Sunday, October 24, 2004


Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi


Politicians can survive a great deal — plague (corruption charges), pestilence (electoral defeat), famine (not made a minister) — but very few survive a sense of humour. That may be one reason why there isn’t much of it around. After all, if you want to laugh at others all the time you have to also laugh at yourself some of the time, which is difficult to reconcile with the ego. There is a very thin line between cracking a joke and becoming a joke. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for instance, is now expected to entertain at every public meeting and at many private ones. He succeeds because he does have the sense to laugh occasionally at himself, although he takes care never to joke about corruption just in case the boomerang effect gets him squarely on the nose. When a joke falls flat it takes the joker down with it.

The just-removed BJP president, Venkaiah Naidu, never quite got his jokes right. He fashioned an image as the bluff, hearty, alliterative leader who could demolish deathly demons with devastating daring — you see the point. Bad alliteration is like the flu. You catch it easily and it lays you down. Naidu was always shooting off some homily or the other about those opposed to the BJP, and since his relationship with the English language was at best quaint, the combination was often hopelessly funny for all the wrong reasons. He overdid himself during the press conferences in the general elections. Correspondents are too polite to snicker in front of the high and mighty, but behind his back was another story. The slippage on the credibility graph was significant.

This may, in the history books, end up as a very minor reason for the BJP’s troubles this year, but when the going is bad everything adds up. A more important reason could lie in another verbal statistic. The BJP has a large research division. It should put together a team to find out just how many times the party president used the word “poverty” or “poor” and compare it to other words in his repertoire. Even a rudimentary analysis would prove that the BJP had slipped to its Jana Sangh roots and returned to a middle class political culture.

It might be of interest to the party, as it struggles once again to find a road map, that communalism and communism emerge from the same concept: commune. In theory, both communalism and communism accept the rationale of conflict. But whereas the first seeks to advance its cause through the demonisation of the minorities, the second seeks to expand its base through a challenge to the rich. This is what makes the first ephemeral and the second sustainable.

The BJP rose in the late 1980s because L.K. Advani struck a chord with the poor. He did not do so with an economic agenda, but a religious one. He took the Ram temple construction movement into the villages, where the party had insufficient presence, and to women, whom the party had never wooed. The strength of an emotional upsurge can at best be limited, and much of the steam exhausted itself with the destruction of the Babri mosque. But Advani had something else to offer his party: a rational analysis of weaknesses and strengths when opportunity presented itself at the end of the 1990s. The BJP leadership took the unsentimental view that if it wanted power in Delhi then it could only be through partnerships.

This meant that it would have to cede space in parliamentary calculus, and withdraw from the confrontational heart of its ideological compulsions. This was not without internal pain, for there were always the Murli Manohar Joshis to push the envelope at inconvenient moments. However, it was implicit that both concessions were temporary. Neither did the party have any qualms about exploiting crass communalism, as for instance in Gujarat.

One faction, offered shelter in the Vajpayee wing, did begin to believe after 1999 that power would diffuse the original ideology, but it was a minority (pun intended). Very adroitly, Atal Behari Vajpayee used Pakistan, an antithesis of the BJP, to redefine the thesis of his years in power. It was not another political game. He genuinely believed in peace with Pakistan, and sustained that belief through the Kargil war, the turmoil of terrorism and the expensive failure of Agra.

When push came to shove, as in Gujarat, the Atalites had to retreat. Power, however, provided this faction with sufficient cover, and the prospect of continued power made it complacent. Defeat has marginalised the Atalites to the point where the Maharashtra election campaign scheduled only one Vajpayee meeting, and that too in the company of Bal Thackeray. Nor is Vajpayee the only “traitor” to the hardliners. Narendra Modi has greeted Advani’s return as party president with deafening silence. It is pertinent to note that Advani is a sitting MP from the capital of Gujarat. Equations have changed in Modi’s calculations. Two years ago, he needed Advani. Today, he believes that Advani needs him.

Pramod Mahajan, belligerent in victory but astute in defeat, has made a very perceptive point in one of his mea culpa interviews offered to the media as part of the atonement process. He learnt to play bridge, he says, while under arrest during the Emergency. One of the basic rules of the game is “When in doubt, lead a trump”. The BJP, he explained, has pulled out its trump card, Advani, since it is trapped once again in the uncertainties of the 1980s.

The mention of the Emergency was incidental, but has a deeper relevance. The doubts of the 1980s were a direct consequence of three years of power after the Emergency, and the extraordinary compromise that the party made in 1977 when it merged its identity into the Janata Party. Three years of power led to seven years of doubt, until the mishandling of the Shah Bano crisis provided a route back to relevance. How many years of doubt will emerge from six years of power?

The nub is this: can Advani of the 2000s be the Advani of the 1980s? Or is Narendra Modi going to be the Next Big Thing? There is little doubt that Modi sees himself as the future of his party. He has positioned himself as the incorruptible soul of Hindutva, both ideologically and financially, untainted by the temptations of body, bank account or ideological compromise. He believes that he does not have to wait for more than a couple of years before the call comes. Ironically, he needs the Manmohan Singh government to last the course, so that he can campaign against both incumbency and “pseudo-secular-minority” rule. However, windows of opportunity in public life tend to be flirtatious. They beckon. But a sudden breeze can also shut them. Events change life more than intentions.

The tried and still trusted Advani has an obvious immediate challenge: how to energise the base that keeps slithering away. The Bharatiya Janata Party is still Bharatiya, and still a Party, but the Janata has disappeared.

Politics is never static. If you do not grow, you slide; you do not remain stagnant. The base has two dimensions, the party and the electorate, and to an extent they are interdependent. It is obvious though that a party depends more on the voter than the voter does on a party. The Modis may not believe it, but the voter is not going to return through the brutal mechanism of communal riots. The spirit of democracy dies each time a Modi thrives.

A story from a favourite source might prove instructive. Hazrat Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi is well known. But his father, Bahauddin Veled, was also a famous divine. Sultan Alauddin, ruler of Qonya, once took the elder sage to his palace and fortress, and showed him the splendid new roof, walls and towers that had been built to protect the kingdom. Bahauddin Veled remarked to the Sultan: “You have raised an excellent defence against the hordes and horsemen of the enemy. But what protection have you built against the unseen arrows, the sighs and moans of the oppressed who live inside the kingdom? They can sweep whole worlds away to destruction. Strive to obtain the blessings of the poorest of your subjects. They are a stronghold compared to which the finest turrets and strongest castles are nothing.”

Venkaiah Naidu concentrated on building castles, at least some of them in the air. Lal Krishna Advani needs to find those subjects.

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