Several months ago, on August 25, 2012, to be precise, I had attempted to analyse what was on the BJP’s mind after it wrote off an entire Parliament session (Monsoon, 2012) as the coal scam broke out. It was initially headlined, ‘What is the BJP thinking’ (later changed to ‘Coal versus Coalition‘ as I wasn’t fully confident I had the answer). As you reflect on the party’s approach and performance over the past weeks, particularly during this budget session, you are tempted to repeat the same headline. But only by replacing thinking with another verb that sort of rhymes. I’d rather avoid that, however, and not only because you risk sounding like Mani Shankar Aiyar, but also because if you talk to BJP leaders individually, they come across as articulate, focused, sorted out. But then, the question remains. Why do they become such an unruly mob when a Parliament session begins?
And unruly not only in the sense that they disrupt Parliament, write off entire sessions and take pride in it, but also in not knowing what to look like: as victims of some kind, or victors of another parliamentary battle where decibels triumph over numbers. But unruly even for their own good. It is one thing to curse, abuse and haul the government over the coals and worse, but to block legislation that you fundamentally agree with? Worse, block populist new bills, where you have boasted how your wonderful amendments have been accepted and which you can never afford to be seen to oppose? What if the UPA were to now really promulgate the Right to Food and the new Land Acquisition Bills (with both of which this newspaper has arguments), and defy you to block them again in the monsoon session? It will be impossible for the BJP to oppose them, because they may sometimes sound silly but we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude they are suicidal. So, this is how the battle in Parliament could unfold hereon: the UPA survives the budget session that ends soon, though unproductively. It will open the monsoon session in August with the two populist bills and nobody would dare bring it down until these pass. And by that time, it may be too late, so they move on to the last session of a full, five-year Parliament in winter. The question again, therefore. What is the BJP, well, …king?
INTRIGUINGLY, while the BJP central leadership has been acting like members of a furious mob with no specific leader or agenda, their state leaders are steadfastly focused on the task at hand. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje on winning their state elections, and Narendra Modi on repositioning himself as an all-Indian, pro-growth, pro-business modernist, and an OBC leader. These state leaders know what their objective is, and how to get there. But the national leadership is caught in a messy game that sports reporters often describe as a goalmouth melee. Remember, when everybody seems to be swinging their hockey sticks in a swarm of attackers not knowing where the ball is, but hoping somehow that one of them will connect and become a goal-scoring star.
That analogy (and for once, a non-cricketing one) works because BJP leaders cannot be faulted for having that next-to-the-goalmouth feeling. The UPA is down on its knees, there is a new scam or crisis every day. It’s fighting its way out desperately from a self-inflicted three-year policy paralysis. It has no major state leaders. Its last remaining allies are restless and exploring left and right. The obvious competence and solidity of a few of its senior, as well as some younger, ministers cannot make up for the basic incoherence of its cabinet and the colossal incompetence of some: the law minister being not the only example, just the latest one. If you were a senior BJP leader, you could believe that after a decade in the opposition, your time is now coming. The problem is, it hasn’t come yet. An election still has to be won. Surely, you can count on the UPA to lose it. But that would be lazy, and dangerous. Because, unlike the NDA, the UPA can lose the next election and still return to power. The simple or complex arithmetic of today’s national politics is that what is 140 for the Congress will be a minimum of 185 for the BJP. So, there is work to be done for the BJP.
THE party’s leaders, however, are behaving as if that election has already been won and so infighting for the top prize has already started. It is a touchingly funny spectacle, where every senior leader wants to be loved and anointed like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but is beginning to speak the language of Modi of 2007, if not 2002. This, when Modi himself is moderating his image or is at least trying to do so earnestly hoping to become more widely accepted, like Vajpayee. See some recent examples: Sushma Swaraj wanting the army to bring 10 Pakistani heads in revenge for the one they took away. Rajnath Singh now demanding India send Pakistan’s high commissioner back because of Sarabjit Singh’s unfortunate killing. This, ironically, within 24 hours of Varun Gandhi proclaiming him the new Vajpayee. He was mostly in the establishment in the years when the man in whose image he wishes to be seen held his nerve through so many provocations, including Kargil and the Kandahar hijack. The only time he decided on such an extreme measure and that too reluctantly was after the Parliament attack. But these are more impatient times.
This is a fascinating situation. The man most distant from Vajpayee in ideology and style is trying to sound less unlike him. All others, relatively moderate, are becoming shriller, angry and impossible as he used to be. Maybe they are appealing first to the faithful, both the committed voters and Nagpur, and the competition for now is Modi, because they believe the leadership issue is not settled. So before they can hope to be like Vajpayee, they have to look like Modi, and find the approval of both the hard loyalists and the grand viziers in Nagpur. When you are after the big prize, another wasted Parliament session means nothing. Further, it doesn’t help that in the party top brass, where the president counts for very little, the first among these equals is also a candidate for prime minister.
Usually, when a party believes power is within its grasp, it responds with a sense of quiet anticipation and preparation. That is how the BJP was in 1996-97. When you think you are winning, you become calm and constructive. Right now, they look so bitter, as if they have been denied power for the third time already, and unfairly so. Somebody has to tell them Manmohan Singh will not resign, howsoever desperately they ask him to do so. It might help if they persuaded Sonia Gandhi, instead, to ask him to do so. But, seriously, blocking so much legislation and Parliament time in anger is like taking revenge on the people of India for not voting you to power twice in succession. That is hardly how you convince them to make you lucky the third time.