February 19, 2020
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Life After Hawala

Outlook reviews the BJP's prospects in the states where it commands a major presence

Life After Hawala

THE first flush of the dream died out in November 1993. This was the first election after the Ayodhya demolition and the subsequent dismissal of the BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. TheBJP, riding the crest of a wave till then, went in with the slogan "aaj paanch pradesh, kal saara desh" (today we take five states, tomorrow the nation). But a waning Ayodhya fervour saw them lose three states, getting only Rajasthan and Delhi. Mulayam Singh Yadav took Uttar Pradesh and the Congress, despite visible signs of organisational decay, bagged the other two. Over two years later—as senior BJP leader A.B. Vajpayee flagged off party chief L.K. Advani's rathyatra from Ernakulam's Marine Drive on March 9—it is clear that the party is still chasing that long-cherished 'tomorrow'. And despite the hawala hurly-burly, it knows that tomorrow may be just two months away.

To realise this resurgent dream in the 11th general elections, the BJP has to lean back on its extended family. So, as Advani fights to clear his name in the hawala case, the entire Sangh parivar has decided to go flat out against Rao to curb his damage potential. "The time is ripe for the RSS to plunge into the electoral arena," says Sangh General Secretary H.V. Seshadri. When the RSS Pratinidhi Sabha endorsed this stance at its March 8 meeting in Lucknow, it ensured the active participation of over 70 RSS-affiliated bodies in the BJP campaign, though from independent fora.

 "We'll project the BJP as a Hindu-friendly party, deserving support in a country with 80 per cent Hindu population. The BJP will have its own agenda but a general atmosphere surcharged with Hindutva would go in its favour," says a Pratinidhi Sabha member. Sure enough, Advani visited the Guruvayur temple and Adi Sankara's birthplace at Kalady before setting out on his yatra, which he likened to "the one undertaken by Adi Sankara to unify India". This strategy is to be tempered with tolerant, secular tones. Prior to the Lucknow conclave, the BJP leadership had submitted a status report to the RSS leadership on its poll prospects. One of its principal submissions was that the BJP requires additional support from outside the traditional Hindu base.

Vajpayee's projection as the prime ministerial candidate is undoubtedly aimed at this. At Ernakulam, he almost stole the spotlight from Advani. Moreover, Advani and others who addressed the 8,000-strong crowd referred to Vajpayee as "the future PM". The Sangh is well aware of the political implications of projecting Vajpayee as the party totem. Thus, at Lucknow, the RSS issued an appeal to non-Hindus to vote BJP: "A great responsibility rests on the sober and nationalist section among Muslims, who need to raise their voice against the fanatic fringe of their leadership".

Similarly, Ayodhya by no means dominates the slogans of Advani's current yatra, which is devoid of the trishul-wielding mobs and the fervour of the 1990 yatra. As past elections have indicated that mandir carries only a localised appeal, the agenda is of a more umbrella nature—the five key issues are Hindutva, suraksha (security), suchita (probity), swadeshi (self-reliance) and samrasata (social harmony). This broad-based plank will be trumpeted as Advani's campaign-oriented yatra passes through 16 states which together contribute 504 seats to the Lok Sabha. Here, probity is a focal issue and the party plans to really turn the heat back on the Congress, sharp focussing on Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's own sullied image. Vajpayee has already adopted an uncharacteristically strident stance. This has helped blur the psychological barrier between BJP doves and hawks, where the latter thought of Vajpayee as a "Congressman within the family".

 "Just wait a few days. Vajpayee will soon drop another bombshell, like with hawala, and reveal evidence of corruption involving Rao and his family in defence deals," says a BJP office bearer.

"Hawala has boomeranged on the Congress," says Advani. "It didn't expect Vajpayee to mount a frontal attack on the Prime Minister and turn the spotlight on his role in the scandal. The Supreme Court's expression of no-confidence in Rao's handling of the case has made his position absolutely untenable." The BJP has compiled a list of corruption cases during Rao's tenure—including the Solanki Davos letter episode, the scams in banking, disinvestment and sugar, Harshad Mehta's alleged Rs 1 crore payoff to Rao, and the hawala scam. The BJP strategy is three-fold: destroy the Congress by hitting it where it hurts the most (corruption); use the RSS to create a pro-Hindu wave, but simultaneously make pro-Muslim noises; and expand the electoral base by targeting the Scheduled Castes and Tribes—who constitute 22.5 per cent of the population and have 100 reserved seats. With the erosion of the Congress support-base among these sections, the BJP plans to step in as an 'upholder of their interest'.

Broad-basing their appeal is necessitated by some unpleasant facts. The BJP, which secured nearly 20 per cent of the vote in the last elections (winning 119 of the 452 seats it contested), has seen its percentage tally decline in most subsequent state polls. Barring Maharashtra and Gujarat, this trend held true in the 13 assembly elections since Advani's takeover as party president in June 1993. "It's a lesson for us and we have to seek remedial measures," says a party general secretary. Thus, the BJP joined hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh last June. The experiment did not last beyond three months but the BJP realises the leadership vacuum among Dalits and tribals and still sees hope in Uttar Pradesh where its main rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and the BSP's Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo are sworn enemies. "At least we broke the Muslim-Backward-Dalit alliance. A Janata Dal-Mulayam alliance won't be as formidable," says state party chief Kalraj Mishra. A readymade antidote is present in Kalyan Singh, a backward class leader. Extended to Bihar, this logic saw the BJP roping in Jharkhand MP Shailendra Mahato. His role in the 'Jharkhand bribery' episode may have paid put to Mahato's position but the BJP'S search for influential tribal leaders continues. In Madhya Pradesh, Congress MP Ajit Jogi was targeted, in vain, in one such attempt. In Gujarat, it nominatedSC/ST cell chief S. Bangaru Laxman for the Rajya Sabha at the expense of a senior leader like K.L. Sharma.

At another level, the RSS-affiliate Vanbasi Kalyan Ashram has identified some 67,000 tribal villages across India, set up commit -tees in over one-third of them and started grassroot-level work for the BJP poll campaign. Advani's yatra itinerary is itself a statement—it ends on April 14, Ambedkar Jayanti. And an Ambedkar portrait adorns Advani's 'swa-raj to suraj' rath.

But the party's woes—ideological and organisational—persist. There is only a tentative ceasefire between S.S. Vaghela and Keshub-hai Patel in Gujarat. In Maharashtra, it had to convince the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch to hold fire on the Enron issue in deference to the Shiv Sena's priorities. "We agreed to give the contract back to Enron after they changed the objectionable clauses. We're not opposed to foreign investment in infrastructure," says Advani.

In Orissa, which represents a potential growth area (it won nine assembly seats last year against its previous three), at least three party legislators defied central directives in the Rajya Sabha voting. In Bihar, no new leader has been elected after the hawala-tainted Yashwant Sinha quit the assembly. Sushil Modi has too many detractors, including state BJP chief Ashwini Kumar. M.L. Khurana's resignation saw a Gujarat-type crisis in Delhi. The legislators finally had their way and S.S. Verma won the race.

Of course, there is enough reason for optimism. An enfeebled Congress is looking for survival props—Rao has offered the olive branch to the corruption-plagued J. Jayalalitha (the cases against her aide Sasikala have been closed temporarily) and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Given its near-absence in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal, the BJP plans to profit from the Congress' problems (infighting in Maharashtra, the heavy hawala casualties in Madhya Pradesh) and the JD-Mulayam seat-sharing tussle in Uttar Pradesh.

The fact that the Janata Dal is not a homogeneous unit may also go to the BJP's favour in the event of a hung Parliament. While Laloo and R.K. Hegde favour a tie-up with the Congress, H.D. Deve Gowda is pro-Chandra Shekhar and Biju Patnaik is unpredictable. Moreover, the proposed third force is yet to resolve its contradictions. Given this disarray in the secular ranks, the BJP may succeed by default despite its vague policies. Success, that is, measured in terms of gains over their current strength of 118 Lok Sabha seats. 

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