Season for fair-weather friends

The steady stream of Congress worthies switching sides effortlessly  and proclaiming their undying faith in Modi is evocative of V C Shukla’s 2004 brief dalliance with the party

Vidya Charan Shukla, who died last summer, was one of the most hated figures of the Emergency. He was entrusted with the responsibility of regulating the flow of news through rigorous censorship and he carried out Indira Gandhi’s command with effective ruthlessness.

Season for fair-weather friends

I didn’t know Shukla during his halcyon days, when he also acquired a reputation for being a bit of a lad. Arun Nehru introduced us during the early days of the Jan Morcha, which subsequently morphed into the Janata Dal. What immediately struck me about Shukla was that he was always immaculately turned out. Indeed, I have met no other person who wore a dhoti so elegantly.

Unfortunately, his overpowering sartorial grace wasn’t good enough to obliterate the past. To my generation, Shukla and the Emergency were inseparable. This may explain my disgust when I found him sharing the dais with L K  Advani at an election rally in 2004. Shukla, for those with short memories, contested the 2004 poll from Mahasamund as a BJP candidate. He lost, and shortly after, left the BJP to make his way back to the Congress.

Apart from the usual galaxy of filmstars and other performers who have developed an irresistible urge to enter politics—just look at the candidate list of both the BJP and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal–the new converts include hardened politicians

I was reminded of Shukla while observing the steady stream of Congress worthies switching sides effortlessly and proclaiming their undying faith in Narendra Modi. Apart from the usual galaxy of filmstars and other performers who have developed an irresistible urge to enter politics—just look at the candidate list of both the BJP and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal–the new converts include hardened politicians like Rao Inderjit Singh, D Purandeswari, Sonaram Chowdhury, Jagadambika Pal, Satpal Maharaj and the habitually fickle, such as Jai Narain Nishad and Brij Bhushan Singh. And I am not even including the ex-babus.

Satpal Maharaj
Satpal Maharaj

Many of them have been ‘adjusted’–a wonderfully evocative expression to denote amorality — and others given assurances about the future. Actually, the BJP’s record of keeping pre-election promises is rather good. In 2004, despite the defeat, the party accommodated at least four high profile new entrants into the Rajya Sabha, where their total contribution to the revival of the BJP was an enormous zero. However, within the political class, the BJP has a better reputation of being especially accommodative towards those who have earlier drunk from a secular cup. Whether this stems from a genuine desire to broaden the party’s social reach or is a function of Hindutva ‘dhimmitude’ is for social psychologists to ponder.

In narrow political terms, however, there is no doubt that a steady stream of inbound traffic does much to boost morale and demoralise the opposition. More important, in the context of the Congress (and AAP) bid to suggest that India will suffer a bout of communal indigestion if Modi is voted to power, the newcomers help expose the secular-communal divide for what it really is: intellectual self-abuse. Ironically, it also helps break down the spurious perception that the BJP is a rigid, ideological party. The commitment to a particular stream of thought may have defined the party at one stage of its evolution, but political power invariably results in the dissolution of inherited certitudes. Unwittingly, new entrants have helped the BJP’s unquestioned passage from Hindu nationalism to Hindu republicanism. Under Modi, the BJP’s evolution as a right-of-centre party with a focus on governance is likely to be more pronounced. This would have happened in any case if the party had not unexpectedly lost the 2004 poll and been overwhelmed by a leadership crisis subsequently. The likelihood of a Modi victory in 2014 has revived a process that was abruptly left incomplete ten years ago.

The movement from the margins to the centre inevitably involves the accumulation of diverse social forces and, predictably, some garbage. In 1991, the first occasion the BJP started attracting talent from outside the RSS fraternity, there was an overweight of retired bureaucrats and military officers among the new entrants. They included the likes of Lt-Gen Jacob, Lt-Gen K P Candeth, Brajesh Mishra, S C Dixit and B P Singhal. What is further interesting that most of these individuals didn’t desert the party after 1991 and, indeed, played a role in the process that led to a BJP-led government at the centre. The willingness of the BJP to mop up the remnants of the Janata Dal also played an important role in the larger social enrichment of the party. At least two facets of the present BJP– its hold over the middle classes and its significant presence among OBC voters—have their origin in the open-door approach of the 1990s.

By contrast, those who latched on to the BJP in 2004 in anticipation of another term for Atal Behari Vajpayee turned out to be birds of prey. Most of the umpteen filmstars and other celebrities quietly moved out of the party’s orbit once it was clear that the Congress was back in the saddle.

They left behind a trail of resentment in the party, particularly among the old faithful who had stood by it loyally through days good and bad. This may have been a reason why the involvement of the BJP’s traditional supporters in the 2004 campaign was so perfunctory. At the same time, the rapid desertion of the newcomers after the May 2004 defeat created a mental block in the party against newcomers, a block that overlooked the earlier experience. From 2004 till the anointment of Modi in September 2013, the BJP was deprived of new blood.

Today, once again the BJP is witnessing a problem of plenty. Carefully handled, the process can devastate the Congress permanently while extending the BJP’s social reach. Ineptly managed, it could turn the BJP into a party of rank opportunists.

Swapan Dasgupta

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