BJP and India's Future

M.L Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, February 26, 1998

The results of the ongoing elections are likely to cement the BJP's position as India's strongest national political party, and it stands a reasonable chance of forming a government at the Centre with the help of its allies. It is useful to examine, therefore, what this portends for the Indian democratic system, and separate some of the invective which has been heaped on this party from the reality of its aims and functioning.

The BJP is not just a political party; at the level of national and regional political transactions it is an amalgam of several national and regional movements which have gotten more sharply defined with the decline of its isomorph, the Indian National Congress. The movements which find a confluence in the BJP and have brought credibility to its politics are a new type of non-anglicised nationalism, a mosaic which reflects a return to Indian ways of thought and behaviour after decades of stress and strain at playing the brown Englishman and erecting caste and class barriers through political formulae of sectarian politics.

The need to find a balance between tradition and modernity brought these social and political forces together to accept Indian cultural nationalism as the basis of decision-making to organise a stable and prosperous nation while fully maintaining pluralism. Indian civilization has exhibited a high degree of religious tolerance and acceptance of multiple sources of cultural creativity, and Mr. Advani's redefinition of Indian secularism as the equal worth of all religions has had a wide acceptance even among the erstwhile critics of the BJP. The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution would have endorsed cultural nationalism, as being in line with their attempt to integrate democracy and pluralism with civilisational continuity.

A brief comment on the historical context of the party may be useful to dispel misinformation that the BJP has emerged from nowhere to challenge norms of political life in the country. In its earlier incarnation as the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the party developed its unique political space after the 1951-52 general elections. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee defeated Sadhan Gupta of the Communist Party of India from the South Calcutta constituency, and his place in Indian parliamentary life was second to none. In the 1957 general elections, Atal Behari Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Balrampur constituency in Uttar Pradesh. He recapitulated and reinforced the political parliamentary culture of constructive dialogue initiated by Dr. Mookerjee.

The real breakthrough for the Bharatiya Jan Sangh came in 1967. Pandit Nehru had passed away, and his successor Lal Bahadur Shstri died under mysterious circumstances in Tashkent. The Congress party had only Indira Gandhi as a mouthpiece with different faction leaders contending for power. A wave of anti-Congressism was blowing across the country, which swept the Congress out of power in West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. The situation was critical in Rajasthan. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh formed governments in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh in association with the Samyukta Socialist Party and the Communist Party (and in the case of Punjab with its present-day partner the Akali Dal). The Bharatiya Jan Sangh also ended the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Congress in the Metropolitan Council in the Union Territory of Delhi.

After the Emergency, in the search for consensus, Bharatiya Jan Sangh merged in the Janata Party conglomerate and participated in the Janata Governments at the Centre and in the States. This experiment was shortlived and in 1980 the Bharatiya Jan Sangh was revived with a new name "Bharatiya Janata Party". Since 1989 the BJP has gone through an unprecedented expansion. From a small national party not a serious contender for power at the national level, it captured four States in the 1991 elections. Currently on its strength or with its allies it has governments in Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (in Gujarat a rebel faction of the BJP rules).

The party has upheld constitutional norms and propagated liberal ideas and civic values and encouraged the formulation of consensual policies in both domestic and external political spheres. In the general elections of 1998, the BJP is generally perceived as the only credible challenge to the party that has misgoverned India for nearly half a century and has spawned large supporting vested interests. Both the B haratiya Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party manifestos have rejected excessively statist approaches and have been in tune with liberalisation of commerce, investment and technological developments.

There is a widely orchestrated media campaign against the BJP, spearheaded by the leftist intelligentsia, which has always been irritated by the BJP's opposition to Nehruvian economic policies, to over-centralisation (in the days when it was not fashionable), its championship of Tibetan rights and freedoms, and its demand for diplomatic relations with Israel. The foreign Press tended to echo the jaundiced view of this intelligentsia. The tirade against the BJP manifesto is the product of a leftist cartel that has dominated Indian politics and created vicious politics based on class and caste hatred.

Commentators on the BJP manifesto who concentrate on pitting the party against the "liberal, secular polity", or against the aspirations for "autonomy" in Kashmir, or criticize its stand on "personal laws", cannot contribute very much to our predictive capacity about a Vajpayee-led government. The manifesto not only spells out the BJP policies on political affairs, the economy, social infrastructure, foreign policy, national security, population, education, women's issues, information, science and technology; it is a powerful declaration in favour of transparency as a primary feature of the Indian democracy. It equips the prime Minister-designate of the BJP to go beyond partisan needs and take the country out of the back-room deals which have eroded people's trust.

The BJP comes through as a policy-oriented political party, as against the Congress which at the this crucial juncture is allowing itself to be manipulated by the dynasty factor, and the UF which promises to be an anachronistic venture against the reformist forces of Indian society. The manifesto provides its Prime Minister designate a philosophy for running the country but it does not fetter him by any ideological or theological shackles. It provides guidelines for getting the best for India out of the global market economy, and for reordering our country's broken-down social and political structure on the basis of widespread decentralisation and sharing of power. It will help Mr. Vajpayee to use his leadership skills to guide India into next millennium.

Out of the current confusion of Indian politics, the BJP's eyes are not set on power for the sake of power. It expects to get power only because it is certain that it can build a new India, stronger, stabler, more egalitarian, more secular and more evenly developed, an India that will walk in step with the Post-Cold War world and will embrace change when change will be for our good. A Vajpayee government will have hostility towards none, it will extend its hands of friendship to all, including our neighbours, including Pakistan.
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