Friday, January 06, 2006

An Inheritance Of Shambles

Name: Bharatiya Janata Party
USP: Party with a difference
Builder’s name: Lal Krishna Advani
Vote-catcher: Atal Behari Vajpayee
Spokesmen: Krishan Lal Sharma, K R Malkani
Muslim face: Sikandar Bakht
Highly respected leaders: Sundar Singh Bhandari, Kushabhau Thakre
Firebrand leaders: Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati
Ideologue-in-chief: K N Govindacharya
Agenda No. 1: Construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya
Aim: To come to power.

That was 1995. Now let’s look at the party’s bio-data in 2005, in a laterally inverted form.

Bharatiya Janata Party: The principle Opposition party
Party with a difference: No longer. Rather party with serious differences
Lal Krishna Advani: Steps down as party president in a rather disgraced manner
Atal Behari Vajpayee: Decides to retire from active politics
Krishan Lal Sharma, K R Malkani: Dead
Sikandar Bakht: Dead
Sundar Singh Bhandari, Kushabhau Thakre: Dead
Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati: Sent to political wilderness
K N Govindacharya: In political wilderness
Construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya: No longer on the agenda
Aim: To regain power.

The comparison of the two CVs should, more or less, tell you the story of the BJP’s downfall, which has been as spectacular as its ascent. But as a columnist, you can’t just wind up a story like that and walk off; you have to write a certain number of words. Just like the BJP, while celebrating its Silver Jubilee in Mumbai, had to say the right kind of words that were in keeping with the occasion, even though they hardly conveyed the ground reality.

‘‘(If) the scourge of corruption is to be removed from our society, the Congress will have to be ousted from every lever of power. Power corrupts; Congress in power corrupts absolutely,’’ Advani, in his capacity as the outgoing president of the party, told the Silver Jubilee gathering. Even as those watching him on TV had yet to get over the hidden-camera footage showing BJP MPs receiving bribes to ask questions in Parliament.

But to be fair to Advani, he did mention in his speech that a ‘‘Congress-isation’’ of the BJP had also happened in the past few years. He had to; the manner in which all the flaws of the Congress party were transmitted to the BJP has been so glaring that one cannot sweep it under the carpet. And who would know that better than Advani, himself a victim of that infection?

Here is a man who is physically fitter than politicians not only his age but also many far younger. Mentally, he is today perhaps more agile than anyone else in the field: sharp, shrewd, observant, and does not utter a word more than is necessary. And he built the BJP from scratch. But he had to go, that too at a time when he was needed the most. The irony is that Advani, throughout his political career, was known as a ‘‘hardliner’’, in other words someone close to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). But in the end, it was the RSS which perpetrated his ouster by taking offence to his glowing tributes to Mohammad Ali Jinnah when he visited Pakistan last year.

The RSS, which advocates Indian culture and ‘‘Indianness’’, must be aware of the ancient saying, ‘‘Atithi Devo Bhavah,’’ which means the guest is like God. But then, the guest also has some responsibility towards a gracious host. That’s why Advani said good things about Jinnah when he was on Pakistani soil. But back home, all hell broke loose. Finally, he had to go, an unceremonious exit for a man who has travelled the length and the breadth of the country several times, braving sun and rain, to mobilise support for his party.

Today the second generation of the BJP has formally taken over the reins of the party, with the appointment of Rajnath Singh as the new president. Now, how many of you really heard of him before you read in the papers that a certain Rajnath Singh was likely to replace Advani? ‘‘You’’, as in your readers living south of the Vindhyas. There’s nothing wrong if you hadn’t: around 10 years ago, even the people of Uttar Pradesh had hardly heard of him.

Rajnath Singh’s first noteworthy political assignment was as the education minister of UP in the government of Kalyan Singh, during the pre-Babri Masjid demolition days. Then he came to the Centre as a member of Parliament. Time was when there were two BJP MPs by the name of Rajnath Singh, and one of them had to append the title of ‘‘Surya’’ to distinguish himself from the other. The fact that the other did not need to append any title or nickname showed that he was more prominent of the two. And he was. He went on to become the Uttar Pradesh president of the BJP in 1997, and in 1999 returned to the Centre as the surface transport minister under Vajpayee. The next year, he returned to Lucknow as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

But Rajnath Singh has always been at the centre of factionalism in the UP BJP. As the president of the BJP’s UP unit, he was hardly on cordial terms with the then-Chief Minister, Kalyan Singh. Kalyan Singh was eventually removed after a sustained campaign within the party, only to be replaced by Ram Prakash Gupta, an elderly man who was dug out of political oblivion and installed in the CM’s chair by the BJP just to avoid further infighting. But Rajnath Singh had the last laugh when he managed to replace Gupta as the Chief Minister in 2000. Gupta was later sent appointed as the Governor of Madhya Pradesh, where he died in 2004.

The BJP that Rajnath inherits from Advani is, like its Uttar Pradesh unit, in a state of disarray. The old guard is almost gone; so is the discipline. The second-rung leaders are highly ambitious and can barely stand each other. In such a scenario, will Rajnath only add fuel to the fire, or will be able to douse the fire as he is ideally supposed to? The coming months should tell us that. The only significant change in the party, as of now, is that its reins are once again in the hands of a leader from the Hindi belt, the region BJP has been traditionally identified with.