By Swapan Dasgupta
It’s a bit like the dog that didn’t bark.
Last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s principal opposition to the Congress, held its quarterly National Executive and annual National Council meeting in Surajkund, a part of Haryana adjoining Delhi. At a time when the UPA-2 Government is struggling to project a new purposeful identity and simultaneously ensure its own survival, it would be normal for the country to wait expectantly for what the BJP has by way of an alternative offering. Those with memories may recall the bubbling atmosphere of BJP sessions throughout the late-1990s when new ideas, new recruits and a mood of headiness prevailed. It was clear, except to those who chose to be wilfully blind, that the BJP was charged up and in readiness for a shy at political power in Delhi. “You’ve tried the others”, ran the slogan, “now try us.”
From all accounts, there was nothing particularly heady about the three-day gathering in Surajkund. True, there were no self-goals scored by the party leadership and the media didn’t get its usual quota of ‘Breaking News’ controversies that divert attention from the main business on hand. The only bit of sensationalism was provided by the deliberate absence of former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa from the meeting.
At the same time, the BJP’s relief on this count was offset by the fact that the Surajkund event generated very little attention. What should have been an occasion to showcase the party’s thinking and its future thrust became a routine affair devoted to nitty-gritty organisational issues that don’t require grand conclaves to settle. Cynics will certainly be forgiven for imagining that the only rationale behind the National Council was to approve the amendment to the party’s Constitution giving the party president the right to be in office for two consecutive three-year terms.
For the BJP, the Surajkund conclave was a missed opportunity. In trying to dispel the media-inspired impression that it is a horribly divided house, it presented its detractors with a new negative talking point: that it is body of tired men who have run out of energy and ideas. The discernible decline of the Congress all over the country (as suggested by successive opinion polls) has also bred the simultaneous belief that the BJP is in no position to benefit from the anti-incumbency and that the future belongs to regional parties. BJP loyalists believe that, as the principal opposition party, it is the natural beneficiary of the anti-Congress mood. Unfortunately, thanks to its perceived inadequacies, it has not been able to convert this self-assurance into conventional wisdom.
At the heart of the BJP’s listlessness is the old question: who will lead the party into battle in the next general election? A handful of leaders still cling to the belief that the BJP is an ideological party and, consequently, the leadership question is superfluous. ‘The BJP has a surfeit of talent’, they insist and just about any of the top leaders is capable of being anointed Prime Minister when the need arises.
This belief is based on two false premises. The origins of the BJP may have been ideological and linked to its connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. However, the exponential growth of the party since the late-1980s has ensured that ideology has taken a backseat to pragmatic, electoral politics. Where the party has grown, it has done so by virtue of its identification with a leader. Many of these leaders may have had their apprenticeship in RSS shakhas but as they have climbed the political ladder their perspectives and priorities have changed dramatically. More to the point, successive attempts to demonstrate that the party is bigger than the individual have nearly always come a cropper. The removal of mass leader Kalyan Singh led to the steady decline of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh after 1999; the attempt to ‘punish’ Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan triggered a grassroots revolt; and the recent bid to oust Yeddyurappa from the party may well witness the complete decimation of the Karnataka BJP. Regardless of its self-image as an ideological movement, the reality is that the BJP is as much dependant on a leader as other parties. It can only obfuscate the leadership issue at its own peril.
Secondly, in western democracies the leader of a party is chosen to complement programmes and policies. In India, the choice of a leader is determined on the strength of charisma, social identity and an overall impression of ability. The leader is presented to the electorate for approval and once that endorsement is secured the agenda for political action is rolled out. Atal Behari Vajpayee wasn’t given a thumbs-up by the voters because he stood for any ideology. His appeal was based on an aggregate of impressions. The implication of this fascination for the leader is that the BJP’s policy pronouncements will count for little unless the electorate knows who will lead the party. Repeated surveys suggest that while parties have a stable following, the incremental vote that decides the winner is on account of the leader.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, October 5, 2012