The New Saffron High Command

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
Tagged Under -
Page 1 of 1
The BJP has learnt enough from past mistakes to rid itself of its swadeshi image. This has led to heartburn among the old guard but the new leadership couldn’t be bothered
After the morale-sapping defeat of the party in the 2004 General Election, the BJP attempted to figure out why the Indian electorate had stopped responding to its message. Surely, the battering it got at the ballot box necessitated a different reflex. It began with an acknowledgement that the party cannot inspire voters if it fails to focus on the needs of a rapidly-changing India. Loud claims followed that the party will make way for its GenNext: the passing of the baton to a new leadership that would convey willingness to do business with the new India.

But things just did not change within the BJP. Five years later, when the country faced another election, the party wheeled out its once-charismatic leader LK Advani, then 82, as the spearhead of its campaign. The party, which has over the years made counting-chickens-before- they-hatch its favourite sport, even toyed with the idea of canvassing support for Advani with ‘His best is yet to come’ as a bumper sticker message. All it did was turn the BJP’s GenNext claims into a subject of derision, and the Congress romped to victory yet again.

After 10 years and considerable prodding by a panicky party cadre, the BJP has quit dilly-dallying. What started last January in Goa, where the party—in defiance of Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj—anointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its chief campaigner for 2014, has only gathered momentum over the year since. And it saw a dramatic manifestation earlier this week when the party’s new leadership contemplated a proposal for Advani and Joshi that would be the political equivalent of a voluntary retirement scheme for them. The idea was to suggest that they be kept out of the Lok Sabha race and be granted space in the Rajya Sabha instead. Such a decision to shunt the two leaders ‘upwards’ would have formally declared the demise of the old order, but the plan was dropped at the last minute because the party’s new leaders didn’t want to be seen as being unkind to their former mentor Advani.

Interestingly, this had followed a closed-door meeting that Singh and Modi had with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat where they agreed to ‘pension off’ any leader above the age of 75 from active politics. Later, Swaraj was asked to convey this to Advani, who had by then got wind of it. In a neat ruse, he swiftly announced he would contest from Gandhinagar, his current seat. Joshi may get to contest a Lok Sabha seat as well (in UP). But it is clear that they have been ‘elevated’ to the level of senior consultants. They are now part of the Marg Darshak Mandal, in Sangh parlance, where their views will be heard but not necessarily heeded.

Joshi, who is achingly nostalgic for an economic model that lost its appeal decades ago, has been egging on his soulmates in the Sangh Parivar to champion a private sector-smothering, growth-stifling agenda. His senior colleague Advani, too, recently strayed into economic policy formulation by backing a proposal to do away with all taxes and imposing a 2 per cent levy on bank transactions instead. The idea was swiftly rebuffed by the new leadership for multiple reasons: it will draw the powerful voter bloc of farmers into the tax net, promote inequity as it applies equally to the rich and poor, distort the country’s federal structure, and also encumber the system in new ways. The leadership’s message was simple: such matters of policy should be left to those who would be handling the economy, and should not be outsourced to ashrams such as Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth.

Ramdev, in fact, was an early proponent of that taxation idea. He had tried to hardsell it to several BJP leaders before they held a meeting at Advani’s home to thrash out this ‘new economic policy’. This gathering at the veteran’s Prithviraj Road home—built when he was Deputy PM and equipped with a massive conference hall—was attended by Swaraj, Jaitley, Yashwant Sinha, Subramanian Swamy, Nitin Gadkari and a few swadeshi economists, apart from Advani and Joshi. While Advani, Swaraj and Gadkari backed the idea, Jaitley and Sinha argued against it saying any such switch would hurt India’s economy and prove counterproductive for the party.

Notably, the BJP has lately been toeing the line of the great free-trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who has lavished praise on Modi’s Gujarat model for focusing on growth. Rapid economic expansion, the professor argues, will translate into higher social sector indices—so GDP growth should be given priority over direct welfare measures of the kind that Professor Amartya Sen has been keen on. In a recent book, Bhagwati and his co-author Arvind Panagariya argued that Kerala’s high social indices are the outcome of growth initiatives rather than high social spending.

No doubt, Modi and his peers are convinced that Bhagwati is right. The professor sees pro-growth policies and market-oriented reforms as the best way to reduce poverty and ensure equitable expansion.

This explains the Gujarat CM’s emphasis on unleashing entrepreneurial energy, private-sector participation and pruning the bulging subsidy bill as a way to sustain India’s growth story.

Apart from that, the new leadership has been articulating a proactive, assertive and confident line on issues ranging from borders to foreign policy. Here, the old insular non-alignment or mushy we-are-one-civilisation approach has no place. The premium will be on India’s engagement with world powers on terms that benefit the country.

All this, the BJP’s new leadership believes, will help the voter differentiate the party from its rivals—especially in the light of Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s indecisive approach to both social spending and growth. “We will draw a line in the sand and articulate a model that is capable of addressing infirmities in India’s economy and foreign policy,” in the words of BJP General Secretary Dharmendra Pradhan.

The changed command structure’s approach appears to be easing the BJP’s path to power at the Centre. Modi, who was once an infrequent visitor to the RSS headquarters, has of late been trying to keep the Sangh leadership in the loop on major decisions taken by the party. Sangh insiders say that the relationship has matured and the RSS now looks up to Modi as the only leader in the Parivar who has the political heft to counter its opponents.

Party President Rajnath Singh, who had once removed Modi from its parliamentary board, has been moving in lockstep with the prime ministerial candidate. “There is now greater cohesion.

Leaders used to be working at cross purposes in the past. They are now complementing each other’s efforts,” says a senior BJP leader who does not wish to be named. Alongside, the old guard is being kept out of the loop. Advani, for example, was not even invited to a dinner hosted by the Parivar on 7 January to celebrate the BJP’s recent thumping poll victories in three states. In any case, he did not have any role in those campaigns, which were all centred on Modi and regional satraps. The Lok Sabha effort, again, is being led by a feisty team that lets no opportunity go waste. Earlier this week, minutes after the last frame of a TV interview of Rahul Gandhi went off air, the BJP’s backroom boys stormed social media with attacks on Gandhi, flaying the Congress leader for seeing social issues through a ‘faith prism’ and ‘evading issues such as corruption and troubles confronting the economy’.

In this new scheme of things, every BJP leader has a dedicated role. While Jaitley has the task of crafting strategy, Amit Shah, Pradhan and JP Nadda are the campaign’s nuts-and-bolts men. With the party having identified the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as chief conquest regions, their plan aims to emasculate regional leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mayawati. This plan counts heavily on the ‘Modi effect’ to break into territories earlier believed to be impenetrable. “The traditional template may not have much relevance today,” says Pradhan. This may not be wishful thinking. The Delhi Assembly polls showed an upstart AAP walking away with BSP voters. The Muzzafarnagar conflagration revealed a rupture in this sugarcane belt’s Jat-Muslim ties—and even in SC-Muslim bonding in some parts. “A churn is on in Uttar Pradesh and established players in the state are jittery about the next round of elections,” says the general secretary.

The transformation has Nagpur’s approval. At a time when Advani is losing his voice and Joshi’s proposals are being snubbed, the RSS is aiding the BJP by playing the vanguard’s role in a political mobilisation effort that finally has another generation at its helm.