May 20, 2009

There is nothing called a Hindu vote!

Hindustan Times, May 19, 2009

Barking up the wrong tree

by Jyotirmaya Sharma

The turbulence in the BJP and the RSS after the results of the Lok Sabha elections on May 16 have little to do with just a bad strategy and campaign having misfired. The RSS has long wanted to put in place a swayamsevak as the leader of the BJP. The model they have in the mind is that of Deendayal Upadhyaya, who was uncharismatic, but cerebral and a devout organisational man. The rise of A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, first as initiators of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and subsequently as leaders running a government for six years, altered the equation between the parent organisation and its political wing. Vajpayee and Advani ignored the pressures and advice of the RSS in the name of running a coalition government. The RSS was a mute spectator: for instance, the RSS suggested trifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir but the BJP-led NDA government rejected the proposal. Its warning against disinvestment in strategic sectors of the economy fell on deaf ears.

The RSS chose to call it the ascendency of the personality cult, vyaktiwad, in the BJP. This was anathema to the ideologically driven organisation, where ideology and organisation have unchallenged primacy over individuals. After the 2004 elections and the loss of power for the NDA, the top RSS leaders systematically poured scorn on Vajpayee and Advani and called for a generational change in the leadership. The RSS was particularly unhappy with Advani’s remarks on M.A. Jinnah. Advani’s folly, the RSS felt, lay not merely in issuing a secular certificate for Jinnah, but writing words to the effect that he honoured Jinnah for single-handedly creating Pakistan. Worse still, Advani has said that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was the saddest day in his life, a perception the RSS does not share.

Between 2004 and 2009, the RSS and the BJP failed to find an alternative to Advani. The second generation of leaders in the BJP had tasted power, had created factions of their own and did not always tow the RSS line. The BJP has realised that the RSS does not represent either the Hindu society nor do RSS affiliates effectively invoke Hindu sentiments in order to translate them into votes. Till 2004, the RSS and the BJP had a twin strategy: they spoke of nationalism when in power and Hindutva when out of power. In 2009, they resolved to add another dimension to this plan. They saw a ray of hope in Narendra Modi’s reinvention as the messiah of progress and development. The BJP manifesto for 2009, therefore, had a potpourri of disparate elements, ranging from building the Ram temple, to tax relief for the middle class and emphasis on development. Hindutva as the panacea for Kaliyuga, the dark epoch, was to go hand in hand with an indigenous version of Star Wars for the 20th century. Add to this a profusion of prime ministerial candidates and Advani’s targeting of Manmohan Singh in the manner of a street bully sealed the fate of the BJP and much of the NDA.

The way forward for the BJP and the RSS is a treacherous one. The RSS has no charismatic leaders; since Balasaheb Deoras, the Sangh has had individuals elevated to the top position by sheer dent of seniority, a kind of departmental promotion, without necessarily deserving the office. The BJP suffers from a similar dilemma. It no longer has leaders of the stature of Vajpayee, and to a lesser extent, Advani, though it has a surplus of pretenders. It had pinned its hopes on Modi for ensuring a reversal in its fortunes. A brief look at Modi’s record in Gujarat itself in 2009 would be instructive. In Patan and Surendranagar, Modi gave tickets to former Congressmen, while in Rajkot, a local industrialist was fielded by the BJP. All of them lost the election. Initial estimates suggest that the vote-share of the BJP in Gujarat has fallen since 2004. This defies the explanation being offered that Govardhan Zadaphia’s rebel outfit did to Modi what the MNS of Raj Thackerey has done to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. The BJP’s tepid performance in Gujarat has had more to do with Modi’s misplaced confidence in being the ruler of the hearts of the Gujaratis.

Before the BJP resolves the leadership issue, it needs to come to terms with three important ideological issues. It must decide, once and for all, whether it is for economic liberalisation and a globalisation-driven model of development or whether swadeshi still informs its economic policy. In matters of foreign policy and domestic security policy, it must desist from creating a fear and threat psychosis in the name of Pakistan and China. Crying wolf is no substitute for policy. Lastly, it has to go beyond anachronistic elements like building a Ram Temple or targeting individuals in the name of moral policing. It must come clear in delineating its stand on the Muslim and Christian citizens of India. It can afford to remain a Hindu nationalist party, but it will have to drop its quest for a Hindu Rashtra, an idea that threatens not only the Muslims and the Christians, but also those who refuse to subscribe to the sangh parivar’s version of the Hindu Rashtra.

M.G. Vaidya, the senior RSS leader, had once famously said that “the BJP is not the life-breath of the Sangh”. The BJP must take this to heart and commit the much-needed patricide. If the lessons of 2004 and 2009 are to be deciphered for the BJP, they are reducible to just one very significant element: there is nothing called a Hindu vote. Extending the argument, there is no political or social outfit that can claim to represent all Hindus, much less hope to transform a mythical Hindu unity into votes.

Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of politics at the University of Hyderabad and the author of Hindutva: Exploring the idea of Hindu nationlistion.