A trap of its own making

A trap of its  own making

Make no mistake about it. The BJP is in the midst of a huge crisis. Contrary to general estimates, the crisis is neither about Jinnah or Patel, nor about the rebellious utterances of some of the party members. These utterances constitute only a manifestation of a much deeper crisis from within. To be sure, the crisis is about a loss of orientation and a sense of direction. There is a history and a background to it.

As India became independent, its politics came to be shaped up like a broad spectrum whose extreme edges were occupied by the Right and the Left, with Congress firmly established in the centre. Congress under Nehru occupied a large part of the spectrum leaving very little margin for the parties at the extreme ends. As the initial decades after independence unfolded, it became clear that the Congress was both a political party and a system.

 The Congress system represented an accommodation of multiple factions (of caste, religion and region as well as various other interests) within a single political formation, while retaining the objectives of development and national unity at the apex. The constituent factions were to exercise considerable autonomy and could compete for a better bargaining position within the organisational hierarchy. Thus, the organisation remained ‘centralised’ at the top and ‘federalised’ down below. This was the ‘system’ Congress party developed and practised but without
really patenting it.

The BJP owed its initial rise to prominence to the Ramjanma Bhumi movement launched in the late ‘80s and mobilising Hindus behind this movement. The high point of the movement came in December 1992 with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Whereas it is true that the movement enabled the BJP to make initial inroads among the Hindus, it is undeniable that the movement was incapable of providing any long-term stability to the party.

From late1960s onwards the social base of Congress party began to be gradually eroded, and by the late 1980s, the party was reduced to being a mere shadow of its past. The space vacated by Congress was occupied nationally by the BJP and the Left, and in the states by a host of regional formations, each confined to its own region. This scenario led to an interesting alignment. With Left unable, or unwilling, to stake its claim as an independent all-India force, the national political contest got divided between Congress and BJP, with the regional forces strategically aligned with either of the two big giants.

From this vantage point, BJP could have potentially gone on to become the political numero uno. But it misread Indian politics and made some strategic mistakes. It completely miscalculated the Congress decline. The truth is that while the Congress party had declined, Congress system remained intact and well in place. The fact was that Congress party had abandoned its own brand of politics, practised earlier. The BJP, therefore, needed to make use of this opportunity to try and become the alternative Congress by trying to adopt the Congress system.

Costly baggage

Indian politics was objectively crying out for an alternative to Congress. Left was not in a position to provide the alternative. BJP could potentially have filled this gap. All it needed to do was to loosen its links with the RSS and not go about bandying its own communal past. BJP needed to realise that communalism was no longer a strength but a huge liability in working the Congress system.

But, as it happened, the BJP proved to be hopelessly inept at this. It needed to break from its own past and work towards fashioning a new identity for itself. The Ramjanma Bhumi movement and Gujarat violence have proved to be a heavy baggage. The party has to shed this baggage if it wants to move forward.

Indian politics is still in need of Congress system. The enormous plurality of the country requires a political party that can function like an umbrella formation catering to multiple factional aspirations. BJP can fulfill this need only if it sheds its communal baggage and Congressizes itself. The decline of Congress party from its glorious heights of the 1950s and 1960s, has provided a unique opportunity to BJP. But given its past record and ideological dependence on the RSS, it seems highly doubtful that the party will be able to make use of the opportunity offered by the circumstances.

(The writer teaches history at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.)

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