Mr Vajpayee Needs A Mirror

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 28 2002, 05:30am hrs
The drubbing could not be worse and public disaffection could not be clearer. Not only has the Bharatiya Janata Party lost badly in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, it has also has been knocked out from the number 1 slot in Indias most populous state.

Far from being the largest party in UP, the BJP is now a distant third, well behind both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Its vote share in the state has declined from 36.5 per cent in 1991 to around 20 per cent. It even lost many seats in areas with a large Hindu and upper-caste concentration. More tellingly, it lost 19 out of 22 seats in Punjab, mostly in urban centres. In time, this may come to be seen as a critical crossover in BJP history.

The BJP or its allies have now lost local assembly elections in 12 states since coming to power at the centre in 1998. The only ones to have fared well are the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, and allying with the BJP is fast becoming dangerous to your health, or so it might seem.

Like the poet-philosopher he morphs into at times like this, Mr Vajpayee has called for introspection within the party and the need to improve the partys image. Fine words but still only words. The problem which neither the party as a whole nor Mr Vajpayee in particular appear to adequately understand is that the BJP makes too much noise about too many issues, and this only ends up creating more public discomfort towards the party.

Whether it is Ayodhya, history books, Vedic science, the Constitution, anti-Christian agitation or even Sonia Gandhis foreign origins, the BJP simply does not know when to quit.

Objectively speaking, the BJP has perhaps performed better than previous governments. It has navigated Indias foreign policy, external fiscal situation, inflation and even domestic issues with credible success. And despite its knot with the RSS, the latter organisation has acquired very little real influence. Notwithstanding the high-profile controversy over the rewriting of Indian history, very few of RSS economic or social prescriptions have been followed.

In fact, there are few pro-RSS people at senior levels of government, including in key areas of economic decision-making. Which is why it is all the more a surprise why Mr Vajpayee lost the golden opportunity he had during the pre-Tehelka period to carry out meaningful and significant reforms in banking, labour and public sectors. Instead, he chose to focus on Kashmir and write strange musing from all over.

Which accurately reflects the main problem of the BJP: not that its postures dont appear threatening or provocative to one section or another they do but that BJP thinking and desire for drastic changes just take up too much mental space.

Inevitably, what follows is either media scorn or public boredom. It has been only four years, but the increasing sense at large is almost as if the BJP has been running the country for years. The past sins of the Congress are fast eroding from public memory, especially among younger voters in the age group of 18-25 years who now constitute almost 25 per cent of the electorate in the country and who are an inherently impatient lot.

The best introspection for the BJP would be stay quiet and to stay out of power in Uttar Pradesh for a few years. Not just as a smart strategy against Mulayam Singh but also to genuinely re-connect with what the masses really want.

The immediate political and policy implications of these elections at the centre are not positive but need not be entirely pessimistic. No one wants a parliamentary election any more than they did before February 22, and the BJP has actually less to lose (having lost so much already) than it did earlier.

But the fact is that the future path of the BJP is increasingly divergent from its allies. At the same time, there are many reasons to disbelieve that India is on the verge of Reforms: Phase II, a phrase which is once again back in currency after the recent Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited privatisation and changes in labour rules.

The socialist lobby within the NDA alliance has never really reconciled itself to market liberalisation and its leaders have been lying low only in order to reassert at a politically opportune moment. With Ramakrishna Hegde now siding with Deve Gowda, the signs are that this moment may come sooner rather than later.

The most likely overall forecast of the political economy is that business conditions will move sideways and may improve in a few areas, but it would be futile to expect any dramatic changes in policy, especially in the budget.

In a sense, it is back to the PM: what role he sees for himself in the remainder of his tenure, what legacy he wants to leave behind, and what priorities he maps out for himself. This will determine the leeway extended to the Shouries and Jaitleys of the world in the next few months.

Subhash Agrawal is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors