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The Indian National Congress may be on the ventilator, but it would be premature to write its obituary just yet. This is simply because political parties in India and abroad have been revived after an accurate diagnosis of their diseases, the timely administration of oxygen and a dose of medicine.
Political parties suffer from a deadly disease when they are in the opposition, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was no exception. Between May 13, 2004, when it was voted out of power, and September 13, 2013, when it finally selected then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the party was in the grips of a serious ailment.
Though it took a long time for the saffron party to diagnose the disease within, the recovery thereafter was fast and eight months later, it was back in power.
However, after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was plunged into turmoil within hours of the completion of the counting of votes on May 13, 2004.
The blame game started immediately after this surprise rout at the hands of the little-experienced Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. She took the wind out of the BJP’s sails by immediately announcing the name of Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. Her “foreign-origin” issue was nipped in the bud.
The red-faced BJP top brass decided to change its horse and Lal Krishna Advani replaced outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. True, the BJP still had 139 MPs, only a handful fewer than the Congress, yet its decline started fast –perhaps as fast as that of the grand old party after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
It was unbelievable for the disciplined, cadre-based party to witness such infighting once out of power. In the first week of June 2005, Advani went on to shower praise on the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, at his birthplace, Karachi.
What prompted a hawk-like Advani to visit Pakistan when out of power and take a stand so ideologically opposed to his party remains a mystery even now. Many in the top brass of the Sangh parivar started baying for his blood before he even returned to Indian soil.
Less than a year later, the party lost one of its brightest prospects, Pramod Mahajan (56). On April 22, 2006, he was shot by his own brother and subsequently died on May 3.
As if that was not enough, the same year, the firebrand sadhvi of the Ram Mandir movement and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharati was expelled from the party. She formed her own outfit, the Bharatiya Janshakti Party.
Thereafer, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh started playing footsie with his arch-rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, he went on to support SP. He later floated the Jan Kranti Party. Kalyan was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when the Babri Masjid was brought down on December 6, 1992.
The squabbles within the saffron party then reached new heights and in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, its tally came down to 116 seats. In the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh, it was pushed to fourth position with the SP and Congress occupying the first and second positions respectively, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) coming in at third, so far as the number of seats was concerned.
In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the Brahmins, the biggest ‘upper-caste’ group in the state, had voted for the BSP. Thus, for the first time, Mayawati came to power on her own.
In 2012, the SP came to power in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP was pushed to third place.
In Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel quit the BJP in 2012 and formed his own outfit. Another former chief minister, Shankarsinh Vaghela, had already deserted the BJP to join the Congress. Both Patel and Vaghela had RSS backgrounds and were once considered close to Modi. So was the case of Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia, who too parted ways with Modi.
In Karnataka, the first BJP chief minister, B.S. Yediyurappa, had to resign in 2011. A year later, he quit the BJP and floated his own party, the Karnataka Janata Party. This led to the defeat of the saffron party in the assembly election held there in May 2013.
Meanwhile, another top leader of the party was expelled. This time it was Jaswant Singh, former external affairs minister in the Vajpayee cabinet. Although Advani had praised Jinnah in 2005 and remained in the party, when Jaswant Singh wrote a book in 2009 and used good words for Pakistan’s ‘Father of the Nation’ and blamed Jawaharlal Nehru for the partition of the sub-continent, he was expelled from the BJP in August the same year.
A beleaguered Advani had to take the help of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to launch his Jan Chetna Yatra on October 11, 2011. It was Kumar who flagged off the Yatra from the birthplace (Shitab Diara) of Lok Nayak Jaya Prakash Narayan on his birthday.
As the relationship between Advani and Narendra Modi – who was emerging as a challenger – was not cordial during those days, the latter was not invited on this occasion, though several senior party leaders were present at that time.
On the other hand, the deputy chief minister of Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, was repeatedly projecting his own chief minister, Nitish Kumar, as PM material for the 2014 election, though the latter was the leader of the Janata Dal (United).
Kumar grew so over-confident that on June 16, 2013, he snapped the 17 years-long ties with the BJP and sacked all 11 of its ministers from the Bihar cabinet, including Sushil Modi. Here one needs to remember that on June 12, 2010, he had cancelled the dinner hosted for the BJP’s top brass (including Modi and Advani) that same evening.
Kumar was upset over the Gujarat government’s advertisement which appeared in the newspapers on the eve of the BJP’s national executive meeting from June 12-13. He even returned Rs 5 crore donated by the Gujarat government for the Kosi Flood Relief Fund.
Though the BJP had to indulge in a damage control exercise, Kumar did not allow his Gujarat counterpart to campaign in the state assembly election held later that same year. He wanted to project his secular image. The idea clicked and the JD(U)-BJP swept the election, winning 206 out of 243 seats.
While the BJP was struggling to get its house in order, the media was going all out to queer the pitch for the ruling Manmohan Singh government. In April 2011, Anna Hazare launched his India Against Corruption campaign and sought the passing of the Lokpal Bill.
As the BJP was not in a position to take full advantage of the situation, Arvind Kejriwal and company launched the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which emerged as the single largest party in the Delhi assembly elections of 2013. It was at this point that the Sangh parivar decided to replace the old guard led by Advani.
On September 13, 2013, Narendra Modi was projected as the BJP’s PM candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Advani was so dejected that he did not even attend the BJP’s parliamentary board meeting which took this decision.
Modi changed gears and adopted an aggressive strategy. In December that year, the party won assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Five months later, it was back in power at the Centre.
Barring the last eight months (that is, after September 2013), the BJP remained in crisis mode throughout the ten-year period from 2004-14. Unlike the Congress, where senior leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Jyotiraditya Scindia walked away from the party, the BJP expelled many of its top leaders who formed the backbone of the Ram Mandir movement. Besides, Advani and Jaswant Singh went against the very ideology of the party by praising Jinnah.
Notwithstanding these crises, the BJP managed to revive itself. All those who were given marching orders were brought back into the party fold and the old lot like Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie (though he was not so senior in age) and so on were politely consigned to the Marg Darshak Mandal.
Let us see if – and how – the Congress can change its fortunes.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.