India's BJP faces identity crisis following election loss

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am

Devoid of fresh ideas after a loss to Congress, it reverts to hardcore nationalism

Nearly six weeks after its general election defeat, India's Bharatiya Janata Party is still reeling.

The opulence of the Mumbai hotel in which it held an executive meeting last week failed to cover up the confusion and disarray of a shattered party. No fresh ideas emerged, nor any understanding of what led to its loss to the Congress party.

'Electoral defeat isn't meant to plunge a party into an identity crisis but that is what seems to be happening to the BJP,' said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.

What emerged from the meeting was a determination to revert to the hardcore Hindu nationalist ideology (known as hindutva) that originally won the party a mass following among the middle class.

While in power, though, the constraints of office and the need to manage diverse allies prompted the BJP to dilute its aggressive nationalism. Another reason was that hindutva had run its course.

The BJP won several state elections last year by putting its controversial temple movement on hold and telling voters it was a party for roads, water and electricity.

Now, in defeat, the party has reverted to its hardline ideas and fallen back into the arms of its Hindu nationalist affiliates who had always mourned its fall from doctrinal grace. From now on, these affiliates will play a big role in determining the party's agenda.

'We cannot afford to dilute our ideological moorings,' said former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani.

Aside from re-dedicating itself to hindutva, the BJP has sidelined former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee around whom a cult of personality had been built.

Mr Vajpayee was cut down and humiliated by colleagues such as party president Venkaiah Naidu who intoned about the need to eliminate the 'virus of individualism'.

Listening a few feet away, Mr Vajpayee looked miserable and ill at ease.

In Mr Vajpayee's place, the hawkish Mr Advani has been anointed as the bearer of the party's identity.

From just two seats in parliament in 1984, the BJP soared to 182 seats in 1999. It came to power then, but only with the help of allies. In the latest general election, it hoped to expand its support even further. Hence, its more moderate, centrist image.

But it was rejected. So, if its nationalism cannot be squeezed for more votes and its middle-of-the-road image has also been defeated, how will the BJP ever fulfil its dream of coming to power on its own?

'In the absence of fresh thinking, the BJP has fallen back on ideas that have long passed their sell-by date,' said columnist Inder Malhotra.