WHY BJP SHOULD BE WARY OF R-WORD

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Whatever Baba Ramdev’s faults, his unrelenting desire for publicity has turned out to be a lightening rod that has exposed in sharper relief some of the fault-lines in our polity: between an unresponsive, arrogant government, out of touch with a changing India, and a shape-shifting, rudderless-looking Opposition looking for the next big idea.

The BJP has so far tried to ride on Ramdev’s sails, imagining his entire campaign as a giant bonus, but perhaps it has more reason to worry than exult. A nervous Congress has scored plenty of self-goals in this entire business but has the BJP really taken the initiative and emerged as the natural beneficiary of the government’s paralysis?

On black money and foreign banks, for instance, it was L K Advani who first raised the issue in 2009. Yet, it is Ramdev who ultimately caught the public imagination.

Similarly, it was Sushma Swaraj who in writing opposed the Prime Ministerial committee’s cynical move to go with PJ Thomas as CVC. Given the events of the past year, there could never have been a better opportunity for the BJP to play the white knight on corruption: from Raja’s brazen loot of telecom spectrum to the mess of the Commonwealth Games.

Yet, even the party’s spokespeople admit that somehow it got stymied in becoming the face of the public anger. Rajiv Pratap Rudy said almost as much on television last week. Vigorously recounting the BJP’s record in raising such issues first, he laid the blame at an unresponsive government which simply did not take the Opposition seriously enough.

That is why the party has followed the Baba, in this view, because he managed to galvanise public opinion as no leader could.

The unsaid corollary of this argument though is the inability of a diffident, divided BJP leadership to take the initiative itself and truly reap the natural benefits of a government that seems bent on self-destruction. Instead of becoming the fulcrum of the public anger, as befits the principal Opposition party, the BJP somehow became relegated to the supporting cast, a cheerleader.

For all his faults, Ramdev has rallied precisely the constituency that was once considered the BJP’s core support base the urban middle classes and religious minded folk in the Hindi heartland. With the government on the mat, the BJP should be on cloud nine yet there is enough reason for thoughtful BJP leaders to be worried.

Then there is the reported RSS backing to Ramdev. Media reports in recent days have speculated on the precise details of such a deal and the subsequent worries of over-reach in Jhandewala as the Baba increasingly became more and more rabid.

If the reports of the Ramdev-RSS dalliance are indeed true then it is problematic for the BJP on two counts. First, the Sangh initially found the guru more promising than the BJP as a vehicle of public discontent. Secondly, it has tightened its stranglehold on the party even as it was distancing itself from it by making it follow suit on unquestioningly supporting the Baba.

At any rate, the RSS has been sympathetic to Ramdev. Even if there are second thoughts now, at a deeper level, the Sangh’s abiding faith in what it calls the ‘sant samaj’ as the ultimate answer to the nation’s problems is deeply problematic.

Vajpayee’s genius was to draw the BJP away from precisely such associations and to build the imagery of what looked like a modern right-wing party. In the past decade, all of the BJP’s electoral successes from Raman Singh to Shivraj Singh Chauhan to Narendra Modi in the last Gujarat election have been built on the back of a solid developmental discourse and the language of governance.

Mixing governance issues with saffron ones led by the gurus may give the BJP seeming tactical advantage in the short run but it can only be a retrograde move in the strategic long-term.

The question the BJP must ask itself is simple. Who really gains when it supports Ramdev: the Baba or the party?

The acid test will be in Uttar Pradesh next year.