Since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) problems relate to both leadership and ideology – the two crucial aspects of any organisation – the chances of its recovery do not appear too bright at the moment.
In the matter of leadership, the party has got bogged down in the most familiar of political quagmires: the reluctance of aging and uncharismatic people at the helm to make way for Generation Next.
But the twist in the tale is that there are elements in the party and among the younger set – or the Young Jerks, as they are called by their critics – who do not want the transition process to be set in motion as yet in case it sparks an ugly succession battle.
As a result, the country saw the curious spectacle of 82-year-old L.K. Advani not being allowed to step down from the post of opposition leader in the Lok Sabha despite his expressing a wish to do so after the party’s electoral reverses.
That he may not have been too eager to relinquish his office is another matter. The fact is that his offer to resign was turned down. However, it was taken for granted at the time that Advani would give up his post after a decent interval during which time the party might be able to decide on his replacement.
It did not take long, however, to show that not everyone in the BJP was thinking on these lines, for Advani, on his own, announced that he would stay on as opposition leader till 2014.
Nothing showed the BJP’s leadership problems in clearer light than this strange decision of a politician to hold on to his office till he is 87 in a country where over 60 percent of the population is below the age of 35.
Since his opposite number in the Congress in 2014 is likely to be Rahul Gandhi, who will then be 42 years old, it is easy to see the incongruity of the situation and how it can prove embarrassing for the BJP.
But there does not seem to be any way out for the party for two reasons. One is that the BJP has always been a two-man party with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the unchallenged numero uno with Advani following a long way behind. The latter has only reached the top now because of Vajpayee’s ill health. Had Vajpayee been as fit as Advani is at present, there is no doubt who would have been at the helm.
But that only begs the question, for the fact remains that there is virtually no one else besides these two. The party chief, Rajnath Singh, for instance, has only acquired his present position because the head of the Hindutva brigade, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), forced Advani to give up the president’s post after his praise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan in 2005.
That event might have rung down the curtains on Advani’s political life but for the realisation by the RSS that there was no one of sufficient stature in the BJP to provide leadership. Rajnath Singh’s unprepossessing personality hinders his effectiveness in so crucial a position. As long as the BJP was hoping for success, he was able to function without much difficulty. But the party’s defeat in two successive general elections has exposed his inadequacies.
His unsteady hands on the rudder have not only set off an internal turmoil with several influential members questioning his decisions, but his nervousness has made him act without much forethought, as in expelling Jaswant Singh for writing a book on Jinnah. Having taken such an extreme step where the party should have been more patient, Rajnath Singh has had to swallow the insult of being called Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Blunderland by Arun Shourie without taking any immediate disciplinary action.
Seeing his and the party’s helplessness, Jaswant Singh, who now doesn’t have much to fear, has stepped up the ante by comparing the BJP with the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist hate group in the United States.
What all this contretemps suggest is that the party is unlikely to get back on its feet in the near future – if at all. The outlook for it is bleak because, first, there will be even bigger tremors if the reins are grabbed by, say, Narendra Modi, who is unacceptable to the BJP’s partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), or Murli Manohar Joshi, who is as dour and unimpressive as Rajnath Singh, or Venkaiah Naidu, who is not taken seriously by anyone inside or outside the party, or the smart-alecky Arun Jaitley, or the shrill Sushma Swaraj, who had threatened to shave her head if Sonia Gandhi became prime minister.
Secondly, it isn’t only that the BJP has no worthwhile leaders, its ideology, too, is under a strain – as, indeed, it has been ever since it failed to keep the promise of building the Ram temple in Ayodhya even when it was in power at the centre.
Now, its meaning has been questioned by Jaswant Singh, who sought clarifications on the concept of Hindutva before his expulsion, and also by the BJP’s Muslim members who have been unnerved by Varun Gandhi’s virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric.
There is also a belief among the moderate sections in the BJP that Hindutva has lost its appeal. It was not the first choice as an ideology any way during early in its life when the party preferred the vague concept of Gandhian socialism. The BJP turned to Hindutva only in 1989 after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) raised the question of “liberating” Ram’s putative birthplace in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood.
But two decades later, the issue no longer pays political dividends in a secular India as it did in the 1990s. And yet, the BJP has to continue to pay lip service to it not only because it will look foolish if it formally dumped Hindutva but also because the RSS will not let it do so since it still believes in ushering in a “homogeneous Hindu nation”, in the words of its chief, Mohan Bhagwat.
With neither an inspirational leadership nor a potent ideology, the BJP appears to be lost in the political woods.