Whichever way the BJP chooses to go, it senses trouble. It’s an unenviable problem for a party that rose so dramatically to power not so long ago
Just as murmurs of ‘Modi for PM’ were beginning to get louder within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Supreme Court on 27 April ordered the Raghavan Committee probing the 2002 Gujarat riots to investigate Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the violence. If the order has queered the pitch, with parliamentary polls underway, it could be in the saffron party’s favour, reckon Gujarat watchers. “If people ask me if you want to go to jail or the gallows, I will say I want to be hanged so that I can be reborn again to serve my Gujarat,” Modi declared in response the next day, at a rally in Anand. “There are conspiracies against me to send me to jail.”
As his partymen are well aware, Modi plays the martyr well. The BJP was expecting to win more Lok Sabha seats in this state than the 14 it did in the last election. Now, party insiders are sure of a higher tally. Should this please the BJP? At first glance, obviously yes. Every extra seat will count in the race to emerge the single-largest party that will be invited by the President of India to form a government at the Centre.
But politics is never so straightforward. A short-term surge sometimes comes at the cost of long-term appeal. And even a surge in one place can mean a slump somewhere else. What rouses some crowds can alienate others. In other words, only after the hurly-burly of wooing voters and allies is done, will the party know whether to count Narendra Modi and the likes of Varun Gandhi as assets or liabilities.
HORNS OF A DILEMMA
This time around, the BJP has no pretensions of getting a majority on its own. A recent internal survey of the BJP has pegged its tally at 165 seats or so. Even if that proves realistic, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would need to attract a new set of allies, and that too without losing older ones, to cobble a coalition of 272. Even insiders admit that the party is caught in a strange trap—the emotive issues that charge up its cadres tend to alienate allies. Gujarat’s polarised electorate may have made the party unbeatable there, but it has also given the issue of religious identity such nationwide salience that parties everywhere are forced to align themselves on one side or the other of the secular line. Not everyone aligned with the BJP at the Centre is comfortable doing so. Take the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), an NDA constituent. Its Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar squirms each time Modi’s name crops up, and was quick to slam Varun Gandhi’s hate speeches. Any serious erosion of support for him on account of his alliance with the BJP could see him going his own way.
A BJP source reveals that a worried LK Advani advised Varun Gandhi, after the latter’s release from Etah jail, to keep his speeches and conduct free of communal overtones. This, from an 81-year-old PM candidate who attacked the Election Commission (EC) for censuring Varun, even while announcing that he expected all his candidates to “show restraint”. Led by Advani, many party colleagues hid behind the young candidate’s claim that the CD showing his hate speeches was “doctored”. That Varun is campaigning actively across Uttar Pradesh (UP) is well known, but this is not part of the official programme, the party claims. “He is not on the party’s list of campaigners,” says BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, “Varun Gandhi is not the ideal for the BJP.” What’s more, Naqvi, himself a candidate from Rampur (near Varun’s Pilhibit), insists for the record that Varun’s speeches have had no impact on the electorate. Other party insiders, however, quietly whisper that the rabble rousing has made it harder for Naqvi, a rare Muslim face in the BJP, to win that seat. “If you name Varun Gandhi during your election speech in UP,” confides a senior BJP leader, “people start clapping.” In other words, invective works; just don’t let potential allies get wind of it.
Much as Advani would want to deny it today, Varun Gandhi is trying to chart a brash course not very different from the BJP’s own in the early 1990s, with the saffron leader’s Rath Yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP cleaving its path ahead in search of political power (and, not to forget, the greater glory of Shri Ram).
That that BJP’s hindutva predilections do not play well beyond a core group of impassioned support, some party insiders believe, has been borne out by experience over successive elections. After the party’s great leap upward, from two seats in 1984 to more than a hundred within a decade, the going has been slow. This, say moderates, puts the effectiveness of identity politics into perspective. It is only in peculiarly placed constituencies that it works. Either that, or in scorched earth zones, such as Gujarat.
That is why Modi and his ‘Hindutva laboratory’ are so important to the saffron party. Partymen have wrestled with the limits-of-majoritarianism line of reasoning before, only to have Modi tug them back to hardline politics. Or, in the latest instance, Varun with his anti-Muslim tirade. A neophyte in the BJP, having never been under the tutelage of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Varun Gandhi has had to fight his own inner demons to gain stature within the saffron fold. “A rank outsider, he was never liked within the party,” says a party leader, “largely because the BJP is a disciplined party and he showed signs of ambition well beyond his years. But these hate speeches have ensured that he has a following among party cadres and the RSS’s blessings.”
Now Varun Gandhi wants to moderate his image. This again would be quite like Advani, who has sought to soften the hardliner image he acquired during the Ram Temple movement; the Jinnah-as-secular remark can be interpreted as part of the same makeover. And when party president Rajnath Singh raked up the Ram Temple issue at the party’s Nagpur meet in February, he was quick to call it a matter of faith and not politics”. Yet, the party is never far from Ram. Its manifesto mentioned an ‘overwhelming desire of the people in India and abroad to have a grand temple at the birthplace of Sri Ram in Ayodhya’. It’s after a gap of 11 years that this has resurfaced in this document. To keep allies from turning skittish, however, Advani has assured them that the election is to be fought on a broader coalition agenda. “We are preparing the NDA’s agenda of governance with our partners. We will release it before the first phase of elections on 16 April,” he had clarified. The date passed. There was no NDA manifesto.
“We decided it would be counterproductive to go back on anything that we have promised in the [BJP] manifesto,” explains a party leader. What should BJP’s allies expect? Scorched earth electioneering? When Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) broke away from the NDA to join the Left, he made it explicit that the Kandhamal violence had alienated him. “That was the last straw which effectively ended the alliance,” he told an interviewer on TV. The anti-Christian riots in this part of Orissa were sparked off by the August 2008 murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), part of the larger Sangh Parivar. Since then, the EC has had to order the arrest of the BJP candidate in Kandhamal, Ashok Sahu, for charging ‘Christians’ with Saraswati’s murder at a rally.
What of saffron loyalists who have been waiting for the BJP’s Hindu Rashtra? Many feel profoundly let down. “The party has broken the trust of Shri Ram’s followers. They used the Ram [temple] movement to come to power and then dumped it. The BJP, in its present form, is no longer the party that can get the average Hindus their rightful place in Indian society,” says Pramod Muthalik of the Ram Sene, a breakaway faction that expects the BJP to collapse under the weight of its own duplicity, “The NDA will not be able to form a government. After the elections, a more radical outfit or new leadership with the blessings of the RSS will emerge out of the BJP.”
Can the party ignore Muthalik? The Modi murmur suggests not; but then, going Hindutva wholehog risks pushing the party to the fringe. It’s tough. Worse, unlike the Kandahar dilemma of New Year’s 2001, there’s no ticking deadline.