Atal Behari Vajpayee may be well ensconced but what about the BJP? It is now obvious that the man is leading a government which looks increasingly secure, in a manner in which even his most trenchant critics cannot help but concede is "nursing back to good health the authority and prestige of the office of the prime minister". Yet, as politicians and edit-writers alike point out, his party - the BJP - remains untouched by this refurbishment. On the contrary, its problems seem to be multiplying. To add to its list of electoral woes - from that dismal failure to dislodge the Rabri-Laloo administration from Bihar in February to the more recent loss of the prestigious Soron assembly seat in Uttar Pradesh and the poor performance in the West Bengal civic polls - is the intense wrangling and infighting during the party's ongoing organisational polls, the lobbying for the post of party president and the irritability of its cadre, especially at the state level, with the BJP's nda partners.
The BJP may put up a brave face but leaders tasked with revamping the party machinery admit serious problems do exist. Says BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, "I'm not claiming there are no problems but strictly speaking, there's no real delay in the organisational polls. We already knew certain units would not be able to complete the process in time. As for infighting, it is apparent that bitterness and factionalism has come to the surface. Yet, I can say that compared to the last round of inner-party polls, the acrimony and factionalism has been less this time. We realise, however, that since 1991, proper attention has not been paid to the party due to involvement in frequent polls. We are in the midst of correcting this by reviving old practices and introducing new mechanisms."
While Krishnamurthy is happy to agree that the PM and the coalition are doing well, he's understandably reluctant to make a direct connection with the troubles facing the party. While he concedes that a section may not understand the rules of coalition politics as well as the top brass would like them to and admits that the perception that 'Vajpayee is fine but the party is suffering' could be there, he insists the two are "due to a different set of reasons". Among the cadre and second-rung leadership, however, the perception of a party sacrificed at the altar of power at the Centre is distinct.
For any other party, it would perhaps not have been so. After all, a political party - by definition - exists to seize power and the BJP has certainly done that. But for a party so strong on its distinct identity and agenda whose core support grew on this basis, coming to power through the coalition route and that too by leaning largely upon the appeal of a single individual, the acceptance of this as an end in itself is proving difficult to swallow. In fact, the signals sent out by L.K. Advani when he told Outlook (in earlier interviews) that the BJP "must transform itself into a party of governance" or that "we mustn't let commitment to a programme turn into a dogma" was an attempt to help the party faithful come to terms with the new reality. The result, at best, has been mixed.
Take Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is plagued by the virus that wiped out the Congress in the state. Where its fourth place in the Soron assembly seat has prompted Kalyan Singh to declare the "beginning of the end of the BJP in UP", while a contrite BJP president Kushabhau Thakre insists that "the message from Soron has been acknowledged". But acceptance is no replacement for "dedication being replaced by ambition" within the party. "With the kind of broad base we now have, it is difficult to maintain the same kind of austerity we had in the Jana Sangh days," admits Ram Kumar Verma, an old-school BJP leader, now a minister in UP. Naturally, Kalyan - himself a product of the BJP's social engineering-under-the-aegis-of-Hindutva days - was on hand to rub it in: "When Vajpayee has turned an alcoholic, why blame the others? Gone are the days of commitment."
The BJP has clearly been slackening in its campaigns, without either the Ram mandir issue or an undisputed leader (of the "right" caste) to rally around. Explains a senior leader who is also a minister in the UP government, "The second-rung leadership - Rajnath Singh, Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra, Om Prakash Singh, et al - has become far too ambitious. It is these men who will lead the BJP into oblivion. Take the organisational polls. These leaders have their respective camps right down to the local committees and have been pushing their candidates to stand for leadership at various levels, be it the village, block or district." The result: an ugly campaign which went so out of hand in Bareilly, Rampur and Kanpur districts and in the Ghaziabad ward that the party has suspended 14 workers and served show-cause notices to another 12.
In Karnataka, on the other hand, the BJP is keen to delay the organisational polls for many reasons: the party is to yet to recover from the drubbing in the assembly and Lok Sabha polls last year in reluctant alliance with the jd(u) and state unit president B.S. Yediyurappa is not keen to run for another term since he has ensured a berth in the legislative council and would lobby for being leader of the legislature party. Besides, says the camp opposing him, he could then throw himself into the ring when assembly polls come around, conveniently leaving the task of rebuilding the party at the district and taluk levels to a new face. The official line, however, is that it would work out the schedule for the organisational polls after June's gram panchayat polls. But on the eve of these elections, Yediyurappa has made a candid admission. "We lack the infrastructure to fight the Congress," he conceded at a press conference in Hubli.
Even in distant Assam, the BJP is riven with dissent. Where a Brahmaputra Valley vs Barak Valley or Assamese vs Bengali colour is imparted to the vicious infighting in every aspect of party affairs. The scenario is no different for the organisational polls with four candidates in the ring for state president, each lobbying hard among the 151-member electoral college. The contenders, MP Rajen Gohain, Assam BJP vice-president Parbati Prasad Goswami, former state president Prabin Baruah and general secretary Ramen Deka, all have their backers. Baruah is the choice of Union minister of state for water resources Bijoya Chakrabarty, whose rivalry with Gohain is no secret. Current president Narayan Barkakoty has thrown his lot with Gohain. Leaving the grassroot workers desperately unhappy with the turn of events. Asks Alaka Das, a councillor in the Guwahati Municipal Corporation: "If leaders indulge in such groupism just for the president's post, what will happen if the party comes to power?" With the agp doing well in the recent byelections and the Congress a strong Opposition, BJP leaders are again worried that the party's growth in the state will remain stunted.
Which is exactly why in Andhra Pradesh, while aware of the need for the tdp's support at the Centre, the state BJP leadership is very harsh in its criticism of Chandrababu Naidu's policies in off-the-record comments. But the BJP's dilemma is highlighted by Indrasena Reddy, BJP leader in the assembly, who says his party will not join hands with Opposition parties and in the same breath insists "the BJP has its own plans for agitational programmes to pressurise the government".
The easy answers to the BJP's troubles would be to blame it all on the "stupendous growth of the party". BJP general secretary Narendra Modi, in response to queries, told Outlook that "we are now in a situation where in areas where we did not even have a presence, we've had to form over 15,000 local committees for polls". Senior leader O.P. Kohli, in charge of organisational elections, was similarly upbeat last week: "Polls in 10 states have already been completed and many more will be through over the next month or so, with only Bihar not being able to participate in the elections for the national president, which we now expect will be completed by end-July early-August." Months after the scheduled date, and with a clutch of senior leaders lobbying hard for the post.
But the fact of the matter is that a large section of the BJP is now showing all the signs of a party which has tasted power and wants more. That the days of a bunch of prominent sanghis sitting together and deciding on who the leader should be may soon be gone forever. And that in an era of coalitions, ruling in Delhi does not necessarily mean the party will benefit in a stable manner. For the BJP, it's time to learn to deal with contradictions.