-By SANJAY JHA
On last Thursday evening , pre-dinner hours, I thought I saw renowned classical singer Pandit Jasraj emerge and head inside Delhi’s new swanky domestic airport. But as I trooped into closer proximity to the grand musical maestro, I discovered it was Sudheendra Kulkarni, the current political gad-fly of the BJP , key party spokesperson, LK Advani’s electoral strategist and regular Indian Express columnist. Fully aware that Kulkarni’s introspective piece in Tehelka has created bedlam in the lotus garden , I still congratulated him for being absolutely forthright. Understandably Kulkarni remained poker-faced and noncommittal, but he is a receptive listener and a fine gentleman.
As Yashwant Sinha quits party posts, Jaswant Singh raises his baritone into an inflammatory crescendo, and Sushma Swaraj describes the situation “ volcanic” even without her characteristic hyperbole, it is discernible that the BJP is perhaps going through it’s most turbulent, tumultuous times. In a great number of ways, it manifests a political party that has remained in a self-contained cocoon, totally segregated from practical realities, lying lazily like a couch potato watching the idiot box, consumed by some strange self-delusional arrogance. Since every political commentator is having an open field day providing prognosis for the future and diagnosis of the past, I am feeling singularly left out ; hence, my pearls of wisdom and the prescription for the BJP, following the American style of “ 10 things to do model” ( where you can happily extend 7 ideas into 3 more, or abbreviate 15 suggestions to 10); either way, it works. I have chosen 11 just to be a step ahead.
1) THE POOR HAVE NO RELIGION
Please believe that Mr Narendra Modi ! The truth is that the UPA did an above average to good job, bordering on commendable, but more importantly, it focused on India’s real needy and hopelessly under-priveleged, not merely the Ambani brothers, stock –market punters ( who are less than 100 basis points of India’s population) and frequent fliers. The BJP still looks to represent only the middle-class, nothing wrong with that in terms of electoral targeting. But the middle class is precisely that, in the middle of nowhere, primarily indifferent and essentially a fair weather friend as far as political loyalties go. But it is those who live in the other side of midnight who really matter. The media and the BJP sniggered when Rahul Gandhi visited Dalit homes, slept overnight on charpoys, and went unnoticed when visiting tribal areas in Orissa. In fact, barring Suman Jha from Indian Express , no one was even willing to cover the Youth Congress elections being held in Punjab, compelling Rahul’s crack-team to work on a press release draft! But the reason why Rahul is today getting his much-delayed but well deserved appreciation ( although knowing him it makes not an iota of difference to him whether anyone notices or not) is because he is genuine and is pursuing a larger agenda of political purification.
The BJP is stuck on the middle-class story for vote purposes , but unfortunately, it is no longer anyone’s sweet spot . It is time they went “ swades” and read Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. Back to the classroom, folks!
2) 2009 IS NOT SEMIS, ONLY A QUARTER-FINAL
Despite three successive heart-breaking defeats against Rafael Nadal at the French Open , Roger Federer never gave up. Finally against all odds and certainly not rated as the top-most favorite, he still won. But as the current quagmire reveals, the BJP is not the greatest tennis player, as it looks devastated at it’s humiliating rout in May 2009. I am sure a second successive defeat hurts, but what should bother the party think-tank is that they have not learnt any lessons. The BJP does not listen; on the contrary, it loves to live in a fool’s paradise. They were wrong on two fronts; firstly, it can only be cocky arrogance that makes them feel and look so remarkably disappointed at their abject failure. On what basis, may I ask , did they even harbour notions of a 7, Race Course Rd entry ? Ram Mandir? Narendra Modi’s “ development record’? LK Advani’s best-seller book? Or merely sound byte speak in TV studios? Secondly, they looked like a rag-tag bunch who were clueless about popular issues affecting the common man; bottom-line, Advani came across as being simply obsessed with personal PM ambitions, and the BJP seemed logically subverted to fulfilling his private wish-list. It’s manifesto was never debated by it’s candidates or spokespeople.
If the BJP is truly committed to national welfare, they should treat elections 2009 not just as a semi-final, but a quarter-final; and get down to brass-tacks of grass-root engagement, which does not mean shakhas alone. .
3) JUST DUMP HINDUTVA
I know this will sound like sacrilegious nonsense to arm-chair critics, but the truth is that the age-old Hindu vote bank politics is over. Frankly, it was over in 2004 itself, but I was surprised how no one ever analysed that. Just think: although the India Shining campaign was definitely pre-mature and terribly opportunistic, it was not that the Atal Behari Vajpayee government was a complete disaster either. In areas like infrastructure, commercial liberalization, even foreign policy they had done reasonably well. Now logically a moderately performing BJP should be a natural magnet for core “Hindu voters” ( I agree with Kulkarni that this so-called constituency may actually be a chimera though ) . The BJP should have ideally increased both their vote share and parliamentary seats, and not reduced it. That’s why their stunned disbelief at the electoral verdict last time.
The reason behind the shock 2004 defeat and now are strikingly similar; a complete disconnect with the Congress’s “aam admi” . Hindutva, communal separatism and religious polarization can only succeed in times of either unusual social disturbances or great economic turmoil. In normal times, such extremist philosophies become redundant. I believe that the BJP , even more than regional caste-outfits like Mayawati-BSP and Mulayam Yaday-SP was the biggest beneficiary of youth joblessness and the VP Singh-inspired Mandal agitations; the social realignment meant a fresh consolidation of rural votes , but the trigger was not based on communal-caste issues, but on economic imperatives such as educational quotas, job opportunities, and protection of basic fundamental rights. The BJP with its then rabid- fire rabble -rousing won, just like Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany with rising inflation and high unemployment. But this frenetic nationalism will never work in a regular, stable society with relatively higher economic resilience and a promising future.
To be pan-India and not to draw a blank on 143 seats and more, the BJP has to have an economic and social formula, not Ram Mandir. The latter and it’s bloody aftermath is history, and India’s blotched stigma in post-Independence times. It is time to calculatedly walk away from RSS influence, publicly disassociate itself from the Sangh parivar , and instead work as a pure political organization focused on people welfare. It will take extraordinary leadership for this humongous transition to happen.
4) MODERNIZTION IS INEVITABLE
Considering they take pride in religious identity , they should read world history to know that modernization, freedom from obscurantist thinking and strait-jacketed ideology is an inevitable aspect of human evolution. Even though the Roman Catholic church resisted the Protestant movement, even after a bloody 150 years, the Reformation finally succeeded. It is natural, you can delay it, but you cannot prevent it. The BJP needs to modernize its philosophy, become open minded, and stop believing that fossilized issues can be its raison d’etre for existence. Isn’t it incongruous that on the one hand their national leader Modi is being touted as a future PM because of his developmental credentials, and yet , they espouse the hardline philosophy of religious extremities; in a country as diverse as India, the two cannot co-exist. The BJP needs to make a choice.
5) APOLOGIZE FOR GODHRA
It is about time the BJP stops shedding crocodile tears on Gujarat 2002. They must categorically ,deeply apologise for what happened in Godhra, and outright condemn the heinous genocide. The whole world knows it was terribly wrong, and whatever the judicial process unearths ( so far blatantly circumvented by wily politicians) , Narendra Modi will continue to suffer from the “OJ Simpson” syndrome; guilty but unpunished . The people of India are extremely forgiving ( of course, the BJP is so off-track , they do not know that). It is important for the BJP to shed the heavy historical baggage, or else it will haunt them till the milky way exists. Until till such time, the party can never have the moral strength to claim that they can ever build a unified India. Modi, like Sharad Pawar will remain a regional single -state satrap; both have had reputations for administrative abilities. Unfortunately, one could not speak the national language too well, and the other only speaks the language of divisiveness.
President Barack Obama has offered an unprecedented olive branch to the Muslim world in his candid Cairo speech , a sincere gesture of transparent reconciliation ( forget the usual media cynics and the prophets of doom ). BJP needs to consider a similar strategy; a complete 360* turnaround.
6) DO A STRESS TEST ON LEADERSHIP
With due respects, from the moment they chose LK Advani as the PM candidate I thought they were on the defensive. I had also mentioned earlier that the Varun Gandhi episode would be a turning point in the elections; it did. Varun’s speech was universally condemned by all self respecting Indians, it was ridiculously pathetic, insufferably guttural, and viciously malevolent. But what did Mr Advani do? Nothing. Despite EC apprehensions, they endorsed Varun, when facts proved that he was a clinical liar and honestly, quite stupid. Varun won his Pilibhit seat, but the BJP lost votes across the nation. And the country’s goodwill, faith and trust.
If you take a look at the old bunch in a standard BJP congregation, one realizes that they are so remarkably oblivious of ground realities. It looks like they are meeting to elect Head—Retirement Benefits. The newly christened ( pun unintended) Friends of BJP believed that a digital campaign will give Mr Advani those missing triceps; it was myopic. TV anchors looked mighty pleased with the phrase that “150 is the new 272”. But what everyone (tragically enough , particularly the BJP) forgot was that “35 is the new 60”. Rahul Gandhi painstakingly clarified that he felt old at 38 , but the BJP was projecting Modi as their “ young face”. The contrast was glaring.
The BJP has no alternative leaders ( to Advani) today with a national aura, that’s why the crisis.
7) KNOW YOUR STATS; IT’S 145 MILLION
The BJP needs to come to terms with the fact that their existential dilemma is largely on account of their continued warped ideology on 16% of the country’s population. But they forget that the numerical strength of that small percentage is 145 million ( more than the population of neighboring Pakistan). You do not need to be a research scholar to know that any sensible, pragmatic, far-sighted political party should look at “ inclusive integration” of the minority communities, not orchestrate a deliberate alienation. Bluntly put, I think the BJPs anti-Muslim slant is grotesque, impractical and self-destructive in current times. Can a modern-day India on a high trajectory really afford to alienate the entire Muslim class , just because they have a few flawed short-sighted leaders ? Do we want young kids learning militant ideology in Indian madrasas ? Indian Muslims have been a peaceful lot , and they have demonstrated exemplary character in condemning 26/11. Al Qaeda can never perhaps set base in India if we have a secular healthy social fabric. But the BJPs policy of intentional divide can willingly drive many innocuous young children susceptible to planned propaganda into the school of terrorist philosophy. It could seriously endanger our otherwise peaceful existence.
I agree that the Congress needs to correct the wrong perception of minority appeasement and being soft on terror, but that can hardly be a substantive argument for BJP to ostracize Muslims. Time to do a serious re-think.
8) BE A GOOD OPPOSITION
As I have written before, LK Advani and the BJP lost a massive opportunity for winning a landslide national approval when they foolishly voted against the Indo-US nuclear deal for petty , partisan reasons. Advani was extraordinarily hackneyed, and the BJP sounded more old-fashioned and regressive than the Left comrades. Over the next 5 years, it will be pertinent how the BJP conducts itself, despite positive early assurances by Arun Jaitley and Advani. Constructive opposition is not just about motherhood statements, but to support the government in what it does right. BJP needs to change it’s DNA; sure, they should not abandon their confrontationist ways where they deem appropriate, but a collaborative attitude will help.
9) BE A “COOL PARTY”; IMPROVE PR
The BJP looks as if they are constantly simmering with a bad stomach; usually trenchant, visibly unsmiling and naturally paranoid. The way the BJP spokespeople went bonkers on the flogged- to- extinction Bofors issue just before the elections revealed a hollow vacuum in their ability to comprehend their own priorities. They need to take a deep breath ( what the ABVP may be call a “chill-pill”) and rework their public profile. From being the cool party of the urban affluent, they now resemble a tired, fuddy- duddy gang in a retro time- machine stuck on reverse gear, while going uphill.
10) IT”S ABOUT ASSIMILATION ; WELCOME DIVERSITY
The globalisation theme of tomorrow rests entirely on world-wide diversity. Australia is paying a price for it’s racist propensities , it will at least in the short- term hurt its tourist traffic, and in the long- run, drastically cut back immigrant movement, and even investment, business and trade with affected countries. . The BJP should understand that intolerance of communities based on issues of origin, has become irrelevant as the world shrinks. Countries that practise discrimination will experience political isolation. India’s diversity is a natural advantage, we are a country of amazing contradictions; we should leverage that, not make it a casualty of hate politics.
It is time the BJP thought “ global” if they want to represent 16% of the world’s population.
11) IT IS NOT JUST A DEMOGRPAHIC DIVIDEND, BUT A DEMOGRAPHIC BONUS
The youth are not just a demographic dividend, they are a demographic bonus for India. An incredible windfall. The BJPs core philosophy of Hindu identity is beyond comprehension for most simple down to earth young people. In fact, it is asinine for the BJP to believe that these identity issues will have much relevance with every passing year as India gets more progressive, prosperous, modern and open. The youth want to know about IIM-IIT admissions, career options, vocational courses, education loans, job reservations, saving and investment routes, admission criteria, deemed universities status etc. The BJP and the Indian media frequently scoffed at Rahul’s several initiatives branding him as a rookie politician, they missed the point that he has a statesmanlike vision , uncorrupted by power and untouched by arrogance. Gandhi is inspiring a silent metamorphosis of epic proportions, because he is with the pulse of India’s future. The BJP can and should take lessons from the young Gandhi’s far-sighted vision. As an international news-weekly says, Rahul is India’s “ quiet revolutionary”.
My suggestions may seem prima facie over the top and radical, but they are within parameters of high potentiality. Maybe it is time for BJP to split down the middle; I don’t recommend forming another party but a clear shift to other political formations could be an option. The Congress has split several times and survived, thrived and emerged stronger, so why not the BJP? They need to completely abandon the religious bandwagon, and recreate a new secular entity, solid, focused on governance and good values. Why can’t a Yashwant Sinha or Arun Jaitley aspire to join the Congress? Kulkarni talked of a national government and several immediately conveniently ridiculed him, but I honestly believe that BJPs future lies in being similar to the Congress, not distinctively, ideologically biased on some obfuscated Hindu agenda. The voter must choose a party on issues like farm and agricultural policy and wages, capital punishment, land reforms, taxation, foreign policy, SEZs, labor and exit policies, PSU s and privatization, infrastructure , internal security, anti-terrorist agendas, child welfare, education and health. Even gay rights .
Both the Congress and the BJP must strive to increase their vote share and relevance on the national stage and bring about a culture of consensus and candor in our political environment, not always seething with preordained distrust and pugilistic postures. Of course, they should have a belligerent bull-fight come election time peppered with sarcasm , intelligence , humor and wit, but it need not touch the abysmal depths of personal abuse, false accusations and pedestrian maligning to which Modi took it this time.
In an era of great transformation that is India , a good beginning means a real head-start. The BJP should take Kulkarni and others seriously . One should never shirk from listening to “ home truths”; facts don’t cease to exist because we ignore them. The gag order makes the BJP veterans look like silly schoolboys who have flunked a test and are being forced to maintain pin-drop-silence. Yes, Sir!
America had the courage , vision and strength to vote a colored man as a president. Within his first 100 days, he has embarked on a path-breaking mission. Change, and positive change, is in the air. World-wide. His Cairo speech will echo a millennium from now. In every sphere, from Wall Street, Cuba, Afghanistan, outsourcing, Detroit, Iran and Palestine, he has taken steps and expressed his intent to make a difference. He has been a leader. Fearless, determined and decisive. More importantly, honest. The BJP can take a leaf and more from Obama’s orchard.
The BJP will have to now do some serious thinking. Honestly. Leadership is not for the meek, cowardly or the weak-hearted. Or for those who fail to look within. It is indeed time for them to do a chintan-baithak.