Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bowling alone

It appears to be an almost inexorable law of modern politics that, following electoral defeat, a right-wing party turns initially to its far-right "core", analyzing the defeat as a rejection of moderation and centrism. This was the reaction of the British Conservatives from 1997-2005, when they chose three hardline Thatcherite Eurosceptics in succession to replace the relatively moderate, and defeated John Major; the US Republican Party is doing much the same by allowing its primaries to be hijacked by the extremist, anti-government Tea Party movement and by providing a dogmatic, uncooperative Congressional opposition. Since 2004, our own right-wing party, the BJP (a party much closer in spirit to the Republicans than the Conservatives), has been in steady decline in every state bar Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Unlike the aforementioned parties, the BJP's shift to the right was not unified or coherent. This is partly because of the nature of Indian politics, where individual state leaders have a fairly substantial amount of leeway on policy issues. In general, however, the BJP has looked rightwards, to its "moral authority", the RSS.

The revival of RSS influence was most evident in late 2009/early 2010, when Lal Krishna Advani- one of the greatest ironies of Indian politics today is the fact that Advani has become representative of the "moderate" side of the BJP- retired from all party posts, and Rajnath Singh was replaced as party president by Nitin Gadkari, every bit the RSS' choice.

Since then, we have seen the RSS is clearly not in control of the BJP- but neither is anybody else. Most recently, there appear to be two main factions. Modi and Advani, incredibly, have a loose anti-RSS alliance. Yes, this is one of the most absurd developments in the history of Indian politics, but it is true. Two politicians who most of us believed RSS men for life are now committed to limiting the older organization's influence on the political party. In Modi's case, this is evidently because he sees the RSS as a threat to his own future leadership, inasmuch as it acts to prevent any one figure having total control of the party.

The dispute between the two factions, and Modi and Advani's upper hand is visible in the nomination of Ram Jethmalani, no friend of the RSS, to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket. Only six years ago the octogenarian Jethmalani, with the support of the Congress, fought a Lok Sabha election against no less an RSS and BJP icon than Atal Behari Vajpayee (surely earning himself some brownie points with Advani in the process). Today, however, Jethmalani is Modi's lawyer, and his nomination over the objections of the RSS is a considerable victory for Modi. The failure of Gadkari to inspire, and Modi's consolidation of his own position seems to indicate only one likely path for the BJP: Modi as national leader. His one serious rival for this post will be neither Gadkari nor the Delhi-based parliamentary leadership (Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, neither of whom are or will ever be true mass leaders), but the Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the only other enduringly popular BJP CM (contrary to what the pro-BJP blogs will tell you, Karnataka CM BS Yeddyurappa is not widely popular, with good reason).

Those of us who long for a viable (and palatable) opposition to the corrupt and increasingly complacent Congres should hope that it is Chauhan, and not Modi, who rises to national leadership, however unlikely this prospect may currently appear. Recent events have confirmed what I already suspected: that Modi, whatever his other flaws, is utterly ill-equipped to handle the dynamics of coalition politics. "Coalition dharma" has become a cliché associated in the public eye with Vajpayee, but this particular cliché is only part-imaginary. Vajpayee replaced Advani as party leader in part because of the latter's connection to the Jain hawala scandal, but also, with the reality that as a party limited to certain parts of the country, the BJP was inevitably reliant on alliances with smaller parties. Vajpayee was always the only BJP leader entirely agreeable to such formal and informal allies as Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. He had a lifelong ability to make friendships across the political spectrum (in stark contrast to the crudely partisan Modi), but also an understanding of the fact that the BJP's allies needed to be treated with respect and discretion. "Coalition dharma" is not only about ideological compromise: something that Modi might be surprisingly capable of achieving, as his desire for power certainly exceeds his attachment to any particular policy principle. It entails a relationship between parties that should never be paternalistic or condescending. The BJP may have had well over 60% of the MPs in the NDA government of 1998-2004, but its allies were generally accorded a remarkable degree of respect. In retrospect, Chandrababu Naidu has argued that his party was irrevocably tainted by its support of the BJP. But for those six years, the vast majority of BJP allies were more than satisfied with the arrangement. The one prominent ally to defect, the DMK, did so for purely instrumental reasons.

The history of the NDA since 2004 shows us that, in the absence of Vajpayee's leadership, the only reliable ally that the BJP has left is the Shiv Sena, a party in terminal decline following the establishment of Raj Thackeray's MNS. The Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal have both proved emphatically that they can thrive without the BJP; both parties, along with the TDP, are probably lost to the BJP forever, if there is such a thing in Indian politics. The BJP's failure to retain Om Prakash Chautala can be put down to its non-application of "coalition dharma".

Narendra Modi has never had to stoop to a coalition: favourable circumstances, an ineffectual opposition and his own political skill have ensured BJP dominance in Gujarat for the last decade. Vajpayee, by contrast, had first-hand experience of coalition government from his time as Minister of External Affairs in the ramshackle Janata government. Modi, on the other hand, is equipped neither with the experience nor with the temperament for coalition government. He has always embodied a stye of leadership that is based on strong personal direction, not consensus. There is only one prominent BJP leader in Gujarat, and that is Modi (contrast Karnataka, where Ananth Kumar and the Reddy brothers are often as powerful and as visible as the CM).

But there is no need to extrapolate from Modi's style and psyche the conclusion that he would be unable to sustain a coalition. One merely has to examine his record in this regard. Through arrogance and intransigence, Modi is singlehandedly wrecking the once-harmonious but now fragile, yet immensely important alliance with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United). This blog has argued in the past that Nitish is India's best Chief Minister, and he presents the kind of development-oriented alternative to Congress populism that the BJP ought to emulate. The travesty that is Bihar's polity, where even a record of governance as outstanding as Nitish' is not necessarily sufficient to ensure re-election, means that Nitish may even lose to some combination of Laloo and Paswan this winter. But if the BJP loses him they will be shut out of Bihar altogether: the party will have been reduced to a virtual non-factor in five of India's six largest states. Only the truly deluded can believe that Modi's "charismatic" leadership is capable of reversing this. If the BJP is to survive, it needs to both unite internally as well as carefully preserve and reconstruct its state-based alliances. If the party turns to Narendra Modi as its saviour, this latter task will prove impossible: and isolation will be the first step on the path to oblivion.

1 comment:

  1. this is an interesting article...but sometimes keeping your head high is a better option than bowing to all sorts of riffraff that Indian politicos are who only have ulterior motives. I wouldn't be surprised if these same people flock to foot-wash Mr. Modi when the favors are his side.