In the 2004 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance started out as the clear favourite and ended up confronted with an unexpected loss. One of the comic features of that campaign were the queues of celebrities that lined up to join the BJP in anticipation of another term for the venerable Atal Behari Vajpayee. Almost every second day, the BJP central office would witness a press conference where a clutch of celebrities usually filmstars or retired sports stars would be flaunted before the cameras. It got to such a stage that the then BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu held a special meeting in Mumbai to familiarise the new celebrity members with the rudiments of the BJP ideology and programme. I recall many senior ministers of the Vajpayee government being pestered with text messages or phone calls from the celebs telling them to keep their contributions such as they were in mind after the anticipated V-Day.
Whether the bulk of these celebrities kept up their connections with the party after the results were announced and a Congress-led government was sworn in, is a matter of conjecture. I certainly didn’t hear of them in BJP circles for the next 10 years when another lot of celebrities jumped on to the Narendra Modi bandwagon. Of those that decided to pursue the achche din goal, at least two had signed up earlier in 2004. Maybe they were renewing their dormant membership!
The anticipated smell of success in politics inevitably has a bandwagon effect. The celluloid and sporting personalities that rush to get their 15 minutes of political fame are only the comic dimension of a larger phenomenon though, to be fair, a few do manage to make a successful second career as serious politicians. Even within the political class there are the small parties, representing sectional interests, which are mindful of the need to associate with a larger force to be on the winning side. For them coalition politics is inseparable from continuing political relevance. This is as true for the ideological and the non-ideological. In the United Front experiment that the rising Communist Party India (Marxist) undertook between 1967 and 1970 in West Bengal, the participating parties included the Workers Party of India, RCPI and even a Bolshevik Party!
The issue of disparate individuals and groups rushing to be identified with the BJP has, however, acquired a serious dimension after Narendra Modi assumed power in May 2014. The process acquired further momentum with the BJP’s successes in the Assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu. Although the Delhi results have been a setback, it is unlikely that the trend will be reversed. As the Congress drifts into the margins, the BJP will invariably fill much but not the whole vacuum as the emerging national player.
To its credit, the BJP has not been slow to capitalise on the opportunities. Although it is principally an activist or karyakarta-based organisation, the party has recognised the importance of enlarging its social and geographical base if it is to maintain its majority in the Lok Sabha in the next election. The ambitious membership drive through missed calls may, of course, have its pitfalls and could lead to the party over-estimating the extent of political support, the larger thrust for political inclusiveness cannot be faulted. Although the Kiran Bedi experiment came a cropper, there is much to commend the BJP’s larger endeavour to rope in public-spirited individuals and give them priority over professional politicians.
However, the transition from a karyakarta-based organisation to an everyone-is-welcome party does produce hiccups. For a start, there is understandable resentment of the old-timers at the importance showered on paratroopers. Secondly, there is concern that the political instincts — note that I am deliberately avoiding the term ideology of the party will get blunted and become indistinguishable from that of the Congress. This isn’t an unreal concern because it takes very little to transform a party of change into a party of the status quo.
Some of these apprehensions are being manifest in the entry of a very large number of Congress leaders into the party. The decision to give former Congress minister Krishna Tirath a BJP ticket within 24 hours of her joining the BJP may have been explained by the dalit factor. But there is no doubt that it was widely resented by a chunk of the BJP’s traditional voters. The Congress to the BJP as symbolising undesirable continuity, thereby blunting Mr Modi’s pro-change credentials.
The temptation to reduce politics to machinations invariably leads to adverse consequences. In Bihar, there was an inclination on the part of a few to fish in the troubled waters of the Janata Dal (United) and prop up the eccentric Jitan Ram Manjhi. This was understandable but the important political call lay in knowing when to stop. Had the BJP thrown in its lot with Mr Manjhi, it would have given Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav a sharp talking point. The electorate doesn’t generally like palace coups witness the ignominy attached to N. Bhaskara Rao in Andhra Pradesh in the late-1980s and it is heartening that the Bihar BJP knew when to step back.
Attempting short-cuts can rarely be rewarding. In West Bengal, the BJP would be foolish to blunt the sharp edge of its anti-Mamata Banerjee campaign by banking excessively on internal dissensions in the Trinamul Congress. Mukul Roy may have organisational skills, as Pyari Mohan Mohapatra had in the Biju Janata Dal dispensation in Orissa, but the mass appeal is that of Ms Banerjee.
Any close association with discredited Trinamul Congress dissidents will inevitably cast the BJP as a manipulative party rather than a force committed to something fresh. In West Bengal at least the BJP needs to maintain a distinctive thrust. It has to pose as a better option than both the Trinamul Congress and the CPI(M).
Political growth generates its own unique set of challenges. The BJP is only just beginning to confront some of them. There is no template response to all situations but, as a rule, it is best to be upfront and resist both conspiracies and glamourised shortcuts to instant success. Parading stars, starlets and defectors pay little or no dividends. They are the icing on the cake, not its body.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, February 19, 2015