Ever since the BJP made another holy mess of the much touted introspection session in the hills of Shimla, an old Beatles song has been going through my head:
“But the fool on the hill
sees the sun going down
and the eyes in his head
see the world spinning round…”
Well, the BJP’s world certainly continues to spin like a top. What did they actually achieve, besides familiarizing the nation with the word “chintan baithak”? They made a hero out of Jaswant Singh while the entire party looked bad and the nation once again got engaged in debates about the founder of Pakistan. And all that, of course, is besides the far more serious damage the BJP has inflicted on the tradition of intellectual debate and freedom of thought.
When I first started to do the rounds of a BJP that was just poised to come to power over a decade ago, it was charged with energy, bursting at the seams with leaders, full of contradictions -- but very alive and vital. Today it’s a mess and the battles are so petty.
Recently, during a trip to the US, I could not help but make comparisons between the BJP and the Republican Party. First, a list of obvious similarities
- Both have suffered crushing defeats in the last twelve months and are yet to find their stride.
- Both stand on the right of the ideological pole and have a natural affinity for chest thumping nationalistic jargon.
- If the neo-cons like Dick Cheney are seen to have dragged the Republicans down, the campaigns of Varun Gandhi and projection of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a PM candidate put off voters. (Indeed the so called Bal Apte Report, officially denied by the BJP, has listed these among other reasons)
- There is the loony fringe of the Sangh brotherhood such as the VHP/Bajrang which often compels BJP to deal with politics of extremes. The Conservative Right also has its extremists and crazies like white supremacists, over the top preachers et al.
- If they have Sarah Palin, the Hindu right has the indomitable Sushma Swaraj!
- The Republicans have been hit by many scandals while the BJP’s reeling from controversy to controversy and currently the shit has hit the roof with Jaswant Singh determined to expose the leadership particularly L.K.Advani.
- The big similarity right now is that fundamentally both have to grapple with the larger question—Did they just face electoral defeats or whether the US and India have both changed.
However, despite these differences, there are clear difference too.
- First, although minorities, Hispanics and blacks tend to support the Democrats in larger numbers, avenues are open to them in the Republican Party and many, including some individuals of Indian origin, have risen to high positions. In contrast, minorities have virtually no place in the BJP’s scheme of things.
- Second, no matter how disoriented the Republicans might be, they will find a future leader and presidential candidate through the American system of primaries. In the BJP, the succession battle goes on and on. Imagine if instead of undermining each other and living the neurotic life of a BJP leader, the squabbling second rung like Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley devoted their energies to running a campaign to convince the cadre and the public of their ability to lead. Let us not overlook the fact that after fighting each other at every step in the course of the democratic primaries today Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton work comfortably together.
- Third, Republicans and the conservatives in the West have a far more evolved intellectual tradition than the constricted minority baiting ideology of the Hindu right in India. The undemocratic manner in which Jaswant Singh was sacked without a chance to offer his defence and the book banned in Gujarat shows the little value the Indian right places on freedom of speech, intellectual debate and exchange of ideas.
A broad coalition of interests constitutes the Republicans. Some of their ideological cornerstones have their roots in the origins of the US and have shaped public attitudes and discourse in that democracy. They believe in small government, less taxation, strong action and rhetoric against terror, aggressive foreign policy. All of this is being undone by Obama and the ethos of government in Washington is changing. The Right wing is therefore facing an existential crisis and right wing commentators are reduced to name calling Obama. He has been described as a communist, a racist, a socialist and a born-in-Nigeria foreign national!
Several Republicans I met believe this kind of wild name-calling indulged in by Right-wing media may push up their ratings but does nothing to inspire public confidence in the party. I particularly recall an off-the-record conversation with the spokesman and advisor to a Republican governor of a mid western state who is expected to put his hat in the ring for a bid at being a presidential candidate. This young man believed that a greater dose of sanity and shunning of the extremist fringe was necessary for the Republicans to retrieve some of the ground that has been lost. “Obama is a consummate artist and his troubles will mount and he will tie himself in knots over the health care reforms but at the very least we must respect the high intelligence of our opponent,” he said.
The former state department spokesman and aide to Condi Rice, who had travelled to India with her several times, said the big problem for the Republicans began when people began to believe that they had been deliberately lied to about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the war there based on falsehoods. He was at least attempting an honest assessment of some of things that went wrong. All of the BJP’s attempts to do so sadly seem to come to naught.
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