Liberal, westernised friends who have used strong words for Narendra Modi — calling him names for the anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom of 2002 — surprised me recently when they said they'd be voting for the BJP. Not the most natural thing to do for this set.
Their argument wasn't clear enough though. For one, they took the view that "development" in Gujarat under Modi mainly meant doing favours to big industry, overlooking the medium and small sectors, and for that matter the farmer. The "messiah of development" line wasn't cutting ice.
What was it, then? Well, nothing too focused, nothing too strong. It was, of course, clear that my friends were angry with the Congress, not merely disappointed.
Any special reason for this? Well, several things really. Dynasty, lording it over, the scams (there was Yeddyurappa to consider on the other side, alas, but they'd live with this), the remoteness — Sonia and Manmohan going silent for most of their 10 years — each of these made up the story.
How about sustained price rise? The employment scene? My friends hadn't thought too deeply about those. But I know they are concerned citizens, upright. It's not that they don't think of the poor (though they are comfortably off themselves).
"Why not NOTA"? I suggested, recovering from my surprise. They thought that silly — a waste of a vote. Then one of them said, "I'll just hold my nose and vote."
Not long after, I thought I saw a flicker of change, but it was difficult to be sure that the moment won't pass quickly as their minds seemed made up. But the moment did seem pregnant with a possibility. The television began to show Jaswant Singh. An officer and a gentleman — former external affairs minister, writer, Vajpayee's confidant, urbane, founding member of the BJP but not from the RSS stables — being given short shrift by the Modi-Rajnath-Jaitley trio, with Jaitley even chipping in with harsh rhetoric: Why is Jaswant complaining, hadn't the party given him enough already?
I thought I saw my friends wince, just a shadow of doubt passing over their faces. Someone like Jaswant seemed close to the bone. A man of honour and principle, western in outward style, not unlike them. Someone like him could have been in the Congress — there are so many examples — but he had chosen the BJP. The party was traditional enough, conservative enough, to attract him, but perhaps also held the potential to transgress narrow religious bonds without giving up altogether on the spirit of the Hindu religious community.
Few would have thought someone like Jaswant would be publicly humiliated. If this could happen to him...well! Was there a place in the party for the self-respecting type who knows how to make a point? Modi, they say, cannot stomach dissent — just not his temperament. Was this on display when the old warrior from Jodhpur was being shown the door?
Needless to say, few will buy Jaitley's self-righteous argument made when things are going his way. Jaitley is a very clever man. Would he be making the same argument if things weren't going his way?
To be fair, more than anything else, Jaitley is being ideologically intelligent, not smart-alecky. For that reason his point may not be specific to Jaswant, though it is that of course. There is undeniably a wider point involved, and that is that the BJP under Modi (it's only nominally under Rajnath) has no time for the Vajpayee variety in the party. It is no skin off anyone's nose if they left. Indeed, they may even be invited to depart. The RSS has taken charge of things.
For the sake of form, the BJP of today can't give up Vajpayee. It is stuck. After all, he has been the party's only Prime Minister. And, he still seems to enjoy sweeping popularity and goodwill in the country, although he has been out of the picture for many years on account of illness, and can't speak.
But the deference to Vajpayee seems empty. It does not look like it is meant. The man who was nearest to him in his cabinet — Jaswant Singh — has been tossed out (or conditions were created to make him depart). Modi can't help but remember that when Vajpayee wanted him removed as Chief Minister after the sustained post-Godhra violence in 2002, Jaswant had agreed with the Prime Minister, unlike Advani and some others.
If Vajpayee were still around in active politics, it seems unlikely that RSS could have imposed someone like Modi on the party in the manner it did. True, both leaders rose from the RSS, but in the fullness of time their imaginations came to sharply contrast with one another's. It is the older man who summoned the broader imagination. (How is that for generational change in the BJP?)
Modi's record speaks of a muscular brand of Hindutva (the 2002 violence says this emphatically), and this exerts a strong pull on those on the Hindu Right who also have a soft corner in their heart for big industry. But Vajpayee, although he never said this in so many words, seemed to want his party in a new avatar — that of a normal Right-wing party, shorn of its traditional Hindutva baggage, a party whose appeal could cut across communities and classes, a bit like the Republicans in the United States perhaps.
That's the spirit in which he conducted his government. In general, he gave short shrift to the RSS leadership, while not forgetting to make occasional soothing noises when the pressure mounted from the party ranks not to forget his roots.
Advani used to speak with friends of a new-style BJP long before the party came to power. He had in mind the Christian Democrats of Germany (who, like the BJP, had their roots in a religious community), and frequently cited this as an example. The late Bhairon Singh too was of a similar mind, as was his ardent follower Jaswant. Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, tried to work out this model. Discounting the PR, Modi is of the earlier — and opposite — mould. Maybe it is this contrast, exemplified through Jaswant, that brought a crease to the brows of my friends.
The author is a senior journalist