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.