The debacle and after


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EVEN a month after the historic verdict, the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to come to terms with its debacle in India’s first general election in the 21st century. The party’s reaction has oscillated between despair, denial and defiance – often bearing shades of all three. The failure to come to a conclusion on the causes behind the unexpected defeat, with various leaders offering varied – and contradictory – reasons, reflects a far more serious crisis facing the party and the RSS controlled ‘Sangh parivar’.

On the face of it, the 2004 verdict cannot be compared to the 1984 result. In 1984, the then fledgling BJP had been reduced to just two Lok Sabha members; in this summer’s election it won 138 seats, just seven short of the Congress’s 145-seat tally that made it the largest party in the Lok Sabha. Yet, despite the material differences, the ideological implications of the result on the future of the BJP and the Hindu Right as a whole is likely to be as momentous as the 1984 one which served as the now widely acknowledged ‘turning point’ in the BJP’s trajectory. Twenty years, though, is a long time in politics and the BJP has traversed a long and meandering path in the past two decades. That is why the fallout of today’s defeat is certain to be more complex than the linear path adopted in the aftermath of the 1984 drubbing.

If the 2004 verdict invokes shades of 1984 in terms of implications, its impact on the BJP-led NDA is akin to the stunning result of 1977. When Indira Gandhi decided to hold general elections in the midst of the Emergency in early 1977, she was certain of victory. A gagged press and a pliant administration led her to believe that the people of India had benefited from the Emergency and would endorse it at the hustings. The enormity of the BJP’s disconnect with the popular mood can be gauged from the fact that it made the same mistake as Indira Gandhi without the extenuating circumstances of an Emergency.

Lulled into complacency by the vocal support of a narrow elite that had benefited from the neo-liberal economic policies, and swayed by the hosannas sung by dominant sections of the media to Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ‘liberal statesmanship’, the BJP leadership fell victim to its own hype of ‘feel good’ and ‘India Shining’, believing till the end that the elections were a mere formality and the Vajpayee regime’s return to power a certainty.



Arrogance, then, comprising a gross over-estimation of it’s own popularity and an equally serious under-estimation of the Congress-led alliance’s potential, was one obvious reason for the BJP’s defeat. As the campaign got underway and opinion polls slowly changed their tune (from initial projections of a 300+ majority for the NDA to predictions of a hung parliament), BJP leaders and sympathizers still clung to one hope – yes, they grudgingly conceded, the allies may let them down, but the BJP would improve and get around 200 seats! The real shock was that for the first time since 1984, the BJP lost seats and slid down the upward-moving graph of its continuously rising tally. From two seats in 1984 it had risen to 86 (1989), 119 (1991), 162 (1996), 182 (1998), and 183(1999).

The BJP has lost only 45 seats but this downward slide tells a much bigger story about the basic contradictions at the heart of the BJP’s growth, the manner in which these contradictions played out in the 2004 elections, and its implications for the party’s future strategy.

The central contradiction facing the BJP ever since it came into being on 6 April 1980 is that while being an appendage of the extra-constitutional RSS and dependent on the RSS organization for its sustenance as a mass political party, it also needs to be a ‘normal’ political outfit in order to gain allies and achieve political power. The BJP’s constant endeavour for the past 24 years has been to try and straddle this underlying contradiction and benefit from both its RSS-inspired ‘hardline’ base and its Vajpayee-centric ‘moderate’ face. Indeed, the dilemma before the BJP is that it cannot live with an ‘either/or’ situation; in order to gain power it needs both.

A brief overview of the BJP’s history testifies to this. Much has been made of the BJP’s spectacular rise from a mere two seats to 86 in the space of just five years, attributed to the shift to Hindutva advocated by L.K. Advani who replaced Vajpayee as party president in 1986. What is forgotten is that Advani did not build the party from scratch. The Jana Sangh contingent in the post-merger Janata Party had won as many as 90 seats in 1977, and even after the Janata split it won 34 seats in 1980. In other words, the strategy of opting for a ‘moderate’ face in order to be acceptable to coalition partners had also yielded dividends to the Jana Sangh.



That is why, even though the BJP broke away from the Janata Party over the issue of ‘dual membership’ and was thus inextricably linked to the RSS from its very inception, the newly formed party tried to fashion itself as a broadly centrist party which was inspired as much by its RSS roots as the JP legacy. As the party’s first president, Vajpayee stressed the latter and spoke of ‘Gandhian socialism’ as an ideal, a phrase that was anathema to many of the RSS-trained cadres. Vajpayee also took initiatives to join hands with other non-Congress parties and struck a short-lived alliance with Charan Singh’s Lok Dal, which was incidentally named the National Democratic Alliance.

The 1984 results changed all that. It was not just the ignominious defeat but also the reasons behind the defeat that led the BJP to change its course. While the BJP had been trying moderation, Indira Gandhi in her second coming began flirting with the ‘Hindu’ vote – evident in the 1983 Jammu elections and her accommodative approach towards the VHP’s ekatmata yagna among other things. After her assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, Rajiv Gandhi won an unprecedented mandate, not least by raising the spectre of national disintegration at the hands of minority secessionism.

It was a theme that the RSS wholeheartedly approved. Although the RSS did not view the Sikhs as the enemy (an epithet reserved for Muslims, Christians, and Communists), the ‘nation in danger’ theme and the subliminal appeal to the ‘Hindu vote’ ensured that RSS cadres and sympathizers shifted wholesale to the Congress in the 1984 election. Even before the elections, Balasaheb Deoras had given notice that the RSS was not wedded to the BJP but to its goal of Hindu Rashtra – any party that furthered that vision would get the organization’s support.



Following the 1984 debacle, the BJP set up a five-member committee under general secretary K.L. Sharma to analyze the reasons for the defeat. The report, based on answers to questionnaires sent to party members, concluded that the BJP must acquire a distinct identity and get back more openly to the RSS fold. Soon after, Advani became party president, and aided by the Rajiv Gandhi government’s appeasement by turn of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism, took the party on its rightwing Hindutva track. At the same time, though, the earlier path of being part of an opposition combine was not given up entirely. The BJP made efforts to become part of the V.P. Singh-led combine, and though the Left’s intervention prevented a National Front-BJP pre-poll alliance, the party did succeed in having seat adjustments and became one of the two pillars to support the V.P. Singh government from the outside.



With the RSS-VHP stepping up the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation and the BJP’s own middle class base turning virulently anti-V.P. Singh in the wake of the Mandal decision, that experiment was soon abandoned. Advani launched his rath yatra in September 1990, and set in motion a brand of ‘mass mobilization’ that resulted in the demolition of the Babri Masjid two years later. The BJP lost power in four of the five states (including Uttar Pradesh) in the 1993 assembly elections, but that did not make it abandon Hindutva. The party combined its active membership of the Sangh Parivar with its role as an opposition party during the Narasimha Rao regime to emerge as the single largest party in 1996, but that success was as much a turning point as the earlier 1984 failure.

In 1996, the BJP’s brand of ‘distinctive’ politics had taken it to its zenith but paradoxically it had also rendered it a pariah – no party barring the Shiv Sena was willing to sup at the BJP’s Hindutva table. The 13-day Vajpayee government taught the BJP a singular lesson – that in order to gain power it must either wait indefinitely till the RSS’ vision establishes complete hegemony over the Indian people or it must moderate its distinctiveness to become more acceptable to a range of anti-Congress secular parties. In 1998 and again in 1999, the BJP underplayed its ‘core issues’, assiduously wooed potential allies, and focused on the leadership of ‘liberal’ Vajpayee to usurp the political space abandoned by a Congress on the decline.

The party’s success in leading the first non-Congress coalition to a full term in power led the leadership to believe that it had, at last, found the right formula to balance – even transcend – the inherent tension lying at its core. The 2004 shock verdict threatens to unravel that smug self-belief.

So what went wrong? How did the BJP, riding high on Vajpayee’s high popularity ratings, fail to win a mandate? Did the RSS abandon the BJP as it had in 1984? Why did the urban middle class – the most ardent supporters of the BJP – turn its back on the party? It is still too early to find answers to these questions and there certainly is no one single answer. But the BJP’s arrogance apart, which is more a symptom of what went wrong rather than the cause, two reasons are evident. First, the BJP’s inability – notwithstanding its much-trumpeted success in leading a 24-party coalition – to become an inclusive and tolerant centrist party; and second, the revival of an ideologically oriented secular and left of centre politics by the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party.



The BJP’s arrogance, reflected in its too clever by half campaign, stemmed from the belief that it could take the voter for a ride. The mandate of 2004 proved that the Indian voter is no fool. The six years of Vajpayee rule was replete with contradictions that the party leadership sought to hide with an overdose of hype. On the ideological front, the BJP claimed that it had become much more moderate and inclusive but it was under the Vajpayee regime that the worst state-sponsored communal carnage took place in Gujarat. Vajpayee, as is his wont, made some remarks against Narendra Modi but did nothing to stop him. Modi’s tirade against the minorities (and later against Sonia Gandhi and her children) also went unchecked.

Gujarat was not the only blot. The systematic persecution of Christians in the tribal belt of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat proved that the Hindutva core of the BJP was very much intact. Vajpayee’s flip flop on Gujarat, on the attacks against Christians (‘there must be a national debate on conversions’) and on the Ramjanmabhoomi issue failed to win him many friends among the common people (including in his own constituency that saw an abysmal voter turnout) who remained unmoved by the ‘Vajpayee is the greatest prime minister since Nehru’ refrain taken up by powerful sections of the media.



The BJP, which had always sought to occupy the high moral ground and rail against the ‘Congress culture’, also showed up the brittle nature of its ‘distinctiveness’ and ‘discipline’ when in power. The Congress organization atrophied gradually as the party was continuously in power for over four decades at both the Centre and most of the states. It took barely half a decade for the BJP to meet the same fate. The election results also exposed the BJP’s claims of being a ‘cadre-based party’. No cadre-based party can be so out of sync with popular mood to believe that it will win an election and then face a drubbing. The BJP’s dependence on Vajpayee was part of a larger dependence on its so-called ‘record of governance’ rather than on its organizational muscle and mass base. It is only in the three states where the party cadres had been galvanized by the December 2003 victories (and the Congress demoralized by defeat) that the BJP managed to do well.

The BJP’s attempts to focus exclusively on Vajpayee’s leadership as its sole trump card also alienated the RSS and the party’s core constituency. What made things worse was Vajpayee’s belated attempt to play the Muslim card in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. After a lifetime of bashing Congress for its ‘Muslim appeasement’ policies, Vajpayee’s promise to give jobs to Urdu teachers and posters showing him clasping General Musharraf were seen as utterly cynical politics. It failed to make any impression on the Muslim voter and angered the Hindu voter, resulting in the party’s rout in UP.



The biggest mistake, however, was the BJP’s misplaced belief that Vajpayee’s greater acceptability and his success in running a rag tag coalition for six years reflected a broadening of the BJP’s base. True, Vajpayee’s gestures of friendship with Pakistan and initiatives in Kashmir did enhance his profile but the policies of his government served to further narrow down the BJP’s base, not expand it. The BJP was traditionally seen as a party of traders and the lower middle class. From the late 1980s onwards, Hindutva politics enabled the party to expand its base in rural (particularly north and west) India and it also found new supporters in the upper middle classes.

Over the last five years, the Vajpayee government’s aggressive championing of pro-market and neo-liberal economic policies increased its acceptability among the rich and upper middle class but alienated it from the rural and urban poor as well as middle and lower middle classes. Of the 135 municipal corporation areas that comprise urban India, the BJP lost in 120 – indicating the extent of erosion in its middle class base. The irony is that in its efforts to be ‘moderate’ (i.e. dilute the Hindutva-oriented rightwing image), the Vajpayee government acquired a pro-rich rightwing image that proved equally harmful to its dream of replacing Congress as India’s natural party of governance.



But the BJP’s undoing also has a great deal to do with the Congress’s doing. The BJP’s growth through the 1990s mirrored the Congress party’s decline. Of all the non-Congress outfits attempting to dislodge the Grand Old Party, the BJP proved the most successful. After the failure of the ‘Third Front’ experiments, the BJP leadership was confident of becoming the pivot around which politics in the country would revolve.

Their confidence was not entirely misplaced. After all, the BJP had far greater discipline than the various Janata offshoots; it had a wider pan-Indian presence than any casteist or regional party, and in a post-Soviet world it appeared far more dynamic than a stagnant Left. Advani has said in the past that his aim was to make the BJP a Patelite Congress while Vajpayee was even more ambitious – his sycophants began to project him as a latter-day Nehru who could carry all shades of opinion along by the dint of his charismatic leadership. The BJP leaders could indulge in these myths because the Congress, even when it was ruling at the Centre from 1991 to 1996, seemed to have lost its sense of purpose and direction.

The BJP’s belief that the Congress was a spent force only got reinforced when Sonia Gandhi assumed leadership. The party was confident that her ‘foreign origins’ would prove a huge liability for the Congress, and bring it down still further. The party (as well as the media) largely ignored the steady gains made by the Congress in state election after state election. But when the Congress lost power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh last December, the BJP was convinced that the opposition was dead and decided to go in for early elections. All through the election campaign, BJP leaders predicted that the Congress would not touch even three-digit figures and Advani expressed gratuitous sorrow that the end of Congress would not be good for India’s democracy.

Sonia Gandhi’s leadership apart, the BJP felt the second thing that went against the Congress was the party’s refusal to accept the coalition era and inability to strike alliances. As it turned out, the Congress did a far better job of choosing allies and it is largely because of the performance of its alliance partners that a Congress-led government has come into being. The Congress’s success in giving an ideological dimension to its campaign – positing itself as a guardian of India’s pluralist and inclusive heritage against the divisive politics of the Hindu Right, and as a champion of the ‘aam aadmi’ against the pro-rich policies of the neo-liberal Right – also played a big role in reviving the party’s traditional appeal among the poor and marginalized, and in denying the BJP an opportunity to seize the centrist space.



In defeat, the central contradiction facing the BJP is likely to come to the fore. One section of the party, backed by the RSS and VHP, believes that the party lost because it abandoned its core constituency. If Vajpayee’s cult of personality – focusing on his moderation, his peace initiatives with Pakistan, his pro-reforms stance, his pro-minorities gestures and his emphasis on ‘development’ rather than ideology – had worked, the Togadias and Singhals would have been silenced. But since he failed to deliver, they will be out baying for his blood and demanding a return to an aggressive Hindutva agenda.

The second view, championed by Vajpayee, is that the United Progressive Alliance government is not going to last. There will be a realignment of political forces within the 14th Lok Sabha. Even if the Manmohan Singh government lasts a full term, the coalition era is here to stay. And the BJP’s best bet is to retain the ‘moderate’ image in order to once again rally around political parties to form an alternative coalition. Most partners in the NDA such as Telugu Desam, Janata Dal (U), Trinamul Congress, and AIADMK feel that the Gujarat carnage cost them heavily in terms of Muslim support. They are unlikely to maintain ties with the BJP if the party gives up the pretence of moderation or discards the leadership of Vajpayee.



These two impulses – towards mode-ration in order to become leader of a winning coalition of disparate parties and towards aggression in order to consolidate its own distinct base and further the RSS vision – were present when the BJP chose the Hindutva path in 1986. But this time the choice will be more difficult. Having tasted power, many second-rung leaders in the party are eager to return to office as soon as possible. The RSS, on the other hand, feels that with a Left-Congress dispensation at the Centre, the time is ripe to renew an ideological battle that had become dormant in the years of NDA rule.

The RSS’ earlier hope that state power would transform civil society after its own vision has been belied. The RSS did manage to spread its ideology thanks to the efforts of the likes of a Murli Manohar Joshi, but that success proved short-lived. Unlike the Left which has entrenched itself in the pockets of its rule, the BJP has rarely succeeded in winning elections for even two successive terms. The RSS, thus, is likely to re-emphasize the need to concentrate on mass movements and emotive issues as the recipe for establishing ideological hegemony rather than rely on the BJP’s moderate tactics to gain political power.



The election results have shown that BJP cannot win without the RSS’ full support. Although the RSS did not back the Congress this time as it did in 1984, the lack of enthusiasm among its cadres contributed to the BJP’s defeat. The challenge before the leadership is to work out a strategy that keeps its core constituency satisfied while also keeping alive the ‘Vajpayee factor’ to keep its allies happy and extending its support base. With the mukhota having acquired a face and ambition of his own, that is not going to be easy.

In the end, though, the BJP’s future depends in large part on the Congress’s strategy. Every time the Congress has shifted to the right and flirted with the Hindu vote – Indira Gandhi in the post-1980 phase, the opening of the locks of Babri Masjid by Rajiv Gandhi, the inaction of Narasimha Rao in 1992, the soft Hindutva adopted first in Gujarat and then in MP – it has spurred the BJP’s growth. Similarly, pursuing economic policies that neglect the interests of the majority of rural and urban Indians helps the Hindutva forces channelize the consequent discontent for their own programmes of communal mobilization.

The 2004 verdict has shown that despite the best efforts of the Sangh parivar and its dizzying range of tactics, the ordinary Indian – with his robust common sense and innate civility – remains the central pillar to the edifice of a secular, pluralist, and compassionate India. If the Congress-led UPA and its Left supporters betray the aam aadmi in whose name they won the election, the BJP is certain to make a comeback. Otherwise, it could be a long haul.