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No Sweet Nostrum

The painful recovery must perforce begin with a detox regimen

No Sweet Nostrum
Jitender Gupta
No Sweet Nostrum
Can the BJP reinvent itself? Since politics is the art of the possible, it is presumed by rational minds that the BJP will learn from the electoral drubbing, do some soul-searching and try to keep up with a changing world. But that will happen only if the BJP accepts its many shortcomings and gets out of its current state of alternating between denial and depression. A section of the party is emphasising the need for a makeover, but there is also the tendency to blame extraneous factors, like the Ram temple movement.

Outlook decided to ask commentators, analysts and historians what the BJP can do to reinvent itself. Their suggestions are listed below. Many party members spoke too, emphasising the need for drastic change in the organisation. But they preferred to stay off the record.

Snap ties with the RSS: Historian Jyotirmaya Sharma says he has a one-point plan for the BJP's revival. The party should snap ties with the RSS and make a public declaration that it has nothing to do with the ideological commitment to a "Hindu rashtra". "Once the BJP does this, reinvention should be easy," he says. Indeed the "split with the RSS" is the first formula offered by almost all commentators. But it's the hardest to do, for there is great enmeshment between the BJP and the RSS. The BJP also depends on Sangh volunteers, though partymen increasingly say the quality of such liaison men is slipping and cadres now want favours done. Sharma says the process of reinvention could involve a split within the BJP. "It is the law of nature that you can't survive if you don't split," he says. "I advocate a vertical split in the BJP, between pro-reformers and those who want to cling on to the RSS." The BJP, he says, "must split to conquer".

Abandon shrill, negative rhetoric: Hurling abuse at the prime minister has proved counter-productive. As has months of disrupting session after session in Parliament. The BJP will just have to learn manners and behave better in order to recover credibility with the middle class. Senior leader Arun Jaitley wrote in an article analysing the verdict: "Sober governance helps, shrillness does not. Moderation and understatement are virtues."

Give up the Hindutva orientation and the temptation to indulge in minority-bashing: In the India of the late '80s and '90s, it was possible to mobilise voters against the "other"—notably the Muslim and Christian communities. But increasingly, vandalism against Christians in Orissa, and the constant harping on the Muslim-terrorist-Pakistani bogey is proving counter-productive. Right-wing ideologue Swapan Dasgupta says, "Hindutva as an alternate vision of India is no longer working. Indians do not feel beleaguered, and they now see hate speeches and moral policing as mirror images of the Taliban." The BJP should perhaps be more circumspect in using phrases like "minority appeasement" and "pseudo-secularism".

Transform into a right-wing party similar to the conservatives in the US: Many see this as the only way for the BJP to evolve. Kumar Ketkar, editor, Loksatta, says there is a vacancy for a "liberal" right-wing party and not a political force whose identity emerges from hating others. "There is great confusion in the BJP," he says. "They are no longer certain of what to represent. Their idea of India is missing. They should recognise that the educated middle class, whose numbers touch 300 million, don't have a party that can represent them. They keep on floating between the BJP and the Congress. This class is made up of professionals who are non-communal and mostly try to make a honest living in a corrupt society." The BJP could appeal to this class if it could transform itself on the lines of the conservatives in the US.

Convert the party into an alliance of regional interests: It is leaders like Narendra Modi in Gujarat and B. S. Yediyurappa in Karnataka who are holding on to their bases. They also project themselves as regional leaders. Since the BJP does have a tradition of promoting strong state leaders, it should continue down that path. Analyst Narendar Pani, of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, says, "The verdict of 2009 is still a sum of state results, as democratisation has led to growing regionalism". He argues that the best way forward for the BJP is to convert itself into a sort of loose federal alliance of state interests. "There are variations in every state," Pani says. "In Karnataka, the BJP abandoned ideology and has purchased itself power."

Present the governance model: This is linked to the earlier point about governance. It is important to the BJP because the governance record of several state-level leaders of the BJP has been good. Yet, this point is lost on the middle class, for the party is inclined to take up non-issues like Ram Setu, Ram mandir and so on. And a good governance record has certainly reaped rich rewards for a low-key BJP leader like chief minister Raman Singh of Chattisgarh.

More space: Sushma Swaraj arrives in Parliament after the BJP’s recent defeat

Present a modern face: Besides Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the BJP has to project more faces that are modern. It is not just a question of promoting youth; the party's future will be determined by the sort of young leadership that will emerge from the churning. If the party is able to present an appealing image, it will attract talent. Once the honeymoon period is over, the UPA dispensation in Delhi could begin to seem like a privileged club, open only to dynasts, politicians' offspring and the well-heeled. If, by then, the BJP can get its act together, jettison ideological baggage and present modernity, it will be very much in the game again.

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