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BJP and resurgent India: Are they incompatible?

July 10, 2009 17:05 IST

The fire of the Bharatiya Janata Party's post election purgatory refuses to expend itself, fuelled in part by an ugly self-destructive internecine fracas, sustained to a degree by the relentless, sadistic needling of its detractors and inadvertently kept smoldering by the open soul searching of its sympathisers.

Why did the BJP stumble at the hustings in a political milieu that appeared to be so heavily inclined in its favor? Has the kinetic energy of Hindutva dissipated, reducing it to a nihility in a nation bustling with jean-clad youth high on MNC culture who would prefer to coo into their IPhones and sway to the rhythm of their IPods than engage in serious national dialogue? As journalists expend reams of newsprint, political pundits indulge in pharisaical pontification and television anchors devote seemingly endless bytes to this burning issue, it is time to hit the pause button, rewind and review in entirety the election campaign, the verdict and the post mortem with a degree of objectivity to validate or invalidate these claims. Instant reactions are too emotion driven to be able to provide a concrete appraisal.

There are three cardinal questions that need to be tackled before a final and comprehensive report on the million-dollar question of the BJP's destiny can be filed.

First, was this a clear-cut verdict with an unambiguous mandate? A cursory perusal would be in the affirmative but a meticulous dissection reveals otherwise. The Congress party lauded as an outright winner won 206 seats constituting 38 percent of the overall strength of the Lok Sabha; a number though notable falls short of a simple majority by 66. Even with the added strength of its pre-poll allies the UPA was not able to breach this decisive number. Match these numbers with Indira Gandhi's 1971 victory that netted the Congress 352 seats or Rajiv Gandhi's spectacular tally of 404 seats in 1984 or even Narsimha Rao's total of 232 seats in 1991 to gauge the mediocrity of this win. Therefore to hail this victory as "historic' or to dub it as a mandate is hyperbole unmitigated.

Analysing the voting pattern further one finds that the dominance of Congress party is not matched by a corroborative increase in popular vote. In fact this time around the Congress party polled 28.52 percent votes compared to 26.53 percent in 2004 representing an increase of a mere 2 percent. To emphasise the insignificance of this change let me put this in simple terms:  2 additional voters out of every 100 decided to switch to the Congress party; certainly not an exodus.

Moreover, in a proportional representation model this accretion would have resulted in an increase of about 10 seats (one percent being equal to 5.43 seats) giving it a final score of 155 up from 145, its tally in 2004. Instead, this 2 percent swing in favour of the Congress translated into a handsome bounty of 61 seats facilitated by the idiosyncrasies of our electoral model. Therefore the ubiquitous perception of an overwhelming voter preference for the Congress party in this election is erroneous to say the least.

On the flip side, can this vote be construed as a total rejection of the BJP and its principles? Hard facts again negate this preliminary postulate. The BJP emerged as a clear winner in three major states: Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and three smaller ones like Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The Congress performance on its own was only a shade better in a state-wise breakdown: three major states and four small ones.

The erosion in voter support suffered by the BJP (22 seats and a 3.3 percent drop in popular vote) is serious and of concern. But to put things in perspective let us look at some figures. In four successive general elections spanning 10 years from 1989 to 1998, the Congress party (the loser) registered drops of 10, 3, 8 and 3 percent votes in linear order for a cumulative loss of 24 percentage points in popular vote.

Yes, no denying, this is a major setback for the BJP and significant changes are warranted; but not an earth shattering apocalypse that necessitates a total revamp or a drastic course correction in terms of its ideology.

Secondly was this ballot a referendum on Hindutva like the 1992, 1996, 1998 or even the 1999 elections were? The answer is no. Hindutva was not the pivotal theme of the BJP manifesto in 2009. A review of the campaign proclamation reveals that pet Hindutva issues constituted no more than a single page at the fag end of a document that ran into 41 pages and covered innumerable issues ranging from governance to national security.

For example the Ram temple merited a paltry four lines on the penultimate page of the manifesto: "There is an overwhelming desire of the people in India and abroad to have a grand temple at the birthplace of Sri Ram in Ayodhya. The BJP will explore all possibilities, including negotiations and judicial proceedings, to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya." In addition mark the subdued tone of the reference.

Other contentious Hindutva subjects were also consigned to the back burner and addressed in a perfunctory manner. The Ram Setu controversy was summarised in just five lines, and the Ganga purification projected elaborated in six lines. Three sentences were devoted to cow protection and seven sentences were used to expand on the policy of administering religious institutions. Does this sound like the bigoted rant of an irrational fundamentalist organisation?

Indrajit Hazra (Damned if they don't. Hindustan Times, April 8) succinctly summarised this as follows: "But if one does go by the BJP manifesto, it would take an imaginative conspiracy theorist to find traces of a 'revived Hindutva agenda' in the text. And we saw a whole posse of them scurrying about last week with the BJP election manifesto in their hands and shouting 'They're back! They're back!' In the process, the BJP was once again provided the luxury of playing the perennially misunderstood, stereotyped 'victim'."

So while the BJP made a concerted attempt to project its views in a sane and civilised fashion, its antagonists who have a far reach into the national media maliciously conspired to paint the BJP as a monster that it is not and succeeded. The Varun Gandhi episode a non-event by objective standards and insignificant in terms of the big picture was deliberately thrust into centrestage to hijack the BJP agenda.

Therefore for critics to draw a direct correlation between the BJP's debacle and the agenda that never was, is illogical. It smacks of a witch hunt aimed at maligning Hindutva at any cost.

Coming to the third question: Is Hindutva, once the weltanschauung of India's middle class, now toast?  Should the BJP jettison its core ideology? Has Hindutva outlived its utility in a fast changing modern India? And does this one verdict reflect a sea of change mirroring a drastically altered political and social landscape wherein socio-cultural inequities have disappeared, mindsets have changed and a tangible threat to the nation no longer exists?

Writing under a headline, "Change of Priorities" (Time of India, June 4) Swapan Dasgupta the political commentator and BJP sympathiser assays this transformation in this manner: "What has changed in the 21st century? To begin with, India is far more globalised and cosmopolitan than at any point since independence. There is a greater inclination to look outwards and imbibe lifestyle shifts. These have corresponded to a demographic shift, resulting in a younger India. Secondly, the growth of global Islamist terror has made Indians far more appreciative of the need to insulate India from sectarian strife. Finally, unlike the shambolic 1990s, there is a sense of self-confidence among Indians and a belief that their country can face the world on its own terms.

The BJP has been insufficiently sensitive to these developments. Intellectually, it has not moved beyond the formulations of the 1990s. Today's Hindu is no longer beleaguered. Rising prosperity has contributed to a gentler, pop nationalism marked by good-humoured flag-waving in cricket matches. Indians don't feel threatened but, at the same time, are repelled by bigotry."

Yes, the Indian psyche is changing. But this new wave sensibility, though ostensibly eclectic, is in practical terms a perception that is superficial, myopic and tunnel shaped for it fails to capture or comprehend the big picture. Globalisation has not transformed our neighborhood en masse. India remains an island of modernity surrounded by an ocean of primitive tribal proclivities, replete with predatory tendencies. We are not a part of present day Europe but a constituent of South Asia that boasts of the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. To ignore this actuality can be fatal.

A modest economic prosperity has blinded us to the reality that has changed little. Brimming with confidence by the few extra rupees in his pocket and distracted by the luxury of Western technologies and amenities, the Indian citizen has become oblivious to the threat that still looms over his head like a Damocles Sword. If Mumbai 26/11 is not a presage of this danger then what is?

The fact that this sentinel event did not trigger a decisive vote against terrorism in the recent election brings to the fore a distinctive and disturbing frailty of the Indian mind: withdrawal and the inability to respond to challenge. Far from being a studied preference for stability, this vote stands out as an example of pusillanimous dithering; in effect it was an exercise in escapism that subtly exonerated the voter from making a difficult choice: that of confronting the enemy head-on. Status quo reflects a tacit acceptance of the violence heaped on us while change sends out a powerful message of forceful counteraction.

Indians crave for tranquility however transitory it may be mindless of the impending catastrophe that such inertia may beget. This self destructive trait is correctly identified by V S Naipaul in his book, India, A Wounded Civilisation: "Hinduism hasn't been good enough for the millions. It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. So that again and again in India, history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat and withdrawal."

It would be edifying to hark back to the pages of our history for a lesson or two. Vijaynagar, despite its abounding economic prosperity failed to ensure the security of its borders and was annihilated. Lack of adequate military prowess and foresight saw eight century India, an economic leader of its times, crumble before marauding Islamic invaders from Persia and Afghanistan. A lopsided emphasis on monetary stability with scant attention to combat preparedness is destined to doom a nation.

For those who would discard this counsel as an old wives' tale that should be relegated to the dregs of history and inapplicable to current times, one only needs to look around our selves.

Last month, a Lashkar operative named Muhammad Madani was picked up by the Delhi Police. According to sources he was entrusted in recruiting young men into his terrorist outfit from India's major metros with a possible motive to replicate Mumbai 26/11 simultaneously in all four major cities of India. Madani was born and brought up in India. In each and every terrorist act in the nation in the last decade or so there has been a significant local hand. I mention this news item to highlight the presence of a dangerous fifth column among our midst that is growing day by day. We ignore these tell tale signs at our own peril.

Will Durrant the famous historian has an insightful quote in his book, The Story of Civilization: "Civilization is a precarious thing, whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may at any time be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying from within"

While it would be wrong to indict the entire Muslim community, it would be utterly naive to overlook the threat smoldering within that community.

In addition, Islamic militancy consuming Pakistan threatens to spill over into our country. Barely a hundred miles from our nation's border and in an area that comprised British India prior to independence, in the Swat territory of Pakistan, a Jiziya (tax), a dreaded usury that people erroneously believe belonged to the Aurangzeb era, is being levied on Hindus and Sikhs.

These events bear testimony to the compelling need for Hindutva. What needs to be changed, however, is the perception of Hindutva. Hindutva is not to be a rampage of revenge. Hindutva is not to be equated with communal riots that kill innocent humans. Hindutva is not an ideology that relegates another individual to second-class status. It is an assertive force that makes all Indians conform to the pluralistic, secular tradition of our land that respects one and all. Hindutva does not need redefinition. It needs re-explanation.

Great movements don't shrivel into non-existence with one defeat or implode at the first sign of dissent. Moral convictions don't die with a single setback. Ideological churning, albeit unsettling at the outset, does not spell the death knell of the BJP and may even have a salutary effect leading to an eventual strengthening of the organisation. Success comes to those who stay the course in the face of adversity.

Another prescient question concerns the aim of the Hindutva movement. Is political authority the nirvana that the BJP covets? Is power an end in itself? If so, the BJP must discard all semblance of being principled and pander to the banal whims of a delusional majority however detrimental it may be to the health of our nation, in order to reach this goal. But such a stance contradicts the original premise of Hindutva. It was conceptualised as a guiding force, a counter balance against those forces that had hampered the growth of India's indigenous population and attempted to destroy its intrinsic values and culture. Hindutva stands as a bulwark against those tendencies that even today seek to undermine India and have led to its near destruction in the past. As long as the BJP acts a check to these negativist forces it would have served its purpose, attainment of power being a mere corollary.

The final question that confronts the BJP is more existential. Does it want to lead from the front and be a beacon for a strong, powerful and egalitarian India or does it want to mutate itself into an acceptable glob that has no identity or purpose? In other words: does it want to lead or be led?  In this catechism, lies both the dilemma and the panacea.

Vivek Gumaste