efficacy of Hindutva as a political plank for the BJP.

It is in the nature of the 24/7 electronic news media to use hyperbole to catch the attention of the viewer. Some in the Indian media have been using the word ‘rout’ to describe the BJP’s performance in the 15th Lok Sabha elections. A generation of Indians reaching the age of voting may start believing what the media has to say. But Advani’s view of Indian history and the role of rightwing politics is far grander. He is right in asserting that performance in the elections may be disappointing but is far from the media-projected ‘rout’. In the 1980 elections, it did much worse when only 18 Jana Sanghis were elected. In 1984, when the polls were held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the BJP could only secure two seats. Today it is still the second largest party in the Lok Sabha and governs a number of key provinces in India on its own or in alliance with others.

For now the party has reconciled itself to the fact that the Congress-led government will stay for five years and that the BJP will have to occupy the opposition benches. As it braces for this role, it is going to crank up its Hindutva engine and speak in inflammatory terms. So someone like Jaswant Singh who is researching a book on Jinnah is more likely to spend more time rummaging through archives than commanding the ranks of his party. While a Rajput from Rajasthan brushes up on his reading, Narendra Modi, the rabble-rouser from Gujrat, will try to consolidate himself as the BJP’s next prime ministerial candidate.


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