BJP’s leadership vacuum will help Congress Party

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New Delhi: Even as the Congress Party walks gingerly through a political minefield, fending off the Wikileaks exposures while partially defusing the crises caused by the financial swindles, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ability to make full use of the opportunity to corner its principal opponent remains in doubt.

All that the party seems capable of doing is to stall Parliament by uninhibited use of lung power. But, beyond that, it is unable to put the government on the mat because of a divided leadership and lack of moral authority.

While the Congress has managed to take some of the sting out of the scams by agreeing to the Opposition demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe, and is resorting to point-blank denials of the WikiLeaks charges, the BJP is aware that rhetorical flourishes are its only weapon. It can neither cobble together a majority in Parliament to push through a no-confidence motion, nor is the party’s leadership united and charismatic enough to be able to effectively mobilize public opinion.

The weakness of its position is the result of its own flawed policies. While the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by it had 24 members at the height of its political power prior to the 2002 Gujarat riots, it now has a mere four — the BJP itself, its sole saffron ally, the Shiv Sena, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Akali Dal.

However, there are fault lines even within the shrunken NDA. The JD-U, for instance, follows its own counsel as when it kept Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP out of the Bihar poll campaign because of his anti-minority image. And the Shiv Sena did the same when it refused to support the BJP veteran, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, for the President’s post.

One reason why these parties have become so assertive is that the BJP no longer has a leader of the stature of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to keep the flock together. It is the absence of someone at the helm whose popularity cuts across party lines which explains the bluntness of the BJP’s anti-Congress thrust. As a result, it has to depend on shrill declamations, disruptive parliamentary tactics and the need to regard the Wikileaks revelations as gospel truth for the sake of its campaign.

Evidence of the fractures at the top was available when the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, and its leader in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, differed on how to respond to the Prime Minister’s acceptance of personal responsibility for controversial bureaucrat P.J. Thomas’ appointment as the central vigilance commissioner, which has been nullified by the Supreme Court.

While Sushma Swaraj adopted a conciliatory forgive-and-forget attitude towards Manmohan Singh, Jaitley did not want the matter to rest. It cannot be said for certain whether this difference in approach is due to the fact that Sushma Swaraj comes from a non-saffron background, having joined the BJP in 1980 from the Janata Party, while Jaitley is a diehard saffronite. But the fact remains that such divergent views at the top do not show a party in a favorable light.

What is more, the endorsement of the Jaitley line by party president Nitin Gadkari shows that in-your-face combativeness remains a key feature of the BJP’s politics, evidently to buttress its self-image of a “strong” party of nationalists as opposed to the weak, minority-appeasing Congress Party.

However, this muscle-flexing would have made a better impression if there wasn’t another sign of “softness” and that, too, by none other than L.K. Advani, the putative hardliner, when he apologized to Sonia Gandhi for the charges of her family stashing away black money abroad made by a team of BJP sympathizers.

Advani also exploded another bomb recently when he said that the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 had dented the party’s “credibility.” Considering that his violence-prone rath yatra of 1990 pledged to do away with the “ocular provocation” – Advani’s own words – of the mosque, the admission that the promised act had damaged the BJP’s reputation showed that the party’s divided leadership was also disunited about its deeds.

The same confusion can be seen in the clumsy way the party has been handling the case of its tainted Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa. Gadkari’s observation that Yeddyurappa’s dubious land deals were “immoral” but not illegal was an unconvincing exercise in semantics, which suggested that the party’s central leaders were unable to act against a powerful state leader. The corruption charges against the chief Minister have also taken the sheen out of the BJP’s propaganda drive against the Congress for the same offence.

For the BJP to pose a credible challenge to the Congress, it has to straighten out the leadership tangles at the top, which have emerged because the presence of the Vajpayee-Advani duo for many years stunted the growth of others. For a party claiming to be “strong,” this deficiency is politically fatal. Modi could fit the bill, but his anti-minority image is a disadvantage. The BJP’s fractiousness, therefore, will help the Congress Party to survive for the foreseeable future.

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