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'The BJP's base is shifting to the countryside'

May 26, 2009 21:56 IST
The mandate delivered by the people of India has the Bharatiya Janata Party reeling. Even as they prepare to sit in the Opposition, the party is analysing what went wrong and why it was not ancipated.

In a no-holds-barred conversation, Chandan Mitra, editor and managing director of The Pioneer, member of the Rajya Sabha and BJP supporter, tells Savera R Someshwar that the blame for the failure lies squarely at the party's door.

What were the factors that worked against the BJP in Election 2009?

There was a strong urban disconnect. We couldn't reach out to the urban middle class, especially the younger voters. In 2004 too, we had lost in Mumbai, Delhi and other major cities. This time, even as the election was in progress, we were getting signals that the younger voter was not enthused.

The Congress was able to put up a much younger, more forward looking face.

Mind you, 40 per cent of India is urbanised and 60 per cent of the voters are below the age of 35. Obviously, if you have not been able to connect with the youth and the urban population, you have a very serious problem.

The second is a historical problem and I'm afraid we didn't do enough to handle it. The BJP has not been able to build its base in certain big states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala. Together, these states account for nearly 150 seats. So BJP has to win, or come close to winning, from just about 400 seats, whereas the Congress has a much wider spread.

How long can you, on the basis of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, keep hoping to come back to power? After some time, a degree of anti-incumbency is bound to set in. In-fighting happens.

Nevertheless, the fact that we have won 120 seats against 138 last time showed there has not been any great erosion in the BJP's base. What we needed to do was go forward. In that we failed completely.

Despite making a special effort to connect with the youth this time, you said there were signs during the campaign that you were not able to do so.

Random surveys at our meetings told us young people weren't coming enthusiastically. This was not so in the case of the Congress.

We failed to really reach out to the blogging community and the social networking groups. Looking at the reaction from the younger people, I feel they could not see the BJP as the party of the future.

Are they not able to accept your image as a party with an older leader?

It's not the question of an individual leader. Sheila Dixit swept Delhi. She connected very well with the youth although she is 73 or 74. Dr Manmohan Singh is nearly 77. Don't make this an issue about Advaniji's age.

Does the party not look youthful enough?

The party looks too middle-aged, too rigid. We failed to convey to the voter that we have a lot of young leaders who are very good and are doing very well.

In the Congress, the young leadership is entirely dynastic. I'm not talking only about Rahul Gandhi. If you take the so-called young faces of the Congress, they are all somebody's son or daughter. They have risen fast in the hierarchy because of the work their fathers did. Madhavrao Scindia's son, Jyotiraditya, Rajesh Pilot's son Sachin, Sunil Dutt's daughter; they are all legatees of their fathers.

In any other party, be it BJP, the Samajwadi Party or the CPI-M, it is very difficult for a young leader to make his or her mark by the age of 30. You suddenly don't become a star. It takes you a long time, 10-15 years of experience.

I'll add one more thing. The BJP's base is increasingly shifting from the cities and towns to the countryside. But the party's focus still remains urban; all our top leaders are still urban, whereas our voters are actually becoming rural. We have to bridge that disconnect because the BJP, unlike the Congress, cannot be a single man or single charismatic leader dominated party.

It seems to be boiling down to the party's image; it is being seen as Hindutva-based, rigid and conservative-minded. Does the BJP need to change its politics and get more towards the centre?

If you have a knee-jerk reaction and say from tomorrow the BJP is a completely liberal me-too Congress Party, our voters will desert us. The BJP cannot abandon its core values which Advaniji defined long ago as cultural nationalism. What's important is how you define cultural nationalism and how you present it to the public, how you present your development agenda. You are a normal right of centre party just as the Congress used to pretend it was a left of Centre party.

We need to examine why we are getting a bad name because there is nothing hateful about our ideology. There is nothing anti-Muslim or anti-Christian in this broad set-up. It is a very liberal Hindutva. As in all parties or organisations, there are people who may have slightly extreme views. Though we, as Indians, tolerate this, it does not define who we are.

There have been numerous reports of the in-fighting that led to the BJP's downfall in these elections, including senior leaders who did not see Advani in the PM's chair?

There was no question about Advaniji being the prime ministerial candidate. He is the tallest leader in the party after after Atalji and this was his last shot at prime ministership. The party was united.

In any party, particularly a party where you have very, very strong, powerful leaders who are more or less contemporaries, some degree of--I wouldn't call it infighting--some differences of opinion, some individual differences, are bound to happen. But whatever differences there were in the party, they were not over Advaniji.

Advaniji's authority, position, prestige were never in question. The average party worker was very, very strongly in favour of Advani. Even if some people had other ideas, they could not ignore the sentiment of the party worker.

Considering the present economic climate, was there a feeling among the average voter that Mammohan Singh would be a better hand at the wheel than Advani?

I won't dispute that. The Congress has very successfully projected that they have a strong economic team--Dr Manmmohan Singh, Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia--who are experts in financial matters.

It is the BJP's failure to have failed to convince the people that this much vaunted economic expertise of the Congress has not worked. Growth rates are down, inflation is up, infrastructure projects have come to a halt. Instead, money is being wasted on spendthrift schemes.

How has he taken this? It was, as you said, his last shot at being prime minister.

You can't expect Advaniji to be overjoyed. He worked so hard. It is really heartbreaking to find that when it was the chance of a man who has worked so hard, who has built the party, who is the architect of the party, without whom Atal Bihari Vajpayee would not have been prime minister of this country, he couldn't make it.

There's a very strong sense of personal defeat. Though he has taken it very philosophically, I am sure, deep down, he is very deeply hurt more by the fact that the BJP was not even in the running.

Why did the Modi magic not work, though he was one the BJP's most popular campaigners?

To say the Modi magic did not work is a wish-fulfilling campaign being run by the media. There have been reports that he visited this place and the BJP lost, he visited that place and the BJP lost. How will one person addressing a meeting for 30-45 minutes swing a seat if the seat is already not in your favour?

Narendra Modi is a very powerful and inspiring leader. He was one of the party's principal campaigners. There was a tremendous demand from party workers for his services. He worked tirelessly, visited every state, probably in the process neglected Gujarat where the result was good but not as good as even he had expected.

Yes, he didn't deliver seats. But Advaniji also campaigned all over the country; he too didn't deliver seats. If the mood is not in your favour, whatever you do doesn't work.

What worked for the Congress?

The points which I told you didn't work for the BJP worked for the Congress. There's obviously a disconnect between the BJP and the voter that goes across economic categories.

The Congress won because it was able to project itself as a younger, more dynamic, more organised, forward looking party. It also managed to convey a sense of reassurance. It had, in cities particularly, much better leadership. It also had a better understanding of how things were working on the ground. The others, BJP included, failed to see that reality.

How do you view what Rahul has achieved in Uttar Pradesh? When do you think the Congress is going to put Rahul Gandhi in the prime minister's chair?

He will be prime minister very soon, in the next year or two. I think that was the whole idea because his mother, who is primarily driven by the urge to ensure the succession, is not going to risk one more election.

What Rahul has done in UP is very good for everyone because identity and caste based politics has been tempered. But you also have keep Mayawati's contribution in mind – her government resulted in such disillusionment that those classes which had voted Mayawati fell away. It appears that the Muslims in particular voted for the Congress; unfortunately, Muslims usually don't vote for the BJP.

This does not necessarily show that the Congress has been able to recover ground in UP. They didn't have much of an organisation. It was a bit of a fluke victory.

But the national parties must welcome this development because, in the heartland of India, the water tight caste divisions appear to be breaking. And if caste and community matter less and less when people go to vote, I think it is better for the country.