The 'Congress-ification' of the BJP

The image was telling: Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad effusively welcoming the newly-inducted BJP member, Mukul Roy with flowers at the party headquarters. A former Trinamool Congress leader, accused in the Saradha and Narada scams, now being treated as a prize catch by no less a figure than the law minister. It was almost as if his entry into the ruling party had dramatically purified Roy of any corruption taint. As a key aide of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Roy switching sides may be seen as a blow to Mamata but where does it leave the BJP’s claim of being a party with a difference which is tough on political corruption? After all, didn’t the prime minister ride to power proclaiming, ‘na khaoonga, na khane doonga’?

It isn’t just Roy. In Maharashtra, Narayan Rane, whom the BJP once projected as one of the prime symbols of political corruption in the Congress, is now all set to be an NDA ally. Roy at least can claim to be a prominent figure in Mamata’s inner circle; Rane’s influence is waning in Maharashtra’s Konkan belt. That the BJP has chosen to accommodate him is a sign that the party now has an open door policy to anyone who wants to join it. Where does that leave Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s claim that he wants to change the state’s venal political culture?

Take also the election-bound states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In Gujarat, the BJP has taken on board supporters of former chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, whom the present BJP leadership once scathingly described as integral to the Congress’s corrupted culture. In Himachal, the BJP has inducted Anil Sharma, a senior Congress minister and son of Sukh Ram, the politician who in the mid-1990s sparked off a prolonged BJP agitation against corruption after his alleged involvement in a telecom scam.
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The power politics of the new BJP can be contrasted with the idealism of the old BJP. The BJP of the Vajpayee-Advani era once took pride in its ideological isolation, infusing its Hindutva distinctiveness with a moral fervour. The lofty moralism may have been hypocritical at times — the BJP had tied up with Sukh Ram’s party to form a government in Himachal in 1998 too – but there was an overarching sense of not compromising with its core beliefs for temporary advantage. Advani, after all, was the neta who resigned from the Lok Sabha after his name came up in the Jain hawala diaries while Vajpayee famously lost a Lok Sabha confidence vote by just one vote.

By contrast, the new BJP has taken a more pragmatic approach to political alignments. In its hunger for untrammelled power, there has been a willingness to shed any moral compunctions while constantly seeking political expansion. Then, be it in the Northeast, where the BJP has sought to break parties to form governments, or in Goa, where the party hastily cobbled an overnight alliance despite being second best in the elections, or in Tamil Nadu, where the party is keeping all options open, the message being sent out is clear: the BJP will not hesitate to use its dominant position in national politics to capture power.

The last time any party was as successful in using the instruments of state power to achieve a near monopolistic position in Indian politics was the Congress under Indira Gandhi. Then, be it the dismissal of Opposition-ruled governments or imposing puppet chief ministers in key states, the Indira-ruled Congress sought hegemonical status by making almost all potential rivals subservient to the individual at the top. It is this Indira playbook which the BJP seems keen to emulate: the fact that the opposition remains disjointed and leaderless after the 2014 debacle has made the task easier.
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But in its growing Congressification, the BJP runs a risk of sacrificing its ideological core for instant political gratification. Yes, unlike the Congress, the BJP has the more durable RSS organisational machine to compensate for any perceived moral compromise in its quest for power. But the BJP leadership too must realise that political credibility is not a fixed deposit: sooner or later, the public will ask the question: is the BJP becoming, as its former ideologue Arun Shourie recently suggested, Congress plus a cow?

Post-script: The prime minister’s meeting in Chennai with veteran DMK leader M Karunanidhi has set the cat among the pigeons. Is the party inextricably identified with the 2G scam also a potential BJP ally of the future? Watch this space.

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