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BJP is facing a crisis of ideological direction

By Kedar Nath Pandey

The RSS has given second term to the BJP president Nitin Gadkari as the party appeared to be descending in chaos. BJP’s former Union minister Arun Shourie called the party president Rajnath Singh “Alice in Blunderland”5, and indicated a renewed contest between the militant and conciliatory faces of Hindutva. In turn, the party expelled one of its foremost founding members, Jaswant Singh, who had served as minister for external affairs and finance minister during the 1998-2004 NDA government, for publishing a book that praised Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Jinnah. Reflecting the RSS’s ongoing influence, reports noted that his expulsion was ordered by their leader, Dr. Mohan Bhagwat. Jaswant Singh then went on to call the BJP an Indian version of the Ku Klux Klan. Overall, this chaos has left the party searching for both its political identity and its political leadership.

The BJP’s first crisis centres on their political leadership. With Advani announcing his retirement and Vajpayee’s impact on the party already considerably lessened since 2004 through ill-health, the era of the two figures who have dominated the political rise of Hindu nationalism for the last 60- years is now over. Of possible successors, Narendra Modi has been the most prominent, although despite a high profile with Indian business, he failed to make a significant impact as a campaigner in the 2009 general election. His association with the 2002 violence in Gujarat also makes him an unacceptable figure among several of the BJP’s regional allies, India’s public at large and various international actors and governments. In turn, the fact that other possible BJP leadership candidates (such as Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti) are around 60- years old, underscores the BJP’s perceived inability to successfully connect with India’s young population, seven out of 10 of whom are under 40- years of age.

Coupled together, these factors have meant that there has been no smooth transition from the Vajpayee-Advani era to the BJP’s next political generation. This lack of transition again stems from rivalry between the competing ideological tensions within the party, along with a lack of the BJP’s organizational strength and autonomy in the face of the RSS’s influence. The importance of both this lack of organizational strength, as well as having no clear leadership succession is underscored when one looks at Congress. To this end, Congress have been slowly preparing Rahul Gandhi for their leadership, and he successfully campaigned in the 2009 general elections, helping Congress win control of 75 per cent of the seats he campaigned for. This preparation also emphasizes the continued political heritage enjoyed by Congress, something which the BJP currently lacks. (Rahul Gandhi is the son of ex-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, the grandson of ex-prime minister Indira Gandhi and the great grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru).

Ideologically, the need remains for the BJP to choose between a pure Hindutva approach that emphasizes religious difference and threats to the Hindu nation, and an approach that stresses inclusiveness, moderation and conciliation. Again, this choice (or balance) sums up the more hardcore ideological roots of the party courtesy of the RSS and the moderating modern face of the party as promoted by ex-prime minister Vajpayee. Politically, this contrast is summed up by pursuing either a pronounced rightward political lean or being situated in the large centre ground that dominates Indian politics. The BJP also still has ties to extremist groups (such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra), which concurrently alienate India’s non-Hindu population, as well as the country’s younger voters who are more concerned with economic growth and well-being than religious-based politics. As such, the BJP is facing a crisis of direction as pandering to either the party’s militants or moderates will result in the alienation of some of its supporters.

The BJP faces not only leadership troubles but also problems of definition versus the “hard” and “soft” faces of Hindutva, as well as its relationship with the RSS and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. Certainly, it appears hard for the BJP to redefine Hindutva sufficiently without negating its core ideological content and thus alienating core Hindutva (and thus BJP and RSS) supporters. Politically, this means that the BJP will find it very hard to gain an absolute majority in any general election. However, given the overwhelming coalitional nature of Indian politics (which will remain as its core characteristic over the coming years), the political aspirations of other smaller parties can help the BJP to re-gain power. Ideologically however, the party will have to remain both moderate and centrist to have any chance of election victory. While the 1990s Ayodhya agitations gave the BJP electoral momentum, a repeat of such actions seems implausible as India’s electorate has now matured to focus on economic rather than religious issues. Times of economic or existential crisis (such as another war with Pakistan) could however allow such sentiments to be effectively employed.

In turn, it is possible that the BJP will be able to re-brand themselves as a party advocating (non-religious) reform along a right-of-centre agenda, on the lines of the Christian Democratic and conservative parties that emerged after the Second World War in Europe. Certainly, as India’s middle class grows over the coming years and decades as a result of India’s economic emergence as a great power, support for such an agenda can grow. The BJP’s advantageous electoral positioning within a modernising, globalizing, and media-dominated middle class also intrinsically strengthens the mainstreaming of Hindutva. In many ways, the 1998-2004 NDA government presented Hindutva as an acceptable, viable and experienced political force and saw the emergence of an acceptable religious nationalism that questioned the secular origins of the Indian state. For these reasons alone, engagement with the BJP by Western political parties should remain a priority, especially as they are the only other national party apart from Congress and thus the only other party who can credibly govern India. Internationally, the BJP advocate much of the same policies as Congress — continued economic liberalization, closer relations with the United States and widening bilateral ties — suggesting continued common ground with potential international governments. Whatever the outcome, choosing or balancing between political pragmatism and political ideology will determine the future of the BJP in Indian politics for some time to come. INAV

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