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Modify or perish

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The BJP must realise that Modi represents a model of charisma and governance that can rewrite its future.


Decades from now if a historian were to look back at this period in the BJP's history, and particularly at the party's national executive in Goa this weekend, he or she would encounter some puzzling questions. If the Goa conclave marks the moment of truth and transition for the BJP, and the evolution from the Vajpayee-Advani generation to the Modi era, distanced and detached analysts would wonder why it took so long.

At one level the transition has been a work-inprogress since 2004, when the BJP lost the general election rather unexpectedly. That year the BJP had to confront some troubling verities: it needed a successor to the public appeal of A B Vajpayee and the institutional authority of L K Advani. It also needed a programmatic agenda beyond the identity politics of the 1990s, which was becoming less and less relevant from an electoral perspective.

The entire process took its time, and for several reasons. While Vajpayee retired shortly after the 2004 defeat, Advani continued to harbour ambitions. He was nominated as the party's prime ministerial candidate in 2009 and pitched for the captain's role in 2014. Some of the BJP's 70-somethings, conscious they could become ministers in an Advani cabinet but not fit in as easily in a cabinet led by someone 10-15 years their junior, egged him on.

Next there was enormous competition, partly justified and perfectly legitimate and partly tiresome, within the BJP's so-called "generation next" - the 50-60 years group. Added to this was the loss of rigour in the central BJP, the absence of a compelling national leadership and the growth of strong federal leaders in the party. The energy of and curiosity for the BJP moved to the states.

Today, many of these issues are at the cusp of being settled. The older generation has been told to cede space. Modi has emerged as the first among equals in the second generation and the clear favourite of party workers and sympathisers. Finally, in anointing a state chief minister as its mascot, the BJP has acknowledged the defining role provincial chieftains and units play in its political and electoral calculus today.

To go back to the original question: why did this process take so long to undertake or even acknowledge ? The answer lies in a proper noun: Advani. On each of the BJP's three major fault-lines, he found himself on the wrong side of history.

Advani batted for the continuance of a generation that needed to retire. He saw himself, at close to 86, as the sort of politician who would appeal to today's demography and today's India. He exploited and some would say instigated factional rivalries between the 50 or 60-somethings to win short-term advantage within the party. Finally, on the federalism debate, he remained a sceptic. As his obdurate approach in Karnataka showed, he was all for using the iron hand of Ashoka Road to throttle the aspirations and occasional angularities of state units.

Given this backdrop, it has been easy and convenient to compress the BJP's existential dilemma over the past few months (or years) into a neat capsule : Advani versus Modi. This is something of an irony since Modi and several of those now cheering him are old protêgês of Advani, almost political products shaped by the senior man.

Advani was their leader, their mentor, their sculptor, their trenchant wordsmith and their generous patriarch through much of the 1990s. He was the link between the party and the government in the period the NDA was in power, the man who knew ordinary party workers and third-rung leaders by name. So deep is the identification with Advani that it has taken his disciples months and even years to tell him they think he is wrong, he should step aside and allow Modi to test his abilities as the person perceived to be BJP's most likely vote-catcher.

Funnily, in the aftermath of 2004, both Modi and Advani came to the same realisation: that the party had outgrown identity politics and the RSS umbrella;that it needed to carve a new agenda;that it required to evolve into a mass-based, broad-spectrum entity, rather than the political arm of an ideological club. They expressed this in different ways. Advani did it most awkwardly and clumsily in 2005 by unilaterally declaring a reverence for Jinnah as the benchmark to decide whether one backed the new BJP or the traditional one. He asked the right questions but couched them in bizarre language, with the most inappropriate example.

Modi did it in another manner. After an ugly and socially-troubling election in 2002, he realised sticking to hard-line religious politics would yield diminishing returns and probably have him lose in 2007. As such, he snatched back the sphere of governance from VHP and Sangh busybodies who had extraordinary influence in Gujarat in the mid and late 1990s. From Hindutva, he transformed the narrative to one of Gujarati pride, of economic hope and social aspiration, of growth and prosperity. Today, the BJP hopes he can sell that dream to the India beyond Gujarat.

Will it work in 2014? To the BJP, Modi represents amodel of charisma and effective governance that can rewrite the party's future. There was a time, not long ago, when Advani too was a model for the BJP. Now he is a warning.


The writer is a Delhi-based analyst

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