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The shadow Opposition

The shadow Opposition

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: February 4, 2009
URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/redir.aspx?ID=9b7b405c-8cb3-404e-aa81-4a56b6f9893b

During its National Executive meeting in Nagpur later this week, the BJP needs to confront a compelling question: why has the party, in the words of a senior functionary, 'lost momentum' in recent months?

In the last two years, the BJP has won an impressive series of state elections ranging from Gujarat to Karnataka, and Himachal Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh. The party, with its allies, overcame even the most formidable contests and defeated the Congress/UPA, like in Bihar (2005) and in Punjab (2007). Yet, when it comes to the Big One - the general election - a party that takes pride in its national positioning seems to be strangely dispirited and - dare one say - defeatist.

If we also consider the context, the conundrum becomes even more difficult to explain. In 2004, there was no common thread to the general election and, so, the Lok Sabha battle devolved into an aggregate of state elections. This year, with national security and the economic downturn - which has affected the business barons, the textile exporters in Tirupur and construction workers in Gurgaon alike - the election is crying out for a national theme.

Yet, the BJP finds itself unable to tap these sentiments to exploit what have been the obvious shortcomings of the UPA years. Predicting Lok Sabha elections in contemporary India is as risk-free as ballet dancing on a minefield. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the possibility of a freakish result, it is clear that the decisive advantage that should have accrued to the BJP by now is absent. The party has failed to demonstrate the credibility to address a variety of pan-Indian concerns and weld them into a national platform. So, what could, or should, have been a national election will now go back to being a conglomerate of regional- and constituency-level battlegrounds.

The Congress would welcome this. It would help disguise the ruling party's failures and diffuse any hostility to it. On the other hand, the BJP would be the biggest loser; ironically it would also be the one to be blamed for having failed to define the framework of this election in all-India terms.

Why is the BJP in this predicament? There are several reasons. First, the last five years have seen a dramatic federalisation of the BJP's politics. From Narendra Modi to Shivraj Chouhan, B.S. Yeddyurappa to Raman Singh to

P.K. Dhumal, the state leaders have reinforced themselves as regional strongmen. Even though she lost a hard-fought election last December, Vasundhara Raje, too, falls in the same category.

This federalisation has not been a conscious effort. In part, it has occurred because the central leadership has atrophied. It is paradoxical that while the elemental energies of the BJP are in the states, the national headquarters in Delhi seems impervious to them. The party's central hierarchy has been hijacked either by competing or intersecting coteries of retirees and promotees.

To use marketing jargon, the BJP is today a strong regional brand in a clutch of very different geographies. Astonishingly, this has coincided with a diminution of the BJP as a national brand.

A second, related factor is the calibre of the BJP 'shadow cabinet', such as it is. This is often confined to a debate on L.K. Advani and his age (he will be 82 in November) but that is both unfair and unrepresentative of the entirety of the issue. There is a crucial distinction between a political veteran and a politico way past his sell-by date; defensive on the age issue, the BJP has obliterated that distinction.

An analogy from the UPA would be educative. Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee are both well into their seventies. Even then, in the past five years, they have been alive to the challenges of government; they have pushed through policy, pored over files and paid attention to long briefings. If the Congress loses the coming election, they are certainly not the ones to get blamed.

In contrast, the Congress, in 2004, handed three vital portfolios to its spent men. K. Natwar Singh was a Cold War warrior entrusted with a 21st century Foreign Office. At the Home Ministry, Shivraj Patil was out of his depth and couldn't appreciate the colossal internal security threats that India faced. It took him three years to comprehend that the Maoist insurgency was not about "a few boys" (in his own words). Arjun Singh, who last won a popular election in 1991, converted the HRD Ministry into a fellow-traveller jamboree and scuttled higher education reform.

The BJP's would-be cabinet is, unfortunately, a mirror image. Advani is past his best but is still remarkably agile and attentive. He needs to sell himself as a surefooted Prime Minister who sets the broad direction and leaves the nitty-gritty to others. Extremely important here is the composition of Team Advani. As it happens, it is packed with BJP's Shivraj Patils and Arjun Singhs, with pre-2004 hand-me-downs, who have done nothing of note in five years. Indeed, some of them have reduced themselves to whingeing factionalists in their home states.

In the India outside Lutyens' Delhi, the curiosity is about a Modi or a Shivraj Chouhan, a Vasundhara Raje or a Raman Singh. Extended to the NDA, there is an interest in a Naveen Patnaik or a Nitish Kumar. These people are not in Team Advani's inner ring. They are not a part of any promised cabinet. Instead, old faces and tired minds, in search of a role since 2004, wait for their chance. Can even BJP insiders be excited.

- Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

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