Why the BJP Lost a Sure Election

May 29, 2009

Although generalizations are often inaccurate, one that may not be so is the maxim that fewer Indians vote for a particular candidate than vote for the candidate judged likely to defeat him. One way for parties and candidates to avoid such negative voting would be to confine themselves to platitudes and to avoid taking clear stands on contentious issues for such clarity may anger more people than it attracts, as several Republican candidates found out the hard way in the U.S. elections last year.

May 29, 2009

Although generalizations are often inaccurate, one that may not be so is the maxim that fewer Indians vote for a particular candidate than vote for the candidate judged likely to defeat him. One way for parties and candidates to avoid such negative voting would be to confine themselves to platitudes and to avoid taking clear stands on contentious issues for such clarity may anger more people than it attracts, as several Republican candidates found out the hard way in the U.S. elections last year.

In many democracies, the most popular politicians are those seen as warm and fuzzy, and who are comfortable with anodyne solutions that on examination turn out to be mere placebos. When the UK’s Tony Blair changed from fuzzy to sharp, especially over Iraq, he began losing ground to the more emollient David Cameron. India, the country with the largest English-speaking population in the world, is no different from its future alliance partners, the United States and the UK.

2009, like 1998 and 1999, ought to have been the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) year. The BJP, however, went down to a humiliating defeat, securing only 116 seats in the directly-elected lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, a loss of 22 from its 2004 total. In contrast, the ruling Congress Party won 206 seats, a gain of 61 in a period characterized by rising prices, rising unemployment and increasing terror attacks. This result is explainable by an analysis of the mistaken tactics followed by an overconfident BJP as it revved up for an election many political observers believed would return it to power.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is below the age of 30, and the median age is 25, the BJP came up with an 82-year-old as its standard bearer. Lal Krishna Advani pumped iron before the media, but that feat helped him as little as riding in an Army tank helped Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party in 1988.

While in office as Information Minister from 1977-79 and again as Home Minister from 1998-2004, Advani did not distinguish himself with any significant policy initiatives. He did himself no service by gaffes during the campaign such as denying that he, the second in command in the Vajpayee cabinet, had “not been told” of the disastrous 1999 decision to free three al Qaeda leaders in exchange for the hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft and its 177 passengers. One of those freed, Ahmed Shaikh, went on to kill Daniel Pearl three years later in Pakistan, while another, Masood Azhar, masterminded the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.

The BJP’s counter-terror record while in office was as dismal as that of the current Congree Party/Manmohan Singh government. It was therefore a mistake to showcase the retreads of that regime as being better able to “fight terrorists”. Expectedly, the Congress Party pointed to the 1998-2004 record of the BJP/Advani team (which to a man – and a solitary woman, Sushma Swaraj – was identical to the group that had held high office during that period) and ask why this group could be expected to do better than they had done while in office earlier.

Furthermore, because Advani, the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, insisted on defending his predecessor’s record rather than acknowledging that errors were made – while promising to do better next time around – he diluted the efficacy of the BJP’s most effective plank which was national security. Between the 82-year old Advani and the 77-year old Manmohan Singh, voters saw little to choose from.

Although much is made of the RSS’s power over the BJP, the reality is that the RSS gave Advani a free hand during the election fully expecting him to lead the BJP to victory. The RSS, a Hindu organization with close to 45 million followers, may not be so indulgent the next time although Advani has both considerable resources and the existing BJP leadership on his side.

Further hurting the BJP in the eyes of the public is the fact that all of the party’s leadership were nurtured under the Vajpayee-Advani duo that has run the party for close to five decades. Compounding their dilemma, Vajpayee has been sidelined due to ongoing medical problems.

Voters in India dislike ambition and are pulled towards renunciates. Thus, L.K. Advani’s voluble eagerness for securing the post of prime minister went down badly with many. Given the BJP leader’s age and lack of personal charisma, L.K. Advani compounded his image problem (as a dour and over aged pol) by seeking to convert the contest into a U.S.-style presidential election, casting himself as the outsider a la Barack Obama.

Sadly, it was not just Advani’s advanced age (which was anyway comparable to that of the Prime Minster Singh) but his insider status as a veteran of decades in politics contrasted with the not-so-secret weapon of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi is the 39-year-old son of Congress boss Sonia Gandhi. Amazingly, despite coming from a family that has ruled India for much of its history as a free nation, Rahul Gandhi managed to come across as an idealistic insurgent, an image that served Barack Obama so well. Gandhi trashed governmental corruption and incompetence as though he was miles removed from the very party that was in power, his own. Thus, he became the “outsider” to Advani’s “insider.”

The younger Gandhi is far more articulate than his mother and comes across as likable and well-intentioned, doing (of course, before television cameras) quirky but attractive deeds such as spending the night in the hut of a village peasant. Unlike his combative mother, Sonia, who seems to have quite a dash of the Sicilian in her genes, Rahul has been complimentary even to his party’s political foes despite the heartburn it caused his own side.

For example, he praised as able administrators Chandrababu Naidu, the IT-savvy former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar’s Nitish Kumar. Although Rahul was accurate in such assertions, these were not looked kindly on by Congress Party candidates in both states who were demonizing the two in their campaigns. The younger Gandhi seemed to offer the promise of more inclusive, less combative politics than his mother and this resonated with the voter.

Another draw was his sister, Priyanka, a glamourous mother of two who speaks Hindustani with a perfect, local accent and who can wear a sari with as much ease as she does a pantsuit. Cable television’s reach into hundreds of millions of Indian homes was leveraged by the two younger Gandhis to project an image of simple wholesomeness in sharp contrast to the curt, often disputatious, style of the BJP’s standard bearers. In particular, upwardly mobile young people in urban areas could relate much better to Rahul and Priyanka than they could to Advani and the other jaded warhorses paraded by the BJP in front of the TV cameras.

By placing Rahul and Priyanka at the center of its campaign, the Congress Party drew attention away from its own graybeards, none of whom is likely to get a starring role in a Bollywood film,and for good reason. Unlike in the case of the BJP, which showcased only retreads from its last time in power (1998-2004) without a single new face (except that of Rahul’s cousin,Varun Gandhi, and that, too, by accident), the Congress Party’s decision to make Rahul Gandhi its poster boy during the campaign was crafted to appeal to what is a young (and aspiring) country.

The BJP also presented a split personality during the campaign, constantly mixing up a “hard Hindutva” message with the softer tones sought to be projected by Advani, the hard-liner-turned-moderate. While the media has presented the results of the 2009 elections as proof that the Indian voter has returned to a moderate polity, the facts tell a different story.

The BJP did well precisely in those states, such as Karnataka and Gujarat, where the local leadership followed the RSS’s “hard Hindutva” line and its base turned out to vote. In contrast, the states where the BJP’s local leadership followed the “New Advani” line of moderation fared disastrously. Clearly, the BJP-inclined voter did not take to the Advani camp’s desire to present itself as the face of “secular” (i.e. non-Hindutva) India, seeing that policy to be the province of the Congress Party.

Indeed, the BJP’s unique selling point has been its assertion (hardly objectionable) that the Hindu majority needs to be rescued from the Hindu-phobic policies of the Nehru family and be given the same rights enjoyed by India’s religious minorities. Under Indian law, Hindus – especially those from the higher castes – suffer discrimination in education and employment. Hindu places of worship are under the control of the government while those of other faiths are not. Advani’s error was in moving away from the formula that brought his party success in 1998, that of equal rights for Hindus.

Such a stance should not have been twisted to mean a mindless,Wahabbi Islam-style retreat to the past, however. There were unconscionable defects in Hindu society, such as the caste system, that need to be shunned and condemned. The upwardly mobile Hindu, like his Muslim or Christian neighbor, seeks only a better education and standard of life, not conflict or supremacy.

The India of today is hardly the country that existed a thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the BJP has not been able to present itself as the better option to modernize India in the way that the telegenic and youthful Rahul-Priyanka duo did for the Congress Party.

Another nail in the coffin of Advani’s prime ministerial ambitions came from his targeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rather than Congress Party boss Sonia Gandhi as the individual responsible for the mess in governance. Although it is uncontested that the prime minister is almost powerless (just like in 2004, Dr. Singh once again has been prevented from securing the finance minister porfolio for his choice, Montek Ahluwalia, and once again presides over a Cabinet where none of the ministers are loyal to him. But Dr. Singh is seen by the public as inoffensive and therefore likable, unlike his combative boss Sonia Gandhi.

The final BJP gaffe came when two senior party leaders, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, began to tout the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, as a future prime minister. Because of the 2002 massacre of Muslims in his state that followed the killing of 58 Hindu activists by a frenzied Wahabbist Muslim mob, Modi has been anathema to India’s 156 million Muslims. Fears that he would become prime minister, drove many of them to vote for the Congress Party. Had Modi not been showcased the way he was during the 2009 campaign, the Muslim vote would have been split between a half-dozen political parties, the way it has been since 1996.

The present is only a pause in the turbulent stream that is politics in India. Within the BJP, RSS-linked hard-liners are likely to move in on the glib and glittering people so beloved by Vajpayee and Advani. The new leadership is likely to continue on the more traditional BJP path of creating a consciousness within India’s Hindus of a separate, and neglected, identity. In this way they may be mobilized for a future victory.

Hopefully,the Hindutva brigade will stop at ensuring equal rights for Hindus and not proceed further towards diminishing the rights of religious minorities. Any attempt at diluting the minority rights would create tensions within India that would prove harmful to the country’s ambitions.

As for the Congress Party, the odds are that it will continue to preside over a government that, like all its predecessors, will be marked by sloth and graft. Should this be the case,the gloss of the 2009 victory will quickly vanish and the mood of the people will turn sullen.

2009 may only be a comma. The full stop – the political direction that India will take this half-century – will become clear only later, once the economic and societal changes now taking place in this largest of democracies runs its course. Not only democracy, but India itself is a work in progress.

M.D. Nalapat became India’s first professor of geopolitics in 1999 at Manipal University in India’s Karnataka state. Since 1992,he has held that Wahabbism-Khomeinism and authoritarianism are the twin threats faced by the international community and that the “unified field” of terrorism mandates a similar response. In 2003, he partnered with JINSA in organizing the first of four annual India-Israel-U.S. Conferences. Professor Nalapat, who first put forward the idea of forming an “Asian NATO,” believes that Israel, India, Turkey and Singapore form part of the “Extended West”, rather than an “extended Middle East”, and that the countries in this group need to work in concert to promote prosperity, democracy and freedom from terror.