Hindu Warrior Back in His ‘Chariot’

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India’s ruling coalition, has launched a new stratagem in its high-pitched election campaign to rake up its trademark issue of religious and ethnic identities.

Starting Mar. 10, Lal Krishna Advani, the part’s best-known hawkish leader and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s deputy, will begin a month-long tour covering 12,000 kilometers and criss-crossing through more than a fifth of India’s 545 parliamentary constituencies.

The planned "rath-yatra" (chariot procession), which will continue until Apr. 14, has evoked fears among the BJP’s opponents and more important, among the 180 million people who constitute India’s religious minorities.

There are fears that Advani’s bellicose Hindu-nationalist rhetoric could provoke violence and distort the democratic nature of the choice before the Indian electorate, when it chooses its Parliament in April and May.

The fears are understandable. Advani’s first procession, in September and October 1990, focused on the Hindu god Ram and demanded that India’s Muslims "surrender" to the Hindu majority a site at Ayodhya where, the BJP claimed, they had erected a mosque in 1568 on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Ram.

Advani thus stirred up anti-Muslim hatred – there are some 140 Muslims among India’s one-billion population – and left a trail of blood.

The hate campaign, based on revenge against history, formed the prelude to the mosque’s razing two years later by a murderous mob charged by militant rhetoric on the part of Advani and his colleagues.

The demolition was a grievous attack on India’s secular foundations and the plural, multi-cultural, multi-religious identity of its society. In turn, it sent shockwaves throughout the country and generated yet more violence.

The latest plans for a "yatra" show that the BJP has not changed its spots. It wants to aggressively promote Advani and accelerate his succession to Vajpayee.

This time around, Advani is more concerned with projecting himself as a firebrand on his way to moderation and as Vajpayee’s logical successor, so he is unlikely to foment violence brazenly.

There is little doubt that the BJP is repositioning itself through his stewardship, however. The BJP’s new game plan is complex, but no less devious than in 1990.

It seeks to boost Advani’s largely unfavorable public image. In a recent opinion poll by the India Today magazine, seen as pro-BJP, Advani’s acceptance rating as a potential prime minister was a minuscule two percent. By contrast, opposition leader Sonia Gandhi scored 23 percent and Vajpayee, 47 percent.

The BJP will continue to use Vajpayee as its star campaigner to exploit his deceptively soft image. This, it hopes, will help to use the 47 percent rating to bolster a leader with a poor image. Its appeal to people is to vote for Vajpayee – only to install Advani in power.

Advani is doing some fancy footwork to define the purpose and inspiration of his "yatra."

On the one hand, he says it is meant to "capture the emerging reality and strengthen the resolve of a resurgent India". On the other, he says there is a "conceptual and emotional link" between his new project and his Ram "rath-yatra" of 1990, which was launched in a Toyota van garishly decorated as an ancient mythological chariot.

Underlying this cynical calculation is the BJP’s desperate attempt to retain its tally of 182 seats in the just-dissolved lower house of Parliament. But there are indications that 20 to 25 percent of its sitting members of parliament might not get re-elected.

As things stand, the BJP and its allies are unlikely to do as well as they did in the last elections in major states like Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Haryana, among others.

It is unclear if they can make up this loss through wins in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 80 seats.

So the BJP is trying to mop up all the support it can – from the upper middle class enamored with Vajpayee’s neoliberal economic policies, to the small-town trader strongly driven by anti-Muslim hatred, to the storm troopers loyal to the BJP’s extremist affiliates.

Advani’s campaign will target the last two groups and galvanize cadres of the BJP and its semi-militarized parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Organization, for door-to-door canvassing and voter mobilization.

The launching of the "yatra" signifies changes in power balances between different components of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, whose original strength of 24 parties stands depleted by one-third. The BJP did not consult its allies before announcing the "yatra." The allies, most of whom do not share the BJP’s Hindu-supremacist ideology, have very little leverage on it.

More important, the "yatra" shows changed power equations within the BJP’s top hierarchy. It signifies that the weight of the hard-line lobby of organizational apparatchiks has increased vis-a-vis its parliamentary wing.

One reason for this is the growing recognition in the party’s leadership that Vajpayee is old and in poor health – unlike the energetic, somewhat younger, more aggressive Advani. Even if reelected prime minister, Vajpayee might not survive the duration of his term. Within the BJP’s calculus, Advani alone should take over from him.

The transition may not be smooth: Advani is himself 78 and may be in a hurry, and under pressure from his core supporters, to accelerate the succession.

The BJP planned the succession fairly carefully. Two years ago, it created a special office for Advani’s post of deputy prime minister, for which there is no constitutional sanction.

Since then, Advani’s supporters have tried to project him and Vajpayee as the party’s twin mascots. In June last year, party president M Venkaiah Naidu declared that the BJP had two great leaders: "vikas-purush" (development man) Vajpayee and "loh-purush" (iron man) Advani. This produced a sharp, peevish, rebuke from Vajpayee. Naidu abjectly apologized.

The same lobby is now reasserting itself by diluting the BJP’s exclusively Vajpayee-centric election campaign with a modified twin-mascots strategy.

Advani’s elevation to the position of a major campaigner in his own right gives the lie to the theory propagated by a number of BJP apologists, which holds that the party is becoming a mainstream organization and that the experience of power has induced sobriety, maturity and moderation in it.

This always was wishful thinking. Because of its visceral, radical Hindu supremacism, akin to the exclusivist ideologies of European extreme right-wing parties in the 1930s, the BJP is unlikely to become moderate.

The Gujarat pogrom, which it organized and led, proved this in a gory way. Two years on, it is no closer to moderation.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.