In 1940, even as Britain suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of a formidable German war machine, the top echelons of the ruling Conservative Party brushed aside the misgivings of backbench MPs and stood solidly behind the leadership of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Whereas the public clamoured for the decisive leadership of Winston Churchill, the Conservative establishment refused to countenance the claims of a man who was regarded as an individualistic maverick.
The turning point came during a debate in the House of Commons when, quite unexpectedly, a backbench Conservative MP named Leo Amery stood up and denounced the ineffective Prime Minister. He concluded with the ringing words of Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament: “In the name of God, go!” Amery’s speech triggered a political avalanche and forced the notables of the party to finally jettison Chamberlain.
Historical analogies are never exact but I would unhesitatingly say that last week Yashwant Sinha assumed the mantle of Amery. By merely sending an aide to the BJP office to collect the nomination papers for the election of the national president, he jolted a smug BJP establishment into the realisation that a contrived backroom consensus which flew in the face of both the wishes of the party rank-and-file and public opinion wouldn’t stand scrutiny.
Yes, there were people who had to swallow their pride and grudgingly acknowledge that the re-election of Nitin Gadkari for another term would constitute an affront to the party’s countless foot soldiers. That wisdom dawned on them belatedly is reassuring. The half-cock change of guard is proof that in competitive politics, the vanguard doesn’t really have the ability to resist the tide of popular sentiment. Even control has to have a large measure of legitimacy. This is not to say that the hapless Gadkari is guilty of departing from his self-professed standards of social entrepreneurship.
The former BJP president may indeed have a compelling defence to the charges of financial impropriety that have been gleefully levelled against him by the authorities. But what was always clear is that in the context of the growing public exasperation with corruption, he was politically damaged.
Persisting with him as the organisational face of the BJP would have had two consequences. First, it would have painted the BJP as a self-serving clique; and second, it would have taken away anti-corruption as a political plank. The impact of both these would have been felt in the elections. The most serious problem the BJP has faced since the defeat in the 2004 general elections has been an inspirational deficiency.
For nearly a decade, the party has been unable to replenish its ranks with fresh blood. The so-called demographic dividend that has accrued to the country and which has kept it going despite nine years of shameful misgovernance, has bypassed the BJP.
Whereas Rahul Gandhi has (despite all his personal imperfections) at least correctly diagnosed the problem inside the Congress, the BJP has been content to playing meaningless parlour games involving a clutch of tired old war horses. The BJP’s smugness has been further compounded by the complete absence of any central authority since LK Advani committed political hara-kiri during his Pakistan visit in 2005.
Attempts to fill the void through organisational tinkering have failed, for the very simple reason that the party has been devoid of a big idea. Activity for the sake of activity is no substitute for good politics, whether played out on the streets or in the meeting rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi.
The election of Rajnath Singh as party president after a night of high drama alters the picture only marginally. The BJP may at least no longer be burdened by the need to explain its president’s business practices but it still needs to address the same problems that have confronted it since 2004. The belief that growing exasperation with the Congress will involve power falling into its lap in 2014 is based on unwarranted optimism.
A spate of opinion polls have, quite clearly indicated that the principal Opposition formation is not the only beneficiary of the anti-Congress mood. Indeed, the clever feature of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘acceptance’ speech to the faithful in Jaipur last week was his attempt to appropriate the Opposition’s rhetoric. Whether or not Rahul succeeds will depend entirely on how the BJP adjusts to emerging realities.
Opinion polls have actually indicated to the BJP the only way to move forward. They quite clearly indicate that there is a staggering difference between the support for the BJP-led alliance as it exists today and a willingness to vote for the formation in the event the leadership is settled in favour of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Few parties can be as potentially lucky as the BJP. In the midst of its apparent paralysis, the country has also clearly indicated that there is a ready-made solution. Had the polls suggested that Rahul enjoys the same degree of public approval as Modi, the Congress would have unhesitatingly taken the next logical step. We may even have seen Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being gently taken on an inspection tour of his retirement bungalow.
Unfortunately, the BJP continues to act as if there are 24 months in a year. It is still grappling with the internal implications of Modi filling the void left by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani. The fragmentation of authority has meant that there are too many leaders and factions worried about the prospect of merging their little fiefdoms into a larger entity. Some of them are even reconciled to remaining permanently in Opposition as long as their little turf remains undisturbed.
In 1940, after it was clear that Chamberlain would have to go, the backroom bosses of the Conservative Party toyed seriously with the idea of replacing him with the Earl of Halifax (he had earlier served as Viceroy of India).
Halifax was considered a safe bet who didn’t suffer from illusions of grandeur. Fortunately for Britain, Halifax understood his own limitations and found the prospect of conducting a war against Hitler too daunting. He opted out, leaving the Conservative establishment no option but to grudgingly endorse Churchill. For the BJP, its Halifax moment has arrived. There is a mismatch between what the top leadership seeks and what public opinion demands. How the issue is resolved will help shape the final outcome in 2014.