More than a year ago this scribe speculated on the BJP's future. An article published early February 2007 (BJP's Future: Does it have one?) said: 'On present reckoning the UPA government faces no outside challenge. It can only collapse through some monumental stupidity of its own. In the remaining two years of this government's tenure the BJP's decline will continue, unless the party reinvents itself. The prospect of that happening is remote. The party in its present shape seems to have little future. If it does, India under its governance may have none.'
Subsequently the BJP improved its position. That provoked critics to ridicule the article. After the recent Karnataka poll victory there is heady euphoria among BJP supporters. They should pause and reflect. They might even reread the quoted passage. By occupying office the BJP will not ensure its own or the nation's future unless it changes its 'present shape'. Otherwise it could be as lackluster as the Congress, without benefit of the latter's freedom struggle legacy. The BJP's continuing decline was foreseen unless 'it reinvents itself'.
Can it be denied that the BJP poll campaign in Karnataka initiated the process of reinvention? The campaign ignored Hindu-Muslim issues and focused on development. For the first time a Muslim minister has been inducted in a BJP state government. In his acceptance victory speech Chief Minister Yediurappa reiterated the need for development and the creation of an inclusive society. So does that reinvent the BJP and place it on the high road to success? Not necessarily. There are formidable roadblocks on the way.
The Congress defeat is not as terrible as it looks. The Congress secured more votes though less seats than the BJP. Also, the BJP government seems fragile. It depends on the support of five independents influenced by Andhra-origin Reddy MLAs having close personal ties with Andhra's Congress CM, Rajshekhar Reddy. One has to await the demands they put up for continuing support. If the demands are excessive and the BJP mishandles the situation to retain the government its credibility could quickly erode.
To balance these challenges Karnataka offers a great opportunity to the BJP. It is a state with a high percentage of the sophisticated, tech-savvy middle class. It is a constituency that has eluded the BJP until now. The BJP constituency within the middle class has consisted mostly of traders and those steeped in indigenous tradition. The trickle down effect in opinion making exerted by the tech-savvy component of the middle class should not be underestimated. Until now this class has voted either for the Congress or partially for the Left. If the BJP succeeds in winning over this class through its performance in Karnataka it would be a breakthrough as crucial as its breakthrough in South India. This class rightly or wrongly is identified with modernism and secularism. But will the BJP succeed in exploiting the Karnataka victory to win over this class? The party is emitting mixed signals which betray cross purposes among its leaders.
The political instinct to pursue electoral success, which has mellowed even Narendra Modi in his recent utterances, was much in display by the BJP's prompt endorsement of the fatwa against terrorism issued by the Deoband Clerics. But almost simultaneously BJP President Rajnath Singh sought replacement of the word 'secular' from the Constitution. The BJP also demanded the scrapping of Article 370 and the introduction of a Common Personal Law in the Constitution. These suggestions may be unexceptionable and may be open to debate. But the timing chosen to make them is suspect. What was the provocation to make these statements right now?
Seeking the answer to this question leads one to fear that the BJP is still not out of the woods. In fact it indicates the most serious and perennial problem that has bedeviled the party's performance up till now. That problem is the BJP's relationship with the RSS. The Nagpur RSS leaders retain a firm grip on RSS cadres who comprise the BJP's electoral workforce. This enables the RSS to act as the backseat driver controlling and directing the BJP. The recent mixed signals emanating from the BJP reflect possibly this problem. The tension that existed between sections of the top RSS leadership and BJP leader LK Advani had not been hidden. Political compulsions may have helped bury the hatchet, but the knives remain drawn. The RSS is known to place greater reliance on BJP President Rajnath Singh than on Leader of Opposition LK Advani. It remains uncertain whether the RSS is truly reconciled to the projection of Advani as the next PM. It is perhaps not without significance that the recent statements on Article 370 and on the need of a Common Personal Law were made by Rajnath Singh.
With assembly elections due in several northern states the BJP leaders may have calculated that such statements were required to keep intact its traditional vote bank in these states. That could be a miscalculation. The BJP's traditional vote bank has nowhere else to go. The failures of party rebels Uma Bharati and Madan Lal Khurana made that clear. BJP's traditional supporters may grumble but are unlikely to desert the party in a hurry. Unless BJP leaders summon the self-confidence to act on this assumption the party will not succeed in reinventing itself. The crucial question is: Can BJP dispassionately pursue rational electoral strategy to reinvent itself or will it remain a prisoner of the past?
That is the dilemma to be resolved by the RSS and Advani. To be fair, despite the extraordinarily clumsy twists and turns in policy carried out by Advani in the past, he does seem to recognize that the BJP must reinvent itself to advance. But can he persuade the RSS to agree with him? The BJP's organizational muscle is still flexed by the RSS.