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The BJP's hour may have passed

By Praful Bidwai
November 13, 2009 21:48 IST
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The Bharatiya Janata Party's national leadership could not have cut a sorrier figure than it did with its abysmally inept handling of the latest political crisis in Karnataka, which very nearly brought down the only government the party heads in all of south India.

Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa survived not because he commands a majority among BJP MLAs, but mainly because no other party (the Congress) was willing, or strong enough (the Deve Gowda clan), to join hands with the 50-odd BJP legislators who wanted him removed.

Had the Congress not held back from practising the kind of jod tod ki rajneeti (of splitting parties and buying up MLAs to stitch together governments) that it's adept at, Yeddyurappa would have become history.

The issues in Karnataka had nothing to do with policies, programmes and (beyond a point) even personalities, leave alone ideology.

At work was crude political blackmail by powerful iron-ore mining interests led by brothers G Janardhana and G Karunakara Reddy.

Based in Bellary district, a backward semi-arid region abutting Andhra Pradesh, the Reddy brothers have amassed fortunes running into Rs 30,000 crores (Rs 300 billion) in half-a-generation.

The Reddys -- known for their ultra-lavish lifestyles, including private helicopters and luxury limousines -- have been bankrolling the BJP for years. They reportedly sank mind-boggling amounts into its election campaign last year.

It's now payback time through political control and financial favours.

Yeddyurappa is a tactless and strong-headed politician who has behaved as if he commanded unbridled power because he led the party to victory. He should have known that the BJP respects money power more than democratic mandates. He decided to discipline the Reddys by imposing a Rs 1,000 charge on each truck carrying iron ore. The brothers revolted.

Eventually, Yeddyurappa had to concede all of the Reddys's demands, barring his resignation, including the removal of his principal secretary, and his confidant Shobha Karandlaje, and annulling the transfer of officials believed to be close to the Reddys. The chief minister was comprehensively humiliated and had an undignified breakdown.

The BJP's so-called central leaders played their own little games in Karnataka. Sushma Swaraj, who had contested the Bellary Lok Sabha seat against Sonia Gandhi (and lost), sided with the Reddys and inserted herself into a three-member committee to decide on iron ore levies.

Arun Jaitley, earlier in charge of the Karnataka elections, clandestinely goaded Yeddyurappa to take a tough line.

H N Ananth Kumar tried to scuttle a settlement for his own Karnataka-specific reasons. BJP ex-president Murli Manohar Joshi also jumped into the fray, using his RSS contacts.

There was no coherent central intervention to assert the BJP's long-term interest. Party president Rajnath Singh, a pucca Hindi belt politician, was clueless. L K Advani, too preoccupied with his own exit -- forced upon him by the RSS -- was at a dead loss.

Intrigue, skulduggery and money power calculations trumped all else. Finally, the party caved in to the Reddys without even trying to assert any semblance of discipline.

The Karnataka 'compromise' is unlikely to last. The mining lobby and other entrenched interests will make another bid to dislodge the now-mauled and considerably weakened Yedyurappa.

The crisis clearly showed the BJP in the grip of regional satraps, for whom the national leadership is of little consequence. It's the local dynamics of power and cynical calculations of sectional and individual interests that matter. The party's national organisation -- itself divided, rudderless and in disarray -- hardly plays a role.

The BJP is no longer the unified, centrally directed, ideologically motivated political enterprise it once was. It now resembles a marketing arrangement with a series of regional franchises, which make and sell a political product with an increasingly diffuse identity. The franchisee autonomously decides the sources of supply, product mix and price, adding local flavours to the original recipe at will.

Thus, there is a Narendra Modi BJP in Gujarat, a Shivraj Singh Chauhan party in Madhya Pradesh, a Raman Singh-branded entity in Chhattisgarh, and a Nishank enterprise in Uttarakhand. The binding cement in each franchise is the loaves and fishes of office, not the BJP's national identity, programmes and policies.

This is a very different party from what the BJP was designed to be right since its avatar as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh -- a national-level enterprise with a strong supra-regional identity and a unitarian (as opposed to federal) bias inherited from the RSS.

The RSS still parades itself as an organisation of all Hindus, based on homogenous Hindu political citizenship cutting across regional, linguistic, ethnic, and -- this is a long shot for a Brahmin-dominated cabal -- caste divides.

For two decades, the BJP drew its identity from its national leadership, its unitarian planks and slogans (including a Uniform Civil Code and denial of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union, guaranteed by Article 370), and its craving for homogenising a highly plural, diverse, multi-ethnic and multireligious society.

That identity is now fragmented. A decentralised federal structure is not a bad thing. It's just that the BJP doesn't know how to handle it and aggregate the strength of its state units -- because it doesn't have a strong central leadership anymore.

For many years, the Vajpayee-Advani duo catalysed a vanguard-style high command which both built up the party and controlled it tightly. But they failed to put together a second-generation leadership structure that would succeed them.

The so-called Iron Man was never individually astute enough, or respected enough, to provide leadership to the party without Vajpayee's stewardship. Ever since the BJP lost national power, he has progressively lowered his stature and marginalised himself by behaving like a factional leader.

Advani is now being pushed out of the BJP by the RSS. The Sangh decided way back in 2005 that he must step down from all posts. When Advani repeatedly refused to take the hint, the RSS went public. Sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat announced that Advani would quit as the Leader of the Opposition.

The RSS has recently tightened its grip over the BJP. It has made and unmade key appointments and laid down the policy red lines. It appointed its men as organising secretaries in all BJP state units. It has gone one step further in micro-managing the BJP by deciding its next president would be 'from outside Delhi' in whose election Advani would have no role.

That excludes the four leaders in the moth-eaten central leadership: Messrs Arun Jaitley, M Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar, and Swaraj.

The next president, who is likely to be Nitin Gadkari, will be forced to follow the Sangh's diktat on organisational and political matters.

However, it's not as if the RSS were more capable or politically clued in than the BJP. If anything, it's more retrograde and unconnected from the real world. Bhagwat's weird statements in his recent Aaj Tak interview show a mind far, far removed from the 21st century. Bhagwat says Pakistan and even Afghanistan are part of India, they belong to us, 'they will come back to us.' He cannot be accused of being well-informed on China, but he's convinced that the Chinese will attack India.

Ultimately, the RSS can never leave the dark world of ignorance, prejudice and obscurantism in Nagpur's Reshimbag, the all-male cabal's headquarters, with all its fantasies about recreating India's glorious past.

The Sangh Parivar has always been intellectually bankrupt and pitiable. Unlike the Left and Centrist parties, or the Congress, it has never been able to attract and retain good minds and fertilise new forward-looking ideas.

Some educated people like Arun Shourie and Sudheendra Kulkarni gravitated towards the BJP because it was in power. But they are gone, or on their way out.

The only home-grown Hindutva strategist the Parivar recently produced was K N Govindacharya, the architect of 'social engineering', which for the first time genuinely expanded the BJP's social base to include the OBCs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But he was expelled.

In retrospect, the BJP's amazing success in moving from the periphery (with two Lok Sabha seats in 1984) to national power seems to be something of a freak. It never had the intellectual -- ideological or the political -- strategic resources to chart out a path to power on its own. It was buoyed up by social and political forces which it had no role in shaping -- including the Congress's decline, the Left's retreat after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the global rise of identity politics, the rapid rise of an insecure, illiberal, aggressively nationalistic middle class, and the Mandal Moment.

This combination of conditions no longer exists. The BJP's hour may have passed.

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Praful Bidwai