A stable opposition is critical to the functioning of any democracy. Like it or not, the BJP is the face of India’s opposition today. The left is in complete disarray and what remains of it appears to be self-destructing (as in the case of Kerala). The regional parties for the most part have all been cut down to size in the recent election. In short, as of today, India has no credible opposition to speak off. So the sooner the BJP gets its act together the better for India’s democracy as a whole.
The BJP appears to have a leadership vaccum at present and little in terms of bench strength for credible future leadership to counter the steady rise of Mr. Rahul Gandhi. For all the criticism that has been leveled against Mr. Advani, the fact remains that he made the best attempt by far to move the BJP to the center of the political spectrum by making a conscious attempt to soften the party’s hard line image starting with his own. While it might have been an opportunistic move, there is little doubt that it was the best strategic move the party has made in recent times. Unfortunately, for him he failed to carry the base of the party with him on this journey. Moreover, he lost a golden opportunity to further soften the party’s image by not taking a firm stand on the Varun Gandhi issue (Maneka Gandhi is now in the Jaswant Singh camp!), among other strategic blunders (personally attacking the PM, for instance).
To make matters worse, the loss in the recent election appears to have triggered public feuds between the visible faces of the party. There have been calls for the “RSS to take charge” and bring some order to the party. There is nothing worse that can happen to the BJP than to be faced with an open “RSS coup”. As India continues to crank out impressive growth rates, hard line right wing rhetoric is likely to resonate less and less with the masses. Even a blatant attack by terrorists on Mumbai failed to galvanize the BJP to a victory. In quieter, relatively prosperous times, the BJP has little hope of staging a comeback with an endemic hard line image. On the other hand, some extreme events could drive public sentiments to the far right and give the BJP some hope of a revival. But counting out that would be like hoping for a miracle.
Where does the party go from here? The BJP in its current avatar needs the RSS in order to survive. At the same time, as things stand today there is little chance of ever returning to power without shedding its hard line “Hindutva” image and broadening its appeal to moderates and minorities. The hard liners in the party are unlikely to ever shed their extreme positions on hot button issues. There is open infighting within the party. Lastly, at 80+ Advani isn’t getting any younger .
Ironically, one avenue for the party might be to adopt a Congress-like split leadership with a younger, credible, centrist-leaning person with a mass base and acceptable to the party (especially the trouble-makers) as the face of the party with Advani playing a Sonia-like role! However, this is hard to imagine given Mr. Advani’s dominant role in the party over the years. Besides, unfortunately, for the BJP, at present it does not look like such an individual exists among their ranks.
The other alternative of course, is to opt for the status quo i.e. do nothing, hope that the noise dies down, and take things as they come. It will be interesting to see which of these paths the party chooses. With no presence to speak off in keys states, and two successive defeats in the Lok Sabha elections, and a deeply divided party, the BJP is clearly at a crossroads. At present, it appears that if the party does not seize this opportunity to re-invent itself it runs the serious risk of further marginalizing itself over the years.