It’s not a festive season for the BJP

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

The traditional gaiety associated with Holi is unlikely to have lifted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) spirits because of the election-eve rupture with its coalition partner in Orissa, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

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It isn’t only the end of a decade-old relationship which hurt the BJP. After all, the party has never been averse to ending an alliance if it feels it can gain from the split or if the partnership has become politically meaningless.

An example of the first kind was provided in Karnataka where the termination of the BJP-Janata Dal – Secular (JD-S) coalition sufficiently strengthened the BJP’s position to enable it to come to power on its own. The example of the second kind can be seen in West Bengal where the BJP-Trinamool Congress alliance has been quietly buried because neither was profiting from it.

In Orissa, however, it is different. As a party which was still engaged in establishing its base in the state, the BJP needed to have the BJD in the driver’s seat till it was ready to take the reins in its own hands.

But two things went wrong for the saffron outfit in Orissa. The first was that the BJD’s chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, had a far better image, mainly for his personal integrity, than Karnataka’s H.D. Kumaraswamy, who was seen as a typical power-hungry politician. It hadn’t been easy, therefore, for the BJP to portray him as a betrayer with the same success with which it used the same epithet against Kumaraswamy of the JD-S.

Second, the BJP’s image suffered a considerable dent in Orissa as a result of the anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal area by the storm-troopers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. Although the BJP was not directly involved in the outrage, the fact that all the three organisations function under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) left little room for the party to dissociate itself from the disgraceful incidents.

The burning of churches, the attacks on villages inhabited by the Christians and the shocking incident of the rape of a nun revived memories of the arson attack on Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons by saffron activists in Keonjhar in Orissa in 1999. The resultant crippling blow to the BJP’s reputation meant that it could not take the moral high ground when Patnaik abruptly ended the alliance.

What was worse for the BJP, and especially for its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, was that Patnaik’s act tended to show up the party yet again as one closely linked to violent anti-minority groups.

All of this could not but detract from Advani’s strenuous attempts to project himself as a moderate a la Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Although the BJP has condemned the attacks on the churches in Orissa as well as the subsequent harassment of women in Karnataka, the saffron brigade’s record of violence, going back to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, is a disadvantage.

Advani must also be concerned that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP will seem less cohesive after the departures of the BJD and the Trinamool Congress. In addition, the party’s ties with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra have been under a strain ever since the latter proposed the name of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Sharad Pawar, as prime minister. The Sena, of course, is influenced by the fact that Pawar is a Maharashtrian. Evidently, in its case, Marathi sub-nationalism is stronger than the cultural nationalism of Hindutva.

Patnaik’s snub to the BJP may have reverberations outside Orissa as well. For instance, it is known that another popular NDA chief minister, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United, has long been lukewarm towards the BJP. His reason, like Patnaik’s, is that his growing appeal based on developmental projects has made him the undisputed No.1 in Bihar, relegating the BJP very much to a distant second place. Nitish Kumar may not break with the BJP, but his tough stance in the matter of seat-sharing is a message to it about the NDA’s growing fragility.

The BJP can console itself that even as the BJD and the Trinamool Congress have walked away, it has been able to woo three other parties to its side – the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) of Ajit Singh, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) of Om Prakash Chautala and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) of Brindaban Goswami.

But, while the BJD and the Trinamool Congress have a substantial presence in Orissa and West Bengal, the RLD’s influence is confined only to a few districts of western Uttar Pradesh while the AGP is a shadow of its earlier self after two splits. Even then, the AGP has said that it is not a part of the NDA. The INLD, like the RLD, is a rump of the original Lok Dal of Charan Singh, but its influence is limited only to Haryana.

The unsteady NDA does not provide much of a platform, therefore, for the ambitions of Advani, 82, even though the earlier challenge to his leadership from another octogenarian, former vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, has receded.