There is a monotonous predictability to politics that makes it very similar to the natural sciences. This is one profession that has no place for any noble sentiment, be it charity, generosity or unselfishness. The only coin in which it deals is self-interest and that is what makes it so boringly predictable. This is why the row that has erupted in the Sangh parivar over Atal Behari Vajpayee's categorical assertion that not removing Narendra Modi from power for his failure to prevent or control the Gujarat riots cost the party the elections is so utterly unsurprising. The blame game was inevitable within the BJP after the NDA's defeat last month.
Vajpayee's remark has been interpreted in some quarters as a belated attempt by a defeated prime minister to shift the blame for the defeat onto someone else's shoulders. But in truth, Vajpayee had been provoked to respond by a spate of attacks upon his and Advani's leadership that had begun within hours of the shock defeat. His remark in Manali immediately provoked a counter-attack by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Vishnu Hari Dalmia, its vice-president Giriraj Kishore and reigning firebrand, Praveen Togadia. But criticism of his leadership was not confined to the fringe organisations of the Sangh parivar. A whisper campaign against Vajpayee and Advani had begun within the BJP itself, hours after its shock defeat. At a recent social gathering in Delhi, a BJP 'intellectual' considered to be a moderate told a businessman sympathetic to his party that the NDA had been defeated because Vajpayee had abandoned Hindutva and angered the Hindus. "But," he said, "just wait two years. This government will fall and we'll be back—with Hindutva".
Had this finger-pointing taken place simply because the BJP was a bad loser, it would not have merited serious attention. But behind it lies a conflict of principles that could well decide the fate of the Indian polity in the not-too-distant future. For eleven years in fact, ever since the BJP lost the November 1993 elections in three of the four states after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Vajpayee and Advani had been working assiduously to bring the BJP out of the Hindu right fringe to the centre of the political spectrum. They did so because they were aware that their vote base was concentrated in western and central India. Delhi and Himachal was too small to ever allow the party to come to power on its own (it garnered only 21 per cent of the vote in 1991). The defeat in Himachal, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, and the steep slide back in Rajasthan in 1993 also showed that pulling down mosques and unleashing terror on defenceless people was not the way to gain votes, at least not in India.
Their strategy not only helped BJP widen its base of appeal, but enabled the formation and consolidation of the NDA. In fact, the vhp and my unnamed BJP intellectual have put the cart before the horse. Far from being responsible for the BJP's failure in 2004, Vajpayee and Advani were responsible for its successes in 1996, 1998 and 1999. But the Vajpayee-Advani duo received little support from the rest of the Sangh parivar. From 1998 itself, the vhp began to chafe at the moderation of the BJP's policies and at the exclusion of its stalwarts from positions of power in the new government. So they demonstrated their nuisance value by attacking Christians.
The NDA was able to weather this turbulence but Gujarat proved another matter. It is true that had there been no massacre of Hindus on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, there would have been no subsequent riots. But two wrongs do not make a right. Modi fed the flames of anti-Muslim violence and later capitalised on the passions stirred up in the Hindus to win the December 2002 elections. By doing so, he forfeited the support that the BJP's coalition partners in the NDA, if not the BJP itself, had enjoyed from the minorities and moderate Hindus.
In the end, the NDA's defeat might not have been caused either by the setback to its secular credentials in Gujarat or the failure of its India Shining campaign in the run up to the elections. The BJP's vote fell by only 1.59 per cent between 1999 and 2004. The Congress suffered a marginally greater fall of 1.61 per cent, but won many more seats and formed the government.
The only certain thing about the election results is that they were almost entirely determined by anti-incumbency. The Congress victory in Andhra Pradesh was a mirror image of the BJP's victory in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Even in Gujarat, the poor performance of the BJP was at least partly a reassertion of an anti-incumbency swing after the passion aroused by the riots had been spent. If Gujarat or India Shining had an effect, it was at the absolute margin of the vote. And we will never know how much each of these contributed.
Vajpayee's moderation enabled the BJP to create a stable and responsible coalition that has become one pole of the bipolar pluralist democracy struggling to replace the dominant party democracy of the 1947 to 1996 period. The Congress is even now grappling with the task of creating the other pole. Two acts of great unselfishness have so far aided the process. The first was Vajpayee's willingness to risk his political career time and time again in order to pull the Sangh parivar away from communal confrontation. The second was Sonia Gandhi's decision to renounce the prime ministership. Did I begin by saying that politics is predictable because it is guided solely by self-interest? Well, there are still exceptions to that rule.
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