Journalist, author, and blogger Chandrahas Choudhury has an excellent, in-depth piece in Caravan Magazine, on the BJP’s 30th national convention, which took place this year in Indore. The party suffered losses in the Indian elections last year, so one is especially curious to see where they are going to go next.
I know some readers at least may not be interested in Indian politics, and I would recommend this piece by Chandrahas particularly for those who don’t follow Indian politics all that closely. It’s more in the vein of New Yorker articles, which blend closely observant journalism, personal memoir, and analysis, than what one sometimes sees in mainstream Indian journalism. Chandrahas also doesn’t write with the presumption that readers know all of the back-story already.
Here is how Rajnath Singh, the BJP’s former president, frames the debate:
Rajnath was not willing to concede, as some had argued after the failure of Advani’s campaign in 2009, the prospect of the exhaustion of the politics of Hindutva or a rethinking of the party’s self-definition. The BJP found itself today in a predicament, declared Rajnath, similar to that faced by Coca-Cola in the 1980s, when the company found itself steadily losing market share in the cola wars with its big rival–Pepsi.
Convinced that it no longer appealed to mass taste, Coke decided, fatally, to change its original formula. The company then produced and enthusiastically advertised a new Coke similar to its competitor–with more lemon oil and less orange oil– explained Rajnath, whose research on this subject appeared to have been very thorough. But, far from winning back those who had jumped ship, the new product was a disaster in the market, and Coke fell away even more. Only when, chastened, it reverted to its original formula and kept the faith in its original identity did it eventually make up its lost ground. For Rajnath, the BJP was now in the position that Coke was in the 80s. Learning from history, it had to avoid the temptation to abandon its ‘original formula.’
That original formula was, of course, Hindutva. (link)
Chandrahas doesn’t say it, but it might be worth pointing out at this point that Coca Cola tried this experiment as a market-leader. The “stick to your guns” strategy might less effective for a political movement that’s trying to grow, as opposed to maintain dominance. But even if Rajnath’s message fails to resonate, there are nevertheless some signs of life within the BJP — though they are coming from the party’s new president, Nitin Gadkari, rather than from more familiar figures:
More persuasively than many leaders invested in ushering in a new era, Gadkari returns repeatedly to first principles, to notes of warning and self-restraint. “We should think: what kind of political culture do we want to be a part of?” he asks, enjoining delegates not to go around touching the feet of leaders, especially his own. Past mistakes should encourage reflection about the thin line between atmavishwas (self-confidence) and ahankaar (arrogance). The party is to make a conscious effort to reach out to scheduled castes and tribes, minorities, the lower middle-classes and the poor. After all, isn’t this the true meaning of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concept of Antyodaya, or reaching out to the last man? Without actually crossing his predecessor, Gadkari was taking issue with Rajnath’s more static view of the party.
If Gadkari’s vision comes to be a dominant one within the BJP (and, needless to say, if Varun Gandhi is carefully managed & restrained), I suspect the Congress will shortly have its hands full with the BJP again.
Finally, I was intrigued by Chandrahas’s personal account of growing up in the era of the rising BJP:
When we were both 18, the party finally came to power at the centre, as the principal player of the National Democratic Alliance. Although far from being the kind of Hindu the party valorised, I found myself persuaded by the poise and intelligence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who seemed to promise a government more vigorous than that offered by the moribund Congress. When his government embarked on a set of nuclear tests at Pokhran that year and declared India a nuclear power, I was not to be numbered among the skeptics. At discussions on university lawns in Delhi and later in England, against those who argued that the party was at its very heart illiberal and communal, I argued that the BJP deserved a chance to prove its worth.
What changed Chandrahas’ view of the party, not surprisingly, was Gujarat.