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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reinvigorating the BJP

India's new opposition leader Nitin Gadkari has a chance to make a fresh start.


Barely 10 months ago, India's elites agonized over the possibility that the general election would produce an unstable and fractious coalition government that would jeopardize the country's economic growth. Today, with a stable government in place and the Congress Party having clearly established its political primacy, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with whispered concern over the absence of a purposeful opposition.

The concern is based on a string of misgivings. The Manmohan Singh government is perceived to have grown utterly complacent. With inflation having crossed 8% and the price of food having registered a sharper increase, there is a feeling that the government is letting matters slide because it doesn't fear political opposition and social unrest. There are fears that political considerations are preventing a robust response to the Maoist threat. Finally, in the aftermath of the Copenhagen summit and the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, there are concerns that the prime minister is obliging the Obama administration excessively.

Since it lost power in 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's principal opposition party, has lost its earlier appeal among the middle classes and the youth. This erosion of support was a consequence of a tired leadership, internal feuding, the pursuit of a policy of blind obstruction to all government initiatives and a failure to check sectarian hotheads identified with its Hindu nationalist ideology. From being a party of conservative Middle India, the BJP ceded its centrist space to the Congress Party. In recent months, it has been paralysed by a failure to counter the appeal of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress heir-apparent.

The national convention of the BJP, held last week in the contrived simplicity of a tented township in Indore, saw the appointment of a new president. The affable 52-year-old Nitin Gadkari, a self-made businessman from Nagpur, endeared himself to the 4,000 delegates with his disarming frankness. He readily admitted the party's lapses—the disagreeable leadership spats and the debilitating effects of cronyism—and promised an internal regime based on fairness and performance. With the party's earlier prime ministerial candidate, the 82-year-old L.K. Advani, elevated to a ceremonial role, Mr. Gadkari promised to induct representatives from the "third and fourth generations" and women into positions of responsibility. Finally, but without saying so too explicitly, Mr. Gadkari sent out a clear signal that the BJP would shun sectarian shrillness to recover its lost centrist space. He offended Hindu hardliners by opposing the regional xenophobic agenda of their Shiv Sena party allies and suggested an out-of-court, political settlement of a 60-year-old case over a site in Ayodhya that Hindus believe is especially sacred but which was also the site of a 16th century mosque.

Bolstering the morale of the faithful is the first step in a program of political revival. To that extent Mr. Gadkari has made a good start and has earned himself considerable goodwill. The more difficult journey involves winning the trust of voters, particularly that generation which never experienced the heady Hindu mobilization of the early 1990s. For the moment, the BJP's focus is on establishing itself as a vigorous but responsible parliamentary opposition. Arun Jaitley, its leader in the Upper House, has already made an impact with his penetrating scrutiny of the government. Sushma Swaraj, its new leader in the Lower House, is expected to complement him with her spirited oratory.

However, galvanizing voters is only a fraction of the task before the BJP. Far more daunting is coping with the challenge of Rahul Gandhi. The young Congress general secretary has based his appeal on nebulous invocations of "youth power" and "modernity"—themes unrelated to the Singh government's performance. Mr. Gandhi's famous name is a big advantage, too. If the BJP has to counter Mr. Gandhi, it has to come up with its own big ideas.

Unfortunately for the BJP, this is the area where confusion persists. It has been subjected to very contradictory political pulls, best personified by the divergent approaches of its two most successful provincial governments. On the one hand is the Shivraj Singh Chauhan-led Madhya Pradesh government that prides itself on its compassionate development and sensitivity to cultural norms. On the other hand is the Narendra Modi-led government in Gujarat which has made rapid economic growth and modernization its signature tune. Although Mr. Modi remains controversial for his alleged complicity in the infamous sectarian killings in 2002, his government is marked for its efficiency and single-minded pursuit of economic growth rather than the advocacy of Hindu nationalism.

Mr. Gadkari's presidential speech in Indore was replete with noble messages: connecting with Village India, reaching out to the last man in the last row and undertaking voluntary work. But it was also lifted by a remarkably clear statement of principle: "The government's duty is confined mainly to strategic planning, legislation of sound laws and their effective enforcement. The actual business of performing economic activities should be left to non-governmental enterprises."

The seeds of an alternative approach to governance exist in the BJP. It is now up to its leadership to nurture them.

Mr. Dasgupta, a Delhi-based political commentator, is a former managing editor of India Today.

Asian Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2010


ŠĦÅŠĦWÃT said...

Are customary references to RJM & post-Godhra riots prerequisite for writing on the BJP in a 'phoren' daily?

Anonymous said...

@ Shashwat:

No, they are prerequisites for honesty and journalistic integrity. And that is why we read SD's blog and not the loony right's. Any problems?


my_two_cents said...

I would love to see the BJP re-invigorated. But for that to happen, they need to build a base in the 5 coastal states.

More importantly, they need a lot of support from an alternative intelligentsia, as you (and your colleagues at Pioneer) have been saying for a decade. And that means a whole bunch of newspapers (and TV news channels) with edit policies that are openly supportive of the alternative development strategy and news coverage that does not tilt left.

In the US, that job is performed by the WSJ, Fox-News and a bunch of thinktanks such as Heritage Foundation, Hoover institution at Stanford University, Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), Human Events and so on.

With that intelligentsia in place, the BJP will grow faster. Once in power, the BJP will not need to appease the Left-Lib bunch either. The last time they were in power, they were stymied because they spent an awful lot of time currying favour with the Left-Lib bunch.

Dhruv said...

I was under the impression that journalists like you know Modi well ... But when you try associating him with words like 'controversy' and 'complicity' even if 'alleged' , I am confused. There is nothing 'controversial' about him for people like me ...

Whether writing for desi or firang media ... please write what you feel .. not what people like sardesai and channel like ndtv make you feel .. Also you need not compromise with your writing or fine-tuning it to the taste of the audience ....I thought you were one of the few exceptions in Indian media but not sure anymore !!

Pilid said...

Excellent article. Don't know if you noticed but the BJP website has a line saying it stands for 'strong national defense, small government and free-market economic policies' (see here).

Building up a coherent doctrine for an alternative approach to governance going beyond the usual catch all bromides of Hindutva and integral humanism is going to be a big challenge assuming the party even wants to take it up. It would have to weave a narrative that appeals to urban middle class libertarians, Hindutva groups and also non-ideological/ideologically confused folks in both urban and small town India. The Republican party in the US achieved just this by bringing together small town religious Christians, libertarians and pro-business groups but the slog is harder for Indian parties to make such a shift because of their inherently closed nature and intolerance of open dissent. A grass roots change is also very difficult to achieve for that reason not to mention the fact that the Sangh organizations supplying its cadre are not fundamentally attuned to such views.

Anonymous said...

BJP is reinventing itself and shaping up well under Gadkari. But, one must appreciate the fact that it is the only National party left in India where a simple party worker pasting posters for the Party can rise to the position of National President. BJP is the hope for millions of avaerage Indians. Elites may see Rahul as their role model and the Yuvaraj understands this very well. Hence the poverty tourism.

rone said...

1.Rahul gandhi is a PR show like Obama in US.People over there fell for him without knowing what they are going to get.A pliant media was also responsible for that.But within an year people in US have realized there mistake.
In India also a big PR exercise is going on with the help of worshiping media.People are not getting to know the real Rahul.His experience, his stand on issues etc.
Rahul is India's Obama.
"Rahul babama".
2.Sivraj chauhan and Narendra modi are not miles apart.with Rahul one does not even know where he stands.

Ajay said...

Swapan Da;

BJP has certainly not tolerant to open discussions and dissent. It will be sure difficult for it to grow without such virtues.

Please do write something about the opposition walkout today in the Parliament during Budget. How will you justify it? Is it a good policy for the future?

supporter said...

BJP has an option to either focus on its weekness, which as you mentioned is a national alternative to RG, or focus on its strengths and build upon it. BJP state govts have consistantly outperformed cong state govts on most of the parameters of development/governance, of course plenty of scope for improvement exists, there is a need to strengthen and expand this base. The choice is their's.

Dinesh PC said...

Dear Swapan,

Of course, we know you wouldn't miss an opportunity in praise of Mr Arun Jaitley and Mrs Sushma Swaraj.

Dinesh Chanchalani

Anonymous said...

Swapan carefully omits any mention of Sushma Swaraj's association with the Bellary Reddy mining mafia.

ravinder said...

Shivraj Singh could be one of the templates. Personally I wish Nitesh Kumar was with BJP. He is giving strong indications of being an even better template.
BJP in late 80s and early 90s was a product of Indian History and the then Indian Present. That History has been set right in many many more ways then just the taking down of disputed structure. Those times are gone and whatever History had to be set right has already been still the BJP is stuck with the Old Horse that refuses to learn new tricks and the New Horse that is still not virile enough to go after the new Mare.
People like myself who have fallen into the gaps, see China as a bigger and much more Justified Challenge then Islamism, which is almost a dead horse now.