Cabinet reshuffle clears way for Hindu revivalism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2002, 12:00am

Underwhelmed is the best way to describe the reaction of India's political commentators and leader writers to the Prime Minister's much-hyped cabinet reshuffle.

'Insipid, colourless and disappointing,' said one daily. 'Utterly uninspiring' said another. 'An unimaginative game of musical chairs,' complained a third.

But two features of the reshuffle are important: the elevation of Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani to the post of deputy prime minister and the assertion of supremacy by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) over its 24 allies in the coalition government.

Both developments are inter-related. Until now the BJP has been solicitous about its allies, eager to please and anxious to avoid offence. At the first signs of displeasure, it used to dispatch peacemakers to placate the peeved party.

Sections of the BJP and its extremist Hindu affiliates, for example, dared not promote their ideological poster boy, Mr Advani, for fear of antagonising their secular allies. They feared that Hindu hardliner Mr Advani was simply too hawkish to be acceptable to the allies as a possible successor to moderate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

All that has now changed. Throwing caution to the wind, the party has pushed Mr Advani to the forefront as the rightful heir to Mr Vajpayee and, far from revolting, the allies have accepted it without demur. Analysts say Mr Advani's appointment marks the end of the Vajpayee era and the return of the BJP to its original moorings.

Despite knowing that the party intends to reassert its original Hindu revivalist agenda - of which Mr Advani's promotion is just one sign - the allies have given in. 'The reshuffle heralds the domination of the BJP over its allies,' said Congress party spokesman Jaipal Reddy.

In the cabinet expansion, the BJP has got the lion's share of posts and is in charge of all the key portfolios. It now has 56 ministers in the 77-strong cabinet, hence the Congress party's charge that the coalition government is actually 'a government of the BJP, for the BJP'.

Some commentators agree. 'Getting the allies to accept Advani as deputy prime minister is an enormous victory for the BJP. After starting from a position of weakness with regard to its allies, it has now shown that it no longer feels the need to be timid,' said Inder Malhotra.

Another significant aspect of the reshuffle is that it demonstrates the BJP's determination to replace its ageing leadership with younger men and women who can bring new ideas into the party. The two men entrusted with this task - new party president Venkaiah Naidu and new general secretary Arun Jaitley - are both in their early fifties.

The party is hoping they can enthuse the rank and file and strengthen the party organisation ready for nine state assembly elections next year and the general election the year after. Now that the balance of power has tilted in Mr Advani's favour, the friction between Mr Vajpayee and his detractors in the party is likely to ease and relations between the government and party organisation are expected to be smoother.

The BJP is convinced, after several electoral drubbings, that the only way it can revive its flagging fortunes is to revert to its fundamental belief in the need for a Hindu revival. Just how far it will go in pursuit of its core agenda will become evident in Gujarat and Maharashtra, states where it plans to hold early elections to test the waters.

If the party manages to campaign on the issues of Hindu pride and nationalism without upsetting its allies, the party will quash any possible misgivings about reverting to its basic identity. If it somehow manages to keep its allies in good humour and win power in these two states, it will be sure to fight the general election in a mood of Hindu triumphalism.