The passing away of Jaswant Singh is a moment to reflect on how different the BJP was in the days when he was the most trusted member of the inner circle of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, holding portfolios of defence, finance and external affairs during those eventful six years (1998-2004). BJP then was a loquacious, open party that did not have a high command culture, and where everyone jostled and competed to rise up the ranks.
The leadership was frequently questioned in inner party forums and the news then subsequently leaked to the press. In spite of the authority of the RSS that operated in complex ways, more than most parties of the age, BJP appeared to have inner party democracy.
The new BJP is mightier, wealthier and is frequently described as a hegemonic power. But it has in the process also become a cloistered, closed organisation that has lost the exuberance characteristic of an open forum. It is now an election machine built around the cult of a Leader, where deputies play the role of executing strategies and displaying electoral prowess.
There is no argument, only obedience. Shorn of the sort of ministerial and parliamentary talent that was available to the first BJP prime minister, this regime has a lot of power but is unable to exercise it tactfully. Perhaps it chooses not to.
Witness the recent events in Parliament over the farm bills. As an opposition MP and then as PM, Vajpayee actually did treat Parliament as a “Temple of Democracy”, giving his finest speeches on the floor of the House, and gracefully losing a vote of confidence by one vote to return to the people. Jaswant Singh too was a stickler for the rules, on which he would hold forth in his book-lined office in Parliament when he served as leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 2004 to 2009.
The recent spectacle we have witnessed in those same chambers over the farm bills would have acutely embarrassed those gentlemen politicians of the old BJP. It is hard to imagine them not wanting to give the opposition a voice.
But then it is also the BJP itself that has lost its tongue in inner party platforms except to utter phrases of loyalty. While party members have at least benefitted from the territorial expansion of power, for allies there are clearly diminishing returns when it comes to this iron fist approach.
NDA was forged in the Vajpayee era when the art of building consensus was a skill the BJP practised. But things would change post-2014 after the party acquired a simple majority. It promptly retired its own old guard and began treating the NDA partners like useless appendages in Delhi, who should be mollified with unimportant ministerial berths.
The trust was gone and by 2018 Shiv Sena, one of the oldest allies, had walked out of the NDA in pursuit of its own ambitions. This week the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) did so with its president Sukhbir Singh Badal telling the media there had been no meeting with allies over the past years, unlike the manner in which the relationship was nurtured in the Vajpayee era.
The significant ally who remains is the JD(U) led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who will be the CM face of the NDA alliance for the forthcoming elections in the state starting in three phases from October 28 to November 7, with results being declared on November 10. But this partnership is not built on any trust; on the contrary each side has been playing games to diminish the other.
It is like a bad marriage where the couple stays together for fear of losing the ancestral property. Nitish was actually the first NDA partner to bolt but would return to the fold. It is expediency and pragmatism that keeps the partners together, besides the love of power and electoral arithmetic.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.