You can drive around the country in the course of this five-week election, and the one thing on which you will find remarkable unanimity among the thinking classes is that this is an issue-less election. Or, that in the absence of a real pan-national issue, the election is being fought entirely on local concerns, as if this was municipal or panchayat election by another name. It is tough to argue against this yawn-inspiring view. The failure of both national parties, the Congress and the BJP, to build a pan-national contest is phenomenal, and disappointing at a time when voter fatigue is increasing with small parties the spoilers and spoil-hunters of split verdicts. This failure has reduced the leaders of both parties to being like admirals or generals who command vast fleets and armies, and have great ambitions, but have wound up fighting in penny pockets, for minor pickings.
If we continue, seeking parallels in military science (because electoral politics is war by another name, only more vicious), our politics, for exactly two decades now, has been a kind of stalemated, stationary trench warfare. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid, and the shilanyas of Ram Janma-bhoomi in the last months of Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership, made secularism the centre-point of our natural politics, particularly in the Hindi heartland; combined with a Mandal-ignited OBC surge, it led to the destruction of the Congress in the entire Gangetic plain even today, it can barely hope to touch 20 in India’s most politicised zone, from Uttarakhand to West Bengal, out of a total of 167. The BJP was able to harvest this for some time, as the Ram Temple fervour overwhelmed caste. But it declined shortly thereafter, as the promise of building a grand new temple for Lord Ram did not quite have the oomph that the idea of destroying an old mosque did. As history, ever since man discovered God, shows, destroying has always held much greater sex-appeal than building. So the Ram Janma-bhoomi-Babri site has remained frozen in time since 1992, and so has our politics. This new polarisation is loosely defined as secular versus communal, or who can afford to join hands with the BJP and who cannot. Its corollary is that it enables parties with total ideological, philosophical and even political conflicts to come together on the principle of secularism or anti-BJP-ism. This is the now-fossilised state of our politics, and that is why the boredom, issuelessness, sameness and indecisive verdicts. There has to be a reason why the same voters who give us such utterly clear verdicts in the states give us such muddled ones nationally.
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The BJP would say this analysis is simplistic, even hypocritical. They will say: the secular-communal discourse is just a camouflage for a large number of political parties effectively handing out to Muslim voters a veto on who can rule India. Any party that needs (and has a realistic chance of getting) the Muslim vote, will blindly oppose the BJP, they say. That is why, according to them, the BJP and the NDA have to build their politics in a field with a maximum of 325 out of a House of 543, since at least five parties the Congress, the Left, the SP, the RJD and the NCP can have nothing to do with them. That is the line of untouchability in our politics. Or perhaps the line that separates the rival trenches, and political mobility, therefore, is confined to hopping from one trench to another, mostly on the same side barring some small, serial defectors like the Gowdas, Paswan, Ramadoss and Ajit Singh, the entirely mobile operators blessed with total ideological fungibility.
You can feel sorry for the BJP. But this is a problem for the BJP to fix. No political party can grow, even survive, by only feeling sorry for itself. Beginning in 1989, the polarisation had helped the BJP. By 1998, it had peaked. It was for the party’s vastly experienced leadership to read the writing on the wall. And probably it did, but did not quite have the conviction, the fibre to lead a change, an evolution that would have repositioned the BJP as a party of the centre-right rather than a party of the Hindu Right.
Vajpayee, the BJP leader most respected by the minorities, tried, but lost his nerve at the most decisive moment, a moment that, if seized, would have placed him among India’s great statesmen for ever, in fact our first real statesman of the Right, or may be the second, if you place Sardar Patel somewhere there. This moment was the killings of Gujarat in 2002 on the flight to Goa, for the party national executive meeting, when he had to decide on sacking Modi after his Raj-dharma speech. But he blinked. In the process, he diminished himself, and his party, and gave its opponents Modi as their second rallying point after Ayodhya.
That Advani tried to address the same ideological isolation subsequently, with his statement on Jinnah, underlines the fact that, deep down, political wisdom does exist while the will and conviction are lacking. He has tried to re-position his party closer to the centre in a slightly more complex, but fascinating manner. The alliance with the Akalis in Punjab and with Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, he thought, had helped move his party to the centre; and while the Muslims may still not vote for it, if he could simply persuade them not to treat the BJP as their permanent enemy that needed to be defeated by voting tactically against it all over the country he could change its politics fundamentally. But neither had he prepared his party and its ideological mentors, nor had he the audacity and conviction to bash on regardless. So this break-out from the trenches remained short, half-hearted and a failure. Yet again, Advani and his BJP blew an opportunity presented by Varun Gandhi’s speeches. Imagine if, instead of rushing to his defence and demanding a forensic examination of the DVDs, Advani stated unequivocally that he abhorred such language and politics and dropped Varun as his candidate? In one stroke, it would have brought his party closer to the centre, given it wider acceptability, and enhanced his stature in a manner that no website or ad-campaign, howsoever brilliant, could ever have done.
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Indian democracy is not unique in having to deal with such a divisive issue of history and legacy. Race and segregation was a divide that determined American politics for a long time. But the Republicans cut their losses in the course of time and so it ceased to be the central issue. Surely, many more Blacks still vote for the Democrats but the Republicans totally dumped the race issue, giving America its most prominent Black public leaders in Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and the Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas. And while the larger majority of voters of colour were still on the other side, and there was no foreseeable prospect of those vote banks shifting, remember how even George Bush (junior) dealt with Trent Lott, the Senate Republican leader who, in a 2002 fund-raiser to celebrate Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, made remarks that appeared to raise the race-issue again. (He said problems could have been avoided had Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid succeeded; Thurmond had based that campaign on a racial segregation platform.) Bush dumped Lott immediately, and two weeks later he had lost his job.
The beauty of democratic politics is that such opportunities do arise every now and then. Smart leaders seize them, particularly when it is an opportunity to rectify fundamental imbalances in the national political debate. Vajpayee had his big moment once, with Modi; Advani has had his, twice, with Jinnah and Varun. But the BJP, and Indian politics, are now paying the price for those long marchers having blown all three. And that is why their politics, or India’s, remains frozen. That is what will give at least three other possible fronts space to try setting up a secular coalition after May 16, the only factor overriding all enmities and contradictions among likely new partners being the exclusion of the BJP.
Until the leaders of the BJP accept the inevitability, and the wisdom, of moving closer to the ideological centre-right, and of growing out of the fantasy of one day reaping the harvest of Hindu resurgence, there will be, to steal the words of one of its own stalwarts (Jagmohan), no unfreezing this political turbulence. Of course, the Congress too has had its failures and lost opportunities to break out of this low-150s stagnation. But let that be an argument, a sermon for another day.
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