Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 24, Dated Jun 20, 2009
The Iron Man’s Meltdown
Sudheendra Kulkarni made important points, but they were half-truths.
The fact is, Modi offered inspiration, Advani confusion, says the BJP watcher
APOLITICAL PARTY like the BJP doesn’t exist for the
gratification of a self-perpetuating leadership.
It is sustained by a vibrant dialogue involving
the leadership, activists, stakeholders and
above all, its supporters and voters on the
ground. It is a measure of the deep commitment of large
numbers of Indians to the ideas driving the BJP that the 2009
defeat has generated a passionate and spontaneous debate
over the party’s future. Without waiting for the leadership to
first read a report on the debacle by three unnamed notables
and then determine the ‘line’ in a closed door chintan
baithak, well-wishers of the party including many who gave
quality time to the party during the long election campaign
have taken matters into their own hands and have already
initiated a debate the party leadership can’t afford to ignore.
Contrary to the perception that it is some sort of a cadrebased
body operating along Leninist
command-and-control lines, the
BJP actually approximates a political
movement. This accounts for both
its strengths and its weaknesses. Like much of Hindu society,
a strange cocktail of idealism, ideology, pragmatism and selfinterest
governs the BJP.
Sudheendra Kulkarni’s “candid insider account” (TEHELKA,
June 13, 2009) is a welcome addition to the ever-growing
literature on the BJP’s 2009 election experience. As the driving
force behind LK Advani’s campaign for the prime ministership,
Kulkarni has been refreshingly forthright in positing his
reasons why the campaign to regain power went so horribly
wrong. For its own reasons, the party leadership may have
taken a dim view of a kiss-and-tell story by an ‘insider’ but
these concerns don’t invalidate either the importance of his
intervention or the efficacy of his observations.
Some of Kulkarni’s observations are unexceptionable. In
2009, the BJP-led NDA was missing in action from 143 seats of
eastern and south India. These also happened to be precisely
the areas where the Congress and its allies performed best
— at the cost of the Left and the Third Front.
Secondly, it is also undeniable that the BJP coupled its
uneven geographical spread by not being on the radar of
Muslims and Christians who are 14 per cent of the population
but whose enthusiastic participation in voting gives
them a political clout far greater than their number.
Kulkarni’s argument that belligerent and ugly expressions
of Hindutva have limited the BJP’s reach among both
minorities and moderate Hindus is also one that will have
many takers within the party and even the RSS. The BJP’s
complete misreading of the post-Kandhamal mood in Orissa
and the adverse fallout of Varun Gandhi’s tasteless remarks
on the rest of Uttar Pradesh add weight to Kulkarni’s
suggestion that the BJP must clarify “what formulations of
Hindutva are not acceptable to it.”
I would, in fact, go a step further and reaffirm my argument
(made in the Times of India, June 4, 2009) that it is time
for the BJP to reconsider the very
use of the H-word. The hideous
baggage of Pramod Muthalik and
Praveen Togadia that ‘Hindutva’
carries negates its use as respectable shorthand for a wholesome
‘way of life’.
Unfortunately, this is where my agreements with Kulkarni
cease. In suggesting that “Never in the history of the Jana
Sangh or the BJP was the party enfeebled by so much disarray
at the top,” he has questioned the competence and
integrity of those who were at the organisational helm of the
party. As an expression of frustration, this blame game may
be in order but the organisational shortcomings — particularly
the appointments of inappropriate state presidents —
were known to Advani in December 2007 when he was
named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. What was done
in the intervening period to put the right people in charge?
Kulkarni doesn’t answer the question and instead blames
the Sangh Parivar and the party for not throwing their collective
weight behind Advani, thereby making “a strong leader
like Advani…look weak, helpless and not fully in command.”
Kulkarni doth protest too much. The RSS may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is no doubt that the Parivar
participated in the campaign ungrudgingly. The participation
may not have been as intense as it was in, say, the 90s, and the
social influence of the Parivar may have shrunk in the intervening
period but that does not warrant a charge of criminal
dereliction of duty. Defeat does not mean there was a lack of
resolve. To suggest otherwise is hurtful and churlish.
IN HIS outpourings, Kulkarni casually admits, “Of course,
it is also true that Advani himself failed to assert his leadership
at crucial points before and during the campaign.”
Was this failure to lead an oversight, as Kulkarni seems to
suggest, or was it a strategy that went awry?
That the BJP was not in a
state of battle-readiness was
known to almost everyone
in the party for more than a
year. It was also an open
secret that a few leaders
who relied excessively on
resident astrologers saw the
2009 election as a “semifinal,”
believing that their
big moment would come in
2014. If Advani had wanted
to act to correct these divinely
the party would have welcomed
There would have been no
opposition from the RSS too.
didn’t attend to the problems.
Instead, he embarked
on the suicidal course of
trying to transform a parliamentary
election into a
presidential one. From the summer of 2008 onwards, Advani
sought to project himself as a leader who was nominally
from the party but stood well above it. Beginning with the
functions associated with the publication of his autobiography
to the establishment of his war-room, the unveiling of
his personal website and his own vision statements, the
Advani strategy lay in bypassing a problem-ridden party.
Advani even had his separate media strategy, which centred
on Kulkarni and his team of wide-eyed interns.
Whether the visible detachment of the Advani campaign
from the party campaign was deliberate or an incidental
consequence of Kulkarni’s own style of functioning is something
that only Advani can clarify.
It is true that a conscious strategy of separating the leader
from the party can often yield results. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s
popularity always exceeded that of the BJP. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi benefited from his cult following. Unfortunately,
that approach didn’t work with the Advani 2009 campaign.
Advani didn’t secure an incremental vote that would have
given the BJP a booster shot. His projection as the “mazboot
neta” didn’t correspond with his hands-off approach to the
problems affecting the party. His energetic Internet campaign,
while conveying an impression of meaningful impact,
didn’t offset the age factor among youth voters.
|Advani didn’t attend to problems.
He was too busy on his suicidal
mission: his presidential campaign
The real problem, as I stressed in an earlier article, is that
Advani suffered from the confusion of contradictory images.
This haziness was responsible for the sudden midstream realisation
by many that Modi offered something extra: inspiration.
By then, it was too late for an audacious queen sacrifice.
Finally, in suggesting the
BJP’s future course of action,
Kulkarni has proposed that
the relationship between
the BJP and RSS be redefined,
a suggestion he first
mooted during the Jinnah
controversy in 2005. It is an
important area of concern
considering the murmurs
of dissatisfaction against
the overbearing style of
some RSS apparatchiks.
That the approaches of
the BJP and RSS need to be
different is undeniable.
That the BJP must not be
micro-managed by the RSS
is also not a bone of contention.
Yet, the functional
autonomy of the BJP cannot
diminish the fact that its
institutional links with a
committed to Hindu unity and nation building are a source
of strength. The RSS’ role of providing a moral and ethical
compass for the BJP remains as valid today as it was in 1980
when the dual membership issue forced a parting of ways
with the Janata Party.
In positing BJP-RSS ties as a key issue towards the revitalisation
of the party, Kulkarni has climbed on his favourite
hobbyhorse. It reveals an unfortunate streak of adventurism
that deflects attention from the more urgent business at
hand: forging an enlightened nationalist agenda centred on
security, growth, modernity and good governance.
There is also a need to analyse and learn the relevant
lessons from the failed 2009 campaign. Kulkarni has provided
some interesting insights but has also cluttered the picture
with red herrings. This isn’t surprising. There are many in the
BJP who insist that the problem with Advani was Kulkarni.