Will BJP’s new leader prove to be any different than his predecessors?

The unexpected departure of Vajpayee and the forced resignation of Advani as BJP’s President have paved the way for Rajnath Singh to be appointed as the party’s new President. Singh is now charged with the task of providing the party a much needed political direction, as well as increasing Baharti Janta Party’s (BJP) popularity amongst Indian voters.

Singh’s meteoric rise to power was not an ominous one. Instead it was a product of a struggle between BJP and the more extreme Hindu fundamentalist parties such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Visva Hindu Parishad (VHP). The struggle commenced soon after BJP’s defeat in India’s general election of 2004.

The epicentre of the ensuing battle between these parties and BJP has revolved around three issues–” ideology, too much power at the centre of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and over-dependency on personalities such as Vajpayee and Advani.

Allegations of ideological deviations first surfaced amongst the different factions well before the general election of 2004. Many were unhappy with the path being traversed by Vajpayee and Advani. The RSS, VHP and some of BJP’s party activists saw these leaders diluting the very essence of the Hindu ideology.

After the general election two distinct factions emerged. The first group sought a return to core Hindutva issues, which includes construction of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code. The second group, while professing devotion to these matters, simultaneously explored ways of moderating BJP’s image.

Finally, a compromise was agreed and Advani was made the leader of the BJP in October 2004. But ill feelings between the two factions continued to simmer, and Advani did little to mollify the concerns of the hardliners, especially RSS the mother party of BJP.

The hostilities boiled over during Advani’s trip to Pakistan, where he praised Pakistan’s founder M A Jinnah by describing him as a “secular” leader. This was too much for the RSS bear and straight away demanded Advani resignation. Even some of BJP’s party members were dismayed by his controversial remarks and swiftly allied themselves with RSS and VHP.

Initially, Advani tendered his resignation on June 7 2005, immediately after his return from Pakistan. But, Advani loyalist in conjunction with BJP office bearers persuaded him to stay on. This was a bitter pill for the RSS to swallow and a vicious battle ensued between Advani and his loyalist on the one hand and the hardliners over the supremacy of the Hindu ideology and BJP’s political destiny.

Advani once worshipped as a Hindutva icon and credited with increasing the number of MPs from 2 to 200 was now regarded as a symbol of betrayal by the hardliners. The strategy for them was simple. Advani had to be ousted and replaced by a Hindu minded person to lead the BJP–”the largest of the Hindu parties in the NDA–” in the race for returning the party to power in 2009.

An alliance of BJP activists, RSS and VHP was forged to not only unseat Advani, but also to isolate his supporters, and if possible expel them from the BJP. Advani’s take on the deteriorating situation was to firmly cling onto the reigns of power and ostracise those opposed to his leadership.

Political scandals and corruption allegations erupted within the BJP. At first, the scandals appeared to help Advani consolidate his power, but ultimately he failed to stymie the rampant dissent within the party rank and file. Even Vajpayee a close confidant of Advani began to criticise his treatment of senior party officials in particularly the expulsion of Madan Lal Khurana. The reinstatement of Khurana proved to be the fatal blow that contributed to Advani’s eventual downfall.

On September 18 the battle between RSS and Advani culminated in Advani’s decision to step down as president of the BJP. Speaking before the BJP’s National Executive meeting in Chinnai, Advani announced his decision to step down by the end of 2005. But he did not intend to go quietly and took the unprecedented step of launching into a tirade against the RSS. He said, “Lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organisational decisions can be taken without the consent of RSS functionaries. This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the party or to the RSS. The RSS too must be concerned that such a perception will dwarf its greater mission of man making and nation- building.” Nor was Advani diffident about his moderate credentials and reminded the RSS that insistence on the Hindu ideology was a barrier to gaining popularity amongst the people. Advani said, “it [BJP] has to function in a manner that enables it to keep its basic ideological stances intact and at the same time expand itself to reach large sections of people outside the layers of all ideology.”

A week later, Vajpayee who so far had acted as a facilitator between the hardliners and Advani called for greater openness to think and express ideas. In an indiscrete reference to RSS Vajpayee said "our friends have made an attempt to limit the thought process. It is not necessary that all of us accept it (ideology) in the same form as others. There can be no restriction on thoughts, which is a constantly evolving process… There should be room for fresh thoughts and ideas.”

Advani’s outburst and Vajpayee’s call to allow room for people to express their ideas did nothing to diminish RSS’s direct participation in the selection of BJP’s future leader. Buoyed by RSS’s uncompromising stance, VHP joined RSS in demanding a series of reforms. Concerning the new leader of the BJP, the VHP leader said, “He will have to implement collective leadership, adhere fully to Hindutva ideology and be honest.” VHP Senior Vice-President Kishore also suggested establishing a coordination committee, comprising representatives of various parties, to advise the next party President on key policy matters. Kishore said, “When personality grows larger than the party, then the commitment (of workers) to the individual increases and to the party diminishes and in BJP everything revolves around these two persons only.”

The hardliners undertook a number of measures to ensure those close to Advani would be precluded from contesting the leadership of the BJP. Vajpayee also intervened at the last minute to dismiss Advani’s choice for the presidency. Consequently, M Venkaiah Naidu Advani’s chosen successor was forced to bow out of the race. This left the field open for Rajnath Singh to become BJP’s new President on January 3 2006.

Without delay, Rajnath conferred with RSS Joint General Secretary Suresh Soni and reassured him of his commitment to the Hindu ideology and professed that Advani’s statements about RS remote controlling the affairs of BJP were inaccurate. However, these assurances were at odds with his remarks regarding his admiration for Advani.

So has anything changed? Will the BJP revert to its ideological roots or will it seek to reach out to other communities? What will happen to the pro-American policies that BJP was following?

It is very unlikely that BJP will shed its pro-American stance. America enjoys extensive ties to BJP office bearers and BJP needs America’s tutelage to turn India into a regional power. Nonetheless, America’s challenge is to assist the BJP in growing its popular base and transforming itself, so that it can dominate the Indian political landscape. So far both America and BJP have failed to accomplish this feat.

This means that BJP has to start rebuilding its cadres, expanding its support base and rejuvenating its relationship with other parties in the NDA. The pathetic showing in the 2004 general election signalled that BJP’s relationship with other parties had to be recalibrated. Previously, BJP employed Hinduism to cultivate strong ties with other extremist Hindu parties and then exploited their causes to increase BJP’s popularity amongst Indian voters. But once in power, the BJP did not pursue any of Hindutva issues vigorously thus leaving it vulnerable to charges of ideological deviation from the likes of RSS and VHP.

It appears that BJP under Rajnath’s leadership will tread a similar path. He will endeavour to keep BJP’s allies onboard to mobilise the Hindu masses thereby enhancing BJP’s chances to win local elections, as well as, the general election scheduled for 2009. Hence the coming months will be very difficult for the Muslim community in India. Hostilities are likely to increase between Hindus and Muslims over the construction of the Ram temple and will inevitably lead to riots. The challenge during Rajnath’s tenure in office is to finely balance BJP’s relationship with the Hindu extremist and at the same time reach out to Indians who do not share BJP’s philosophy. This will be a difficult exercise, and whether he can play the balancing act as well as Vajpayee and Advani remains to be seen.