K.N. Panikkar


The turmoil within the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is out of proportion to its electoral setback in the last parliamentary elections.  What then is the reason for extraordinary steps being taken by phantom leadership? Professor Panikkar takes a historical look at various steps taken by BJP since its founding and concludes that BJP might be gearing up to becoming the champion of Hindutva fascism rather than accommodating the less committed leaders and members in its ranks. In short, BJP is to be free and frank instrument of implementing RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) agenda.


The rumblings within the BJP could end in its reincarnation as an uncompromising Hindu fundamentalist party


The recent electoral defeat is not the reason for the present turmoil in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The defeat is only a symptom. The reason lies deeper in the very nature of the party, its ideology and programme. Success and defeat are endemic to all political parties. When a party is politically mature it does not panic in the face of defeat, nor does it go overboard to celebrate success. But then, political maturity is not a virtue the BJP enjoys in abundance. This is surprising; for the party has waited for about 50 years to come to power. Nevertheless, power proved to be a disaster, as it foregrounded the schisms within and, more grievously, exposed the party’s utter inability to provide efficient and effective administration.


The BJP came to power in 1998 riding on popular, emotive slogans and programmes inspired by Hindu religious sentiments. The political appeal of these slogans could not be sustained for long. The alternatives, such as “shining India”, which the BJP election managers invented, failed to arouse popular enthusiasm. Obviously, those who lived on less than Rs.20 a day could not be made to believe in the myth that India was shining. Facts are more powerful than fiction. The elections of 2004 proved that Goebbels is not necessarily right; slogans, however loudly and repeatedly raised, cannot always convince the people.


If economic and administrative reasons made the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government unacceptable to a large section of the population, the BJP’s obscurantist and communal policies alienated even its own staunch supporters. Except during the Emergency, no other government in India aroused so much opposition of the people. It was mainly because what the government advocated and implemented went against common sense. Whether the Congress believed it or not, the BJP was pushed out in the 2004 elections mainly, though not exclusively, because of its anti-secular and communal image. The Congress was not voted in; the BJP was voted out. The Congress was an unintended beneficiary as people had no other choice but to repose faith in the grand old party. In the elections in 2009, the BJP could not become a serious player because of its communal image, although several other factors were also responsible for its marginalisation.


Rise of the BJP


The success of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1992 convinced the Sangh Parivar that it was on the right path to power. Ayodhya, projected as a cultural and religious symbol of Hindus, was perceived as a gold mine with inexhaustible possibilities, the least of which was the expansion of the BJP’s mass base, until then drawn mainly from the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak agenda. Their main effort was to forge an identity between religion and culture at the grassroots level for the consolidation of Hindu religious believers, who would subsequently become supporters of the communal cause. The communal euphoria of the 1990s was, in fact, a result of this transformation, which the cultural intervention of the Sangh Parivar organisations effected through sustained activities.


This strategy was eminently successful: around a variety of religious issues Hindus were brought to the fold of the Parivar, which in turn provided mass support for the party. Consequently, the BJP emerged as a mass party, capable of bidding for power.


At the same time, a shift to the right was generally taking place among the intelligentsia. The left radicals, Sudheendra Kulkarni and Chandan Mitra, and liberals, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, among others, flocked to the BJP, convinced that it was the party of the future. At any rate, the BJP being a party short of talent, their future in it was assured. They were all absorbed in important administrative or organisational positions. How this inflow of “outsiders”, who had nothing to do with the party’s RSS base, would affect the BJP’s ideological coherence and internal solidarity was not a concern then, when power was not yet at a striking distance. Their entry, it was believed, would help the party’s general acceptance. But very soon their rise in the party created internal tensions, partly because most of them were earlier severe critics of Hindutva.


Despite their visible presence and influence in the party, they were looked upon by the RSS with reservation. To the RSS, they were at best a necessary evil to be tolerated for the sake of gaining political acceptance from the middle classes and forging alliances with secular parties. Although they were an important ingredient in the coalition manoeuvre of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, they could not win the RSS’ confidence, however much some of them, such as Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, tried. As a consequence, over the years, the former left and liberal intellectuals became critical of the party’s subjection to the RSS, not only in ideological terms but more so in practical politics. This was possibly a result of the conviction that the BJP as a party wedded to Hindutva had reached its limits and had to break out of it in order to come back to power.


Sudheendra Kulkarni, believed to be a close aide and adviser of Lal Krishna Advani and who was reported to have scripted the Jinnah speech, had advocated an independent path for the party. There is a general impression that what impelled Advani to extol Jinnah’s contribution and Jaswant Singh to write the book on Jinnah was the urge to free the party from the clutches of the RSS. That Advani was almost shown the door and Jaswant Singh was thrown out without even routine procedures being followed indicate the control the RSS continues to wield on the party. In the BJP, there is no chance for survival for anyone who does not accept the RSS’ supremacy. Conscious of this reality, Vajpayee suppressed his initial anger over the Gujarat massacre, and Advani quickly backtracked from his admiration for Jinnah’s secular credentials.


Reasons for the turmoil


The present turmoil in the party is occasioned by another reminder from the RSS that the BJP is not an independent political formation but one of its front organisations, charged with the responsibility to implement the Hindutva agenda. In the past, whenever the party faced a crisis, the RSS intervened to maintain discipline and assert its ideology. There was never any doubt about what that ideology was constitutive of. Its main contours were laid down by M.S. Golwalkar; it unambiguously advocated a Hindu Rashtra and its practical politics was inspired by a hatred of the minorities.


The BJP’s mission, therefore, cannot be separated from these basic principles. When Advani or Jaswant Singh were accused of deviating from the principles of the party, it was not so much the praise of Jinnah or the critique of Vallabhbhai Patel that mattered, but the possibility that their stance might affect adversely the commitment of the cadres to a Hindu Rashtra. The RSS rightly fears that the liberal dominance in the BJP is likely to dilute the Hindu nationalist fervour. Therefore, during the past 10 years it has consciously tried to promote Hindutva hardliners and marginalise the liberals.


Tension between the “liberal” and core Hindutva factions has simmered for quite some time. Positioning himself within the liberal fold, Vajpayee tried to create a space in which liberal opinion could at least co-exist with Hindutva. When Narendra Modi let loose terror in Gujarat, his early response was very critical and he urged the party to make amends by removing Modi from power. The RSS immediately intervened and forced Vajpayee to retract. For the RSS, Vajpayee was a convenient mascot, as described by K.N. Govindacharya, a former ideologue of the party, in order to project a liberal image as a strategy to remain in power. After him, there was none in the liberal camp with a popular following to fulfil that role. That was the only reason why the RSS tolerated his occasional musings, expressing the pangs of his troubled conscience.


The liberal and the Hindutva factions have drawn opposite conclusions from the electoral defeats in 2004 and 2009. The RSS believes that the days of liberalism are over and the only way for political revitalisation is a return to Hindutva and cultural nationalism. That requires both a reaffirmation of ideology and a reconstitution of leadership. As a result, Hindutva and cultural nationalism have been restated as core ideologies, and efforts are on to enthrone a new leadership, dispensing with the old guard, however useful they were in the past. On the other hand, the assessment of the liberal fraction is that identity politics has reached its limit and it is not possible to make any further headway on that path. After all, 20 years of religion-centred mobilisation has not succeeded in persuading the majority of Indians to subscribe to communal politics. Nor is it possible to invoke another Ram Janmabhoomi, as evidenced by the failed agitation over Rama Sethu and Bababudangiri. Also, the violence against minorities in Gujarat and Orissa drew revulsion rather than admiration all over the country. Therefore, it is imperative to chart out a new political programme that addresses secular issues and at the same time does not give up the religious cause. Ram Janmabhoomi can still be a part of the agenda, but without highlighting the livelihood issues of the people the party may not attract popular support.


These differing perspectives remained muted for quite some time. The electoral failure brought them to the fore and, more importantly, gave the liberal faction an opportunity to articulate its apprehensions, even if indirectly. The issue of accountability for the failure in elections, which Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie raised, was perhaps not directed against any individual but targeted the collective responsibility of the party controlled by the RSS affiliates. The liberal faction, however, had no cadre support; in fact they were disliked by the party’s hardcore workers for their supposedly Western habits. Interpreting the open criticism of the party as a serious act of indiscipline, the RSS used it as an opportunity to cleanse the party of ideological aberrations. Jaswant Singh’s expulsion is likely to be a forerunner of a fundamentalist reassertion. The days of the Shouries and the Sinhas are over. They will be relegated to the margins once the party passes fully into the hands of the Hindu fundamentalists controlled by the RSS. The present turmoil in the party is a result of the rumblings of this transition. The purification being attempted will lead to a reincarnation of the BJP as an uncompromising Hindu fundamentalist and right-wing party, carving out a specific space in Indian politics. Such a transformation will enable the BJP to clearly demarcate itself ideologically from the Congress, since the distinction between the two has steadily eroded in the past few years.


BJP’s only option


The BJP shares considerable common space with the Congress in the areas of economic and foreign policies. The structural adjustment initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was carried forward vigorously by the BJP when it came to power in 1998. The policy of the Congress-led governments that succeeded the BJP has been a more uncritical acceptance and implementation of neoliberal policies, diluted, though, with some pro-poor steps such as the rural employment scheme. Both the BJP and the Congress favoured disinvestment of public sector undertakings and privatisation of almost all sectors, including health and education. The BJP, therefore, cannot fashion its politics on the basis of a critique of the economic policies of the Congress government.


This is, to a large extent, true of foreign policy also. In discarding the much admired non-alignment policy, which Jawaharlal Nehru shaped during the initial days of the Republic, both the Congress and the BJP were vying with each other. During the post-Indira Gandhi period, the Congress policy came to be revised in favour of the American bloc, supporting, in the process, the imperialist interventions in Asia. The only difference between the Congress and the BJP was with respect to Israel and Palestine. In the past five years even that difference has ceased to exist. Accepting American hegemony as much as the Congress did, the BJP has no credible alternative to offer. In fact, there is hardly any difference between the two in foreign policy.


In the election campaign, the BJP was hard put to project an image that was sufficiently distinct from that of its main rival. It could not accuse the Congress of supporting imperialism, nor could it oppose neoliberal policies, as in both respects the BJP’s hands were equally soiled. Therefore, the space available to the BJP for mobilisation was practically limited to its political philosophy based on the conception of cultural nationalism. The Congress from the time of the anti-colonial struggle had championed an inclusive nationalism, whereas the BJP has been an advocate of religious nationalism and of the two-nation theory. Along with the latter, the BJP also invoked other religion-oriented issues such as Ram Janmabhoomi, Article 370 and a common civil code. The BJP found to its dismay that these issues did not anymore excite its support base, such as the members of the middle class, and even its captive supporters of Hindu fundamentalists. This failure is the reason for the troubled times of the BJP. The takeover of the BJP by the RSS, which appears to be imminent, is intended to tide over this crisis.


The control of the RSS is sure to strengthen the party’s ideological foundation and reorient its political practice to become more pronounced in the realm of religious fundamentalism. Over the years, the Sangh Parivar built up a formidable social support through the innumerable social and cultural organisations under its umbrella. In the past 10 years, however, they became relatively inactive and grew lukewarm in their active support to the BJP. What the RSS is likely to attempt is to regroup these organisations in order to revive the BJP’s strength. In the process, what the RSS is likely to ensure is the unambiguously Hindu communal and fascist character of the party and its affiliates. Implicit in this strategy is the possible danger of greater social strife and violence. Will the troubled times of the BJP lead to trouble for the nation? (K.N. Panikkar is former professor of Modern Indian History at JNU and currently the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council)


(Frontline September 26-October 9, 2009 )

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