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Inching forward, despite boredom - The Indian Express

Swapan Dasgupta ()
8 February 1997

Title : Inching forward, despite boredom
Author : Swapan Dasgupta
Publication : The Indian Express
Date : February 8, 1997

Traditionally, or at any rate since 1988, the BJP beat has been
regarded as a prize assignment in Delhi's journalistic circles.
Apart from the obvious fact that the BJP was a party constantly on
the move, the utterances and statements of the party leadership
offered ample scope for what may loosely be called ideological
over-determination. Each of L. K. Advani's measured asides, Atal
Behari Vajpayee's convivial one-liners and K. N. Govindacharya's
earnest back-room briefings were thoroughly dissected for tell-tale
clues about the party's "hidden" agenda to transform India into a
Hindu version of the Ayatollah's Iran. For eight years, the BJP
was a willing victim of over-scrutiny, over-exposure and
over-interpretation.

But no more. Since the Gujarat debacle and Uttar Pradesh stalemate
last October, the hacks on the Ashoka Road beat have been
complaining of a curious phenomenon: boredom. Like most things
about the BJP, even this complaint is a trifle exaggerated. There
have been moments of real and contrived excitement - the
uncertainty surrounding the Rajasthan Government, the "chintan
sabha" in Virar, the ongoing speculation over Advani's successor,
the VHP's posturing on Mathura, etc - but even these have not
succeeded in dispelling the impression that the BJP is on a long
vacation from politics.

At one level, the impression seems real. Despite its phenomenal
growth over the years, the BJP remains at heart a middle class
party, the party of urban and rural Middle India. Its activists
are not, contrary to popular impression, professional politicians,
but people who see political involvement as a display of
public-spiritedness. For the ordinary BJP worker, politics is less
a crusade than an add-on to his job, profession or business. Such
a constituency is by its very nature incapable of sustained
hyper-involvement - the long-drawn Ayodhya movement being a case of
exceptional motivation. In ordinary times, the BJP at the
grassroots is energised for only a month or so each year.
Ironically, it is this relative detachment which keeps the party
alive in moments of political downturn.

It is important to understand the social character of the BJP to
comprehend the party's apparent inability to exploit the glaring
failures of the most inept Government this country has witnessed
since independence. There is a certain middle class weariness and
disgust with what is happening in India in the name of politics.
As Deve Gowda blunders from one deal to another, and as Sitaram
Kesri preoccupies himself with scoring points. at Delhi's
interminable Iftar parties. Middle India has reconciled itself to
the fact that very little can be expected from either the United
Front or its Congress crutch. At the same time, there is a
simultaneous realisation that the political class is unwilling to
face up to an early general election. Consequently, frustration
has given way to calm indifference. Sensing prolonged frustration,
Middle India has simply opted out of public life and is devoting
its energies in creating islands of personal survival. The BJP's
passivity merely epitomises that retreat.

To, however, conclude from that passivity that the BJP itself is in
retreat is both inaccurate and unwarranted. An opinion poll
conducted by ORG-MARG in the recent issue of India Today (the
sampling seems quite thorough) suggests that in the event of a snap
poll, the tally of the BJP and its allies would rise from the
present 194 to 240. In short, the party would maintain its status
as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha - outpacing the
Congress whose numbers are estimated to fall from the present 139
to 115 and at the same time, be within striking distance of the
half-way mark. The same poll also suggests that Vajpayee is still
the most preferred choice as Prime Minister - his 29 per cent
endorsement dwarfing Gowda's nine per cent and Kesri's two per
cent.

Although opinion polls in India are only indicative rather than
completely accurate, the ORG-MARG poll shatters certain existing
assumptions of the pundits. First, contrary to what Congress
leaders maintain, the replacement of Narasimha Rao by Kesri has not
enhanced the appeal of the Congress. Indeed, there is now a real
possibility of the BJP alliance overtaking the Congress in popular
votes. The poll gives Congress 26.7 per cent of the vote as
against the BJP alliance's 28 per cent. Second, it would seem that
the BJP advance has primarily been at the expense of the Congress.
Despite its sniper attacks on Gowda and its success in dominating
the front pages, the Congress has not been able to regain political
momentum. The BJP has advanced, despite itself.

It is tempting to attribute the BJP's enhanced clout to the party
is lack of initiative. By opting out at a time when both Gowda and
Kesri are engaged in parlour games of competitive irrelevance, the
BJP has unwittingly undermined the UF coalition's raison d'etre:
anti-BJPism. If Gowda or Kesri were to attribute the country's
present economic misfortunes and ethical drift to the presence of
the BJP, they would be laughed out of court. The BJP may convey
the impression of being led by a tired team which is unable to
evolve a meaningful post-Ayodhya, non-confrontational approach.
But compared to the unprepossessing bunch (there are honourable
exceptions, of course) which threatens to take India to the new
millennium, Vajpayee and Advani appear distinctly Churchillian.

There are two ways in which the BJP can respond to the evidence
that it is being seen as the best of a bad lot. The first, is by
persisting with variations of tired, old slogans which bolster
ideological machismo. This is what a section of the RSS - good,
noble souls whose contact with the real world is incidental would
love, not least because it is familiar and, therefore, comforting.
This course, however, runs the real risk of revitalising
anti-BJPism with all its attendant electoral consequences.

The alternative is to resuscitate Advani's modernising agenda which
has been inexplicably put on hold by the party president himself.
If the BJP has to effect an electoral breakthrough, it has to
position itself as a forward-looking, yet conservative,
centre-right party which nurtures Indian self-confidence and robust
nationhood. It has to blend audacity of thought with tactical
caution. As things stand, only the latter is in evidence, a
possible reason why Middle India remains bored with politics.



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