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Get the Basics Right

August 21, 2009

The much publicized Chintan Baithak (deliberation meeting) of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Shimla will conclude today. The president of the party will give a concluding speech and the formalities will be over. The Bal Apte Committee report has already been leaked and many political commentators have hailed it as a brutally honest analysis for the reason of BJP’s defeat in the last elections. While there may be some truth in what the report has said, I guess we are all missing the point.

BJP has always been a largely urban party. Then they have an agenda that has Hindutva as its core theme. It is also well known that more than 60% of the Indian population lives in the villages even today. It is also true that the Muslim population in India is largely urban. The other fact is that India is largely a young country where more than 55% of the population is below 30 years of age. I hope the BJP understands these facts before getting on with any analysis about the performance of the party. There is one other fact that is well known to all but few like to give it a thought. It is the poverty that abounds in this country, both rural and urban.

In the last election, the youth found it difficult to relate to an 82 year old Advani. The poor and the marginal thought that the BJP had nothing to offer them. The Muslims will never vote for them. And the vocal middle class Hindus, who constitute the core of  BJP vote bank, find it difficult to go to the booth and cast their vote. The backwards and the Dalits have their own party affiliations. The BJP is left with very little. It should surprise no one that the party has gone down so badly.

The situation within the party is no better. Rajnath Singh, the BJP chief is a man who is more interested in the affairs within the party. His focus should be to develop the party in various states but he is bogged down by the internal politics within the party. The political machinations within a party start from the top. Rajnath Singh is too small a man to manage a national party like the BJP. His lack of mass base leaves him insecure and he is busy throwing his weight around. The man lacks vision. His managerial skills are suspect at best and downright clumsy at worst. Rajnath Singh belongs to Jaunpur in UP and he has no following in his home town or in UP per se. He fought from Ghaziabad, which was considered a safe seat. Jaswant Singh is not the only BJP leader who lacks ground level support. One would have thought that the Rajput from eastern UP would have resigned from his post after the poll debacle, but he has stuck on and so has L.K. Advani, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. These are bad omens for the party. This gives rise to nepotism and encourages mediocrity.

I agree with Mark Tully, the former BBC man in South Asia, when he says that what the BJP needs is a leader who can lead the party and give the BJP a fighting chance at the hustings, someone with charisma and charm, erudition and verbosity who can communicate with the masses. Yes, in politics personalities count for a lot. But just empty words and charisma will not do. If it were so, all the Bollywood actors would have made it big in politics (it is true that in South film stars have traditionally done well in politics, but even there the days of MGR and NTR are over). What one needs is the ability to relate with the masses. And the only way to relate with the masses is to be one of them.

The BJP, if they were serious about their political future need to take a leaf out of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. This mother-son duo has changed the rules of the game. They have said that their agenda is the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden. Both Sonia and Rahul, hats off to them, are genuinely concerned about the poor and how to better the lot of the masses. They work hard and keep in touch with the masses. They are going from village to village, trying to know their problems and what their issues are. They cannot be everywhere but they have tried to manage things in such a way that they get periodic feedback from almost all the constituencies of the country. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Program was an effort to ease the lot of the poor in the villages. Rahul and Sonia also realize that India is a country of young people. Rahul is personally going from state to state trying to increase the membership of the party and to give potential young leaders a chance. One must learn from ones opponents. And if they are doing something right, there is no shame in emulating them. What Rahul and Sonia are doing for the poor gets acknowledgement and the word goes around. I think, it was the word of mouth campaigning that won the Congress many a seats. And, let us face it – there is no better advertisement than what people discuss in informal meetings. Rahuland Sonia have a major handicap in that they are not the best of public speakers. But they make it up by being close to the people on a personal level. In their meetings, they were not talking about international issues and issues of religion. Pakistan was not an issue. They were talking about how many tube wells were dug and how many schools and colleges opened, and whether the farmers got the seeds at fair price – local issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens. They have changed the agenda of the politics in India – from religion and other mundane aspects to welfare and development. The way people have responded to them is for everyone to see. I guess even Rahul and Sonia were mildly surprised by the way the elections went.

Sonia has told all her members of parliament that they should take a 20% cut in their salary. She keeps telling her MP’s not to waste time in Delhi when the parliamentary session is not on but to go back to their constituency and work. She also reprimanded them that they should not hanker for posts and should work for the people. UP is Rahul and Sonia’s home ground. They are working there at the grass root level, but they can’t be everywhere. They want their party men from different states to nurture their states the way they are doing in UP. The way Rahul has taken up the cause of the people of Bundelkhand is truly marvelous. I cannot see the BSP, the SP or the BJP doing well in UP in the coming elections. I believe that the Congress is going to sweep UP and this crucial state will again become a bastion of the Congress.

Compare that with what the BJP is doing. I agree that the BJP’s second tier leadership is trying very hard and succeeding to a great extent. Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Yediyurappa, Raman Singh and even Vasundhara Raje and others have tried very hard to transform their states. I believe that these not so young leaders are the nuts and bolts of the BJP. What BJP is lacking is a cohesive strategy and a planning which can only start at the top. I have been living in Bangalore for the last four years and it is only in the last year or so, since the Yediyurappa government has taken over have I seen some development in Bangalore. The man is trying really hard and doing a fabulous job. I hope what he is doing in Bangalore is also being done in the smaller cities and hamlets that abound the beautiful state of Karnataka. The BJP needs cohesion, a vision, and a dedicated workforce who are as much social workers as they are politicians. The focus should change and people’s issues need to be highlighted. Terrorism is an issue but then no government has been able to totally eradicate this scourge.  The 26/11 attacks therefore were not an issue. The Congress kept on harping that such attacks took place even during the BJP times and the people understood.

Varun Gandhi has been targeted as the reason for the BJP’s defeat. I guess all that his speeches could have done was to unite the Muslim votes which resulted in a higher percent of voting among the Muslims. Varun Gandhi should not be thrown up as the reason for BJP’s defeat. A strident Hindutva is strength of the BJP and they should not surrender the one unique weapon in their armory. This is the one weapon that can help them get back power in Delhi. A country that is divided into innumerable castes can only come together in the name of Ram. Otherwise one can only hope to play caste politics and reduce oneself to another of the regional outfits that abound on the political landscape as of now. Varun Gandhi is an asset and not a liability. The man has a charm and a personality that can sway the masses. It is up to the BJP to use Varun Gandhi in a manner that helps the party and the nation.

The relationship between the BJP and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh) is much talked about. While I have no issues with the BJP looking up to the RSS for ideological and grass root level support, I do believe that depending on the RSS too much is a definite liability for the party. The BJP should learn to think and work for itself. Dependence on an affiliate should be resorted to only if one has to. I agree that the RSS has done a lot for the BJP and the reign of power within the BJP are still with the RSS but I also believe that the RSS is a much hyped organization. The reach and the strength of the RSS are hugely over estimated. If the RSS were such a potent social organization, then any election for the BJP should have been a cakewalk. I firmly believe that the RSS is on a decline and the BJP should reduce their dependence on this mother organization and learn to walk on its own. If at all they falter, I hope the RSSwould be there to support them, for they are ideological Siamese twins. BJP must develop their own cadres who are committed to the Hindutva ideology, and their membership should be across caste and religious lines. Let me add here that Indian Muslims are unique and they have been influenced by the majority Hindus as much as the Hindus have been influenced by the Muslims of the nation.  The Hindutva of today should be all encompassing and should be ready to embrace everyone into its fold. It is only the BJP that can challenge the Congress. They have a responsibility towards the nation to not only play a constructive role as the opposition but also to come back to power in Delhi so that the Congress is kept on its feet.

There is this propensity among the leaders in the BJP that many of them avoid fighting the elections. They hide behind the excusethat someone has to look after the organizational work to ensure that the elections management does not suffer. This is a lame excuse and if these honorable gentlemen were such huge public figures then they should be able to win the elections without canvassing in their constituencies even once. There is this other malaise that the top leaders look for ‘safe seats’ so that they are sure to get to the Lok Sabha. They should not be looking for safe seats, but must be nurturing ‘their’ seats like Madhu Dandvate did, or Sonia Gandhi does, or the way Vajpayee did. Every leader worth his salt must fight the election while looking after the organizational duties assigned. One must put ones best foot forward.

Lastly, I am not too sure about the infallibility of the electronic voting machines (EVM’s). There is no electronic gadget that cannot be tampered with. These Hyderabad made EVM’s may not be fool proof. I wish the BJP with all its resources does a research of the pre-Navin Chawla election results and the results once Navin Chawla had taken over as the CEC. No other country in the world is using these EVM’s. I guess the CEC should go back to the printed ballot paper format in the interest of total transparency in the election process. If there is even an iota of doubt, these EVM’s must be made redundant and the manual method reintroduced.

However, it is clear that the BJP needs an overhaul, both in the leadership, the agenda and the organization. They need to get into overdrive to make the changes that are required. They have some very talented leaders in their party. They need to plan five to ten years ahead if they are serious about their politics. There is no reason why they cannot bounce back. But the one thing they should refrain from is to keep themselves busy in innocuous issues like Jinnah and Sardar Patel and expelling talents like Jaswant Singh which gives a negative signal to the people of the nation when the country is facing challenging times in a year of drought. They need to get up and move on. And move decisively and move fast.

Update 21.08.2009: The BJP is denying the existence of the Bal Apte Committee report. The party wants to brush everything under the carpet. It seems that Rajnath Singh and L.K. Advani have cosyed up and are scratching each other’s back. This is not a healthy sign.

The one huge advantage for the BJP is that it does not have any dynastic baggage. BJP could and perhaps should become a truly democratic party with elections at the district level, with every party member holding the right to vote. This could go up to the top, something like what they have in the US where both the major parties have primaries and then the elected candidate goes on to fight the poll for the party. This will lead to clear party rolls and expand the party on an exponential basis. Such democracy within the party would also mean that the decision to expel an office bearer will have to be more thought out and deliberated. Such a system if developed honestly could exand the party base and make BJP a truly national party. They can do what the Congress can never dream of. It is a matter of will within the party fold. Right now the party is finding it difficult to get rid of Singh and Advani, a truly democratic setup is some distance away.

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