A ‘dying’ party?


back to issue

EVER since the general election of May 2009 returned the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to power, this time with a comfortable majority, the political buzz in India has centred on a new phenomenon: the absence of a viable Opposition.

On paper, the fears appear unfounded. Despite its defeat, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has a meaningful presence in the Lok Sabha; the combined Opposition is also in a position to seriously embarrass the UPA in the Rajya Sabha; and, for better or for worse, the BJP and its allies still control state governments in large states such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, not to mention its hold over smaller states such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

Yet, despite this formidable presence that could become the springboard for a future challenge to the Congress, the BJP has conveyed the impression of being mentally defeated. Following the second successive defeat in the national elections, it has been engulfed in an existential crisis which has manifested itself in leadership squabbles, internal dissensions over policies and an inability to attract new adherents. Those who stood solidly by the party during the turbulent Ayodhya years when it faced political isolation and the social opprobrium of the chattering classes, have started having doubts over its future. One of the intellectual stalwarts of the party, a former cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, was overheard in the Central Hall of Parliament questioning the wisdom of persisting with a ‘dying party’.

There are always pitfalls in writing premature obituaries. Events have an uncanny habit of resurrecting moribund outfits and reviving political fortunes. In 1971, the Opposition to Indira Gandhi was decimated in the election but in 1977 the same group was ruling at the Centre while the Congress was witnessing splits and internal convulsions. I personally recall the gloom in the Congress camp in January 2004 when it seemed that Vajpayee was almost certain of yet another term in office. Those who then spoke of Sonia Gandhi being the BJP’s best friend now laud her remarkable political acumen and ability to extricate the Congress from the doldrums.

The see-saw of politics may yet come to the rescue of the BJP in the coming years. However, for the moment there is no doubt that the party is in a right royal mess and politically paralyzed.


There are broadly three perceptions in the BJP over what led to the second consecutive election defeat. The first, articulated by L.K. Advani and subsequently echoed by others, was that the BJP was a victim of collateral damage. The bravado of the Third Front, the fear of Mayawati and the dread of fractious coalitions and weak governments, it is said, propelled the electorate into reposing faith in the Congress.

The theory is not entirely baseless but it evades some important issues. First, barring Uttar Pradesh, the areas of Third Front intervention were outside the BJP spheres of influence. Second, with the exception of Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, where the BJP performed spectacularly well, there was a national swing away from the NDA. This was so even in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra – states that were crucial to the BJP’s calculations.


It is also worth stressing that the BJP attempt to make the general election presidential in character by projecting Advani as a ‘firm leader’ who would provide a ‘decisive government’ didn’t click. To attribute Advani’s failure to provide the BJP an incremental vote to his octogenarian status – a problem brought into sharper focus by his own campaign team’s ridiculous bid to emulate some facets of the Barak Obama campaign in the US – doesn’t explain everything. But it is worth noting that even within the BJP there was a great deal of scepticism in projecting Advani so over-enthusiastically. Grassroots BJP activists were clearly of the view that the attributes pinned on Advani were more suited to Narendra Modi. The Gujarat chief minister aroused much enthusiasm wherever he went but was unable to translate his own charisma into votes for Advani.

It is striking that the explanations for the defeat provided by Advani and his personal campaign team focused on tactical miscalculations. There was never any suggestion that the problems of the BJP ran much deeper.

The larger political problems confronting the party didn’t find a public expression – and not just after President Rajnath Singh imposed a gag order before the national executive meeting in June 2009. However, they found expression in numerous writings in the media by sympathizers and others who were clued into the thinking within the BJP.

According to this ‘liberal’ critique, the BJP suffered from a grave problem of perception: it was seen as sectarian and backward-looking killjoy by an age group that hadn’t reached maturity when the Ayodhya agitation was in full bloom. Advani’s generational detachment from the new India was a small illustration of the problem, but far more marked was the growing Hindu detachment from sectarian politics.


The liberals in the BJP stressed that India had changed beyond recognition in the past fifteen years. First, the era witnessed sustained double-digit economic growth, the end of shortages and a consumer goods revolution unlike any witnessed earlier. Most important, the changes were capsuled into a very short time. Second, India experienced globalization and sustained exposure to global currents as never before. In the past, Indians had emigrated to break away from a self-contained country and taste the world; now the world arrived at the doorstep of India – perhaps not uniformly but quite decisively. The change in mental attitudes brought about by this exposure has still not been mapped in detail but that it changed India isn’t in any serious doubt.

Finally, the rapid economic growth increased population mobility and led to a surge in urbanization. Cumulatively, it triggered the breakdown of the joint family – the age-old transmission centre of tradition and culture – and produced a cultural ferment that was initially marked by impatience with tradition.

The BJP was an unwitting casualty of the processes at work. Its hierarchical structures, an ingrained culture of deference and long-standing suspicion of westernization made it an oddball in the eyes of a generation impatient to catch up with the world. In the 1990s, the BJP appealed to a Hindu youth that nurtured a sense of emotional defeat, material deprivation and an impatience for change. By 2009, another generation of youth that had experienced the headiness of prosperity and India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, felt unable to relate to a party that had not changed with the rest of the country. In the three elections between 1996 and 1999, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, overtaking the Congress, because it replenished its core vote from the youth and the middle classes. In 2009, the core vote shrunk dramatically and left the BJP unable to attract the incremental vote from regional players.


To a large extent, this shrinking appeal owed to the BJP’s inability to refashion the militant Hindutva of the 1990s. The emergence of global Islamic radicalism, with some roots in India, persuaded a section of the BJP that the shrillness of the past would continue to pay dividends in the present. This miscalculation arose primarily because the exasperation with terrorism was seen in isolation. Juxtaposed with the growing material prosperity of the country, increased opportunities and a growing popular stake in the future, the resistance to terrorism became far less populist. There was a marked disinclination to unsettle India’s forward march and make a permanent enemy of India’s Muslim community. The wave of revulsion that greeted Varun Gandhi’s Hindu machismo in Pilibhit cast the BJP as an extremist force. Its nationalism became identified with the illiberalism of extremist players, including those who beat up young girls in the pubs of Mangalore. The images that cast the BJP as the defender of nationalism and Hindu interests in 1992 came to haunt it seventeen years later.

It is possible that the BJP was guilty of misreading the outcome of the Gujarat assembly election in 2007. The perception that Modi’s second consecutive victory (the fourth consecutive win for the BJP) owed to his success in turning Sonia Gandhi’s ‘merchant of death’ taunt on its head seems, in hindsight, to be somewhat facile. No doubt Modi whipped up passions in the last phase of the campaign by his shrill assault on a suspected terrorist, but this was merely the icing on the cake. The substance of the BJP campaign in Gujarat centred on Modi’s impressive development record in the past five years. Without a solid record of governance, Modi’s invocation of an emotional issue wouldn’t have paid dividends.


The problem with the BJP campaign in 2009 was that there was confusion over where the party stood on matters more substantive than Hindutva. In 2004, there was little ambiguity over the BJP’s commitment to rapid economic growth, the expansion of infrastructure and the encouragement of private enterprise. It is a different matter that the over-pitched slogan of ‘India Shining’ ended up consolidating those who hadn’t fully tasted the benefits of economic progress.

In 2009, the BJP failed to transmit the right signals to its core constituency. The five years it spent in opposition was largely spent in denial, obstruction and in pursuing a policy of blind opposition to the UPA. The party’s opposition to the Indo-US nuclear accord, for example, went against the grain of its traditional constituency. Indeed, it ended up projecting the BJP as Hindu leftists. The party was unable to exploit the UPA’s indifferent performance to its advantage because it wasn’t clear in its mind where it stood. In just five years the party dissipated its support among the middle classes and this was reflected in its defeat in a large number of urban seats, particularly Delhi and Mumbai. The Congress under Manmohan Singh ended up looking like a better bet to many of those who had voted BJP in the past.

It is interesting that this liberal critique of where the BJP erred was peremptorily brushed aside by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership which saw itself as the most important stakeholder in the party. In the summer of 2005, disturbed and angered by what it saw as Advani’s heresy in Pakistan, the RSS took a decision to increase its involvement in the BJP. This was sought to be done in a typically RSS style – through organizational control. The RSS believed that a dose of ideological regimentation and discipline in the ranks would see the BJP tide over its post-defeat blues.


The surprise appointment of Rajnath Singh as Advani’s successor – over-ruling the political consensus that had developed around M. Venkiah Naidu – was not dictated by a need to regain Uttar Pradesh. Rajnath was a rubber stamp to increase the RSS hold over the organization. Following an amendment to the party’s constitution in 2006, the post of organizing secretary was created at both the party headquarters and in the states. The organizing secretary would occupy a party post but he would be appointed by the RSS and be answerable to it alone.

In the past, the RSS had routinely sent its full-timers to the BJP to assist the political leadership. In recent times, these have included K.N. Govindacharya and Narendra Modi and among the past stalwarts were Sundar Singh Bhandari and Kushabhau Thakre. However, from 2006 onwards the pattern underwent a shift. First, unlike the past where the representation of RSS pracharaks in the BJP had been nominal, the new policy was to establish RSS control over the party at all levels. The 2006 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh was, for example, entirely managed by pracharaks who fanned out to the districts. There was the bizarre spectacle of young pracharaks in their twenties giving political instructions and guidance to politicians with experience of winning three or four elections. Predictably, the outcome wasn’t entirely happy. The BJP slipped to a poor fourth position but this was explained away in terms of the limited time available to the RSS to make its wisdom felt. There was never any question of the RSS reflecting on the organization’s suitability for electoral politics.


The RSS has always nurtured a deep disdain for politics. The founders of the movement, and particularly M.S. Golwalkar, viewed politics as naturally divisive and a distraction from the RSS’ central project of nation-building. While the RSS leadership thought it important to influence political thinking, it was always wary of excessive involvement. The full-timers of the RSS were, in particular, always advised to maintain a healthy detachment from partisan politics. The BJP was always viewed as a friendly party and the natural home of all swayamsevaks who were inclined to jump into public life but equally, it was also understood that the BJP had its own compulsions and could not be regarded as an appendage of the RSS. Maintaining this fine balance was never easy and there were occasional strains in the relationship. However, as long as Vajpayee and Advani were at the helm, the BJP could never really complain that it was being suffocated by the RSS. People such as Bhaurao Deoras and Rajju Bhaiyya did exercise tremendous influence on the BJP, but this was more on account of their personalities and not an institutionalized arrangement.

It is hard to put a finger on exactly when this delicate arrangement began to be disturbed. After the BJP’s spectacular surge in 1991 and its success in forming state governments, some local RSS bigwigs developed an undue interest in political power. Pressures from lay swayamsevaks on the local RSS translated into RSS pressure on the BJP leadership. The most glaring example of this was the manner in which Jaswant Singh’s appointment as finance minister was scotched in 1998 at the behest of a RSS notable who, it was widely believed, was acting at the behest of corporate interests. Throughout their tenure in government, both Vajpayee and Advani used to complain bitterly at the attempted micro-management by the RSS leadership. The RSS, it was clear, was hell bent on enlarging the lakshman rekha of the relationship.


The RSS was initially prone to leveraging its volunteer army for securing political returns. It was believed that the BJP was disproportionately dependant on RSS foot soldiers for electioneering. This was certainly the case till the early-1990s when the BJP’s presence throughout the country was spectacularly uneven. However, by the 1996 election it was clear that the political momentum lay with the BJP rather than the RSS. As more and more local notables and activists from other political parties flocked to the BJP, making it the largest non-Congress outfit, the party’s dependence on the RSS declined. Apart from Madhya Pradesh where the RSS network is very extensive, the growth of the BJP in the rest of the country owed primarily to the entry of peoples and communities from non-RSS backgrounds. Vajpayee had always sought to make the BJP a wholesome version of the Janata Party that defeated the Congress in 1977; by 1996, his mission seemed near completion.


There were certain features that distinguished the RSS from the BJP’s political style. First, the RSS believed that an organization would expand and be effective through organizational rigour and discipline. This was based on its own experience in the shakhas. The BJP attached a premium on political articulation and the ability to draw in social groups. It believed in a modicum of organization but was never obsessive about it.

Second, the BJP, particularly Vajpayee, believed that the growth of the party could happen only when individuals and groups from different political and cultural traditions also rallied behind it. The BJP may have flaunted its credentials as an ‘ideological’ party with a cadre base. The reality, however, was very different. It was at variance with the RSS which believed in a composite ideology and strict regimentation.

Finally, the community life of the RSS was woefully incestuous. The organization was markedly partial towards those who had attended shakhas in their youth and were willing to parade in khaki shorts on appropriate occasions. There was an unstated belief in the RSS that swayamsevaks were morally superior to those Hindus who had never been exposed to the shakha environment. Predictably, such an attitude posed problems in the functioning of the BJP. As the party expanded, the RSS grew more and more reckless in its insistence that only their chosen ones could occupy positions of importance. From being a remote moral ombudsman, the RSS soon transformed itself into a faction in the BJP.

This transformation had profound consequences. After the 2004 defeat, the RSS arrived at the conclusion that the NDA failed because it was insufficiently attentive to the core concerns of Hindu nationalism. It was believed that the correction could take place if there was appropriate RSS intervention at all levels. The ‘retirement’ of Vajpayee and Advani was a key component of the RSS strategy. The appointment of Rajnath was supposed to herald a slow organizational takeover which would, in time, lead to the BJP resuming its role as an ‘ideological’ party.


Although the RSS decided to give Advani a final shy at power in 2009, its heart was never in the election campaign. Backed by his RSS point man, Rajnath did his utmost to undermine the projection of the BJP as a responsible, centrist, party of governance. Prior to the election, he encouraged dissidence in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar. A particular attempt was made to cut Narendra Modi to size by fermenting a Patel revolt in which the VHP stalwart Praveen Togadia played a major part. Prior to the 2007 assembly election, the RSS even instructed its full-timers to refrain from supporting Modi. In Uttar Pradesh, the selection of candidates was manipulated in a manner so as to invite defeat. In Rajasthan, a RSS-backed inner-party revolt cost Vasundhara Raje her re-election in 2008. And Rajnath’s own secretariat was hyperactive in feeding a hungry media both real and imaginary stories about the disarray in the BJP.

The point to note is that the troubles in the BJP weren’t the outcome of Rajnath’s manipulative personality alone. At every point he received the backing of those senior RSS leaders assigned to look after the BJP. The RSS, it would seem in hindsight, was creating the conditions for a complete takeover of the party – a process that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made clear to the whole country in October 2009. Bhagwat did what no RSS functionary had done so explicitly: he proclaimed that the RSS was the boss and that BJP could either take it or lump it.


For the moment, a sullen BJP has chosen the path of least resistance. Many of those who flocked to the party after 1996 have departed for greener pastures and many others are biding their time before jumping ship. The RSS has also succeeded in imposing its man, Nitin Gadkari, as the next president. The BJP tried to counter it by proposing Narendra Modi – a choice that the RSS found difficult to oppose. However, a wise Modi decided that this was not the time to jump into the centre of controversy.

For the moment, many BJP stalwarts, including those who are nominally swayamsevaks, are playing a waiting game. They hope that the RSS takeover will run its course, end in complete failure and enable the politicians to begin the real task of political reconstruction. A formal split in the party is not being contemplated.

If events follow the script, the next three years will witness the RSS assuming the role of a political party blessed with beliefs and certitudes from another age. The dissenters believe that they will just have to endure the dark days and live to fight another day – there being no such thing as the last word in politics. Their faith in the future may well be justified. However, it is also entirely possible that in a very short span the RSS will reduce the BJP into a mirror image of itself: a large voluntary body with little influence in society and irrelevant to the uninitiated. That would be a cruel end to India’s most effective alternative to the Congress.