Bluster and beyond

Those who followed last Tuesday’s debates on the ongoing Commonwealth Games controversy were near-unanimous on one point: it was a one-sided slaughter of the government. Facing a privilege motion, sports minister Ajay Maken may have been nominally in the dock but it was the Manmohan Singh government that was on trial. With the erudition that comes naturally to an accomplished lawyer blessed with a strong case, leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley raised the debate to dizzying heights in the Rajya Sabha.

The BJP’s Yashwant Sinha made the same points in the Lok Sabha but with the populism that, unfortunately, we have come to expect from the Lok Sabha.
Taken together, the interventions of Jaitley and Sinha redeemed the reputation of Parliament. They showed that it was possible to attack the government mercilessly but in a dignified way and armed with facts and figures. For the BJP, the debate was also a much-needed act of atonement. Since 2004, the party has steadily acquired the reputation of being mindless disruptionists in Parliament. Some of its front-benchers have made lung power a substitute for brain power.
Unfortunately, it proved too good to last. If Jaitley raised the level of the proceedings with logic and eloquence, a BJP member from Gujarat promptly lowered the level of discourse by questioning the integrity of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with a slogan. That led to bedlam and the inevitable adjournment. In the Lok Sabha, Maken’s reply was thwarted by BJP members protesting against police high-handedness with demonstrators outside Parliament. The foolish hecklers didn’t gauge that given the chance, a disoriented Maken would find it hard to defend his silly statement on Suresh Kalmadi’s appointment as the head of the Commonwealth Games. This would have been a much better indictment of the government than party demonstrators jostling with the police.
It is an unfortunate legacy of the freedom struggle that activists imagine no protest to be really fulfilling unless some heads have been bashed in and many arrests made. Street politics, arguably, has its place but unfortunately for the BJP, Tuesday afternoon was no time to shift the focus away from Parliament.
Miscalculations appear to have become a way of life for the BJP. The reputation of the UPA government is in complete tatters. Plagued by charges of corruption, uncertainty over the future of the Prime Minister and an astonishing show of ham-handed governance, the UPA often conveys the impression of wilfully wanting to be voted out of power in the next general election. Certainly, if good governance is any yardstick for rational political judgment, the UPA should be struggling to maintain its political credibility.
Yet, as a recent opinion poll by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests, the shrinking popularity of the Prime Minister and an equally intense dissatisfaction with the performance of the Central government are not negatively impacting the political ratings of the Congress. Indeed, the dip in popularity of the Congress in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan has been more than compensated by accretions in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa. Most reassuringly for the ruling party, the popular acceptance for Rahul Gandhi’s move to Race Course Road is rising steadily. Indeed, the CSDS poll indicates that, in the public perception at least, there is no worthwhile BJP challenger to Rahul — as yet.
The real story of the past year, therefore, is not that the Congress and its allies have faltered but that the principal Opposition party hasn’t been able to take advantage. The BJP leadership, or at least a section of it, is proceeding on the smug assumption that a UPA defeat in 2014 is pre-ordained and that all it needs to do is to avoid scoring self-goals. The CSDS poll may not be the last word on the subject but it is one indication that exasperation with the UPA government and rejecting the Congress are not co-terminus. The ignominious performance of the BJP in the state Assembly elections last May was a pointer.
This is not to suggest that we are seeing a revival of the pre-1967 “Congress system” of one-party dominance. Far from it. Political competition is alive and thriving and the belief systems of the Congress haven’t become common sense. And, when it comes to the states, the NDA-run governments enjoy the most positive ratings. So why is the dissatisfaction with governance not leading to a sharper rise in support for the BJP?
The answer may have something to do with the self-serving belief that politics is the art of keeping the committed happy. Ever since it crashed to its second consecutive general election defeat, the priority of the BJP has been to rejuvenate its activists. The country has witnessed innumerable rallies and dharnas (and quite impressive ones at that) against price rise, corruption and terrorism. But to what end? The party has made a lot of noise but has it actually communicated to the people?
This is not an academic question. The electorate does not share the party’s visceral hatred for dynastic politics. Its approach is based on expediency. Sonia and Rahul are fine as long as they can deliver but the voter will readily switch sides if someone else can offer something more meaningful.
On both these counts the BJP has faltered. It has quite deliberately persisted with the charade of collective leadership because it does not have any acceptable institution to select a new post-Vajpayee and post-Advani face to lead the party. It almost seems the party is scared to choose. At the same time, the party has wilfully persisted with a shrillness that has often been a cover for the non-application of mind. At a time when the country is receptive to alternative ideas and alternative faces, the BJP has chosen to provide neither.
Activists are happy with patronage and philistinism; normal people seek both integrity and ideas. Having experimented for long with buffoonery and theatrics, the BJP should try some serious politics for a change. A sober and cerebral Opposition will give the government serious indigestion.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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