Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

The office building of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Madhya Pradesh is truly magnificent. No political party in India and may be in the whole developing world has an office building that can compare with this well-designed and well-built complex. Yet, at present the mood inside the building is of despondency. Public utterances aside, in private conversations, the stalwarts of the party express their anguish and despair. A sense of alienation with the way BJP is conducting the Government at Delhi can be felt among the cadre as well as among a large number of senior functionaries of the party. Instead of a sense of ownership about the Central Government, one sees an apologetic attitude which is, of course, duly covered up by lofty statements at official press conferences.

A few weeks back a very small news appeared in some Hindi newspapers. Some organization representing vegetarians had written a letter of protest against the Central Government's so-called decision to allow beef extract upto 2% to be mixed with tea leaves to enhance flavor. This was the starting point of a rumor that kept growing with time. Various organizations joined in the protest. Jain community was extremely disturbed. Jain temples put up posters and displays of newspaper cuttings. The rumor has grown to such an extent that the tea trade is affected. Sale of all types and brands of tea has gone down. The whisper campaign has affected the rural areas and small towns more than the large towns but the effect is widespread. At the time of writing the article, many local language newspapers have carried long stories and local TV channels have reported the matter in great detail.

BJP has always been known as a Hindu party and its vote bank has traditionally included conservative religious elements of Indian society. It is unimaginable and beyond all reason that BJP government could take such a decision which hurts the religious sentiments of Hindus (including Jains and Buddhists). Most of the senior members of BJP have participated in the movement to ban cow slaughter. It shocked BJP members and sympathizers that a party that has been all along at the forefront of such a movement could permit the use of cow blood for a product like tea which is used very widely by all communities in India.

It was just natural that as soon as the controversy surfaced, various sections of people approached BJP leadership at the local level to clarify matters. Local BJP leaders, in turn, approached the state office and Members of Parliament. Frantic faxes were sent by the state office as well as by various Members of Parliament to BJP's Central office in Delhi. Weeks passed after that, yet the powers at Delhi did not even think it a matter worthy of their consideration. A few enthusiasts who rang up and tried to personally talk to some of the Central leaders were snubbed and told to mind their own business. Till the time of writing this article, there has been no clarification in the matter by any Central leader of BJP or by Government of India. Tea Board has issued a clarification, but that is not convincing anyone because Tea Board has no statutory powers and is not a part of Government of India.

Sooner or later, Central leadership of BJP will wake up and issue clarifications. But the damage has already been done and it will soon be too late to even start a damage control exercise. The damage to the tea trade is insignificant and tea sales will bounce back soon after the baseless rumor is exposed. But, the damage to BJP is not likely to be so short-lived. It will be worthwhile to remember that the revolution (British prefer to call it mutiny) of 1857 was triggered by a rumor that bullets which soldiers had to bite contained beef and pork. For centuries, beef has been a highly emotive issue for a large number of Indians. Failure of BJP leadership to understand such basic realities about Indian psyche raises fundamental questions about the leadership of BJP and about the communication channels within the party.

Someone, who was in jail during emergency and is an active member of Sangh Parivar (RSS clan), said that the effect of beef-extract-in-tea controversy is likely to be as devastating as the forced family planning measures proved for Indira Gandhi during 1977 general elections. This person was on way to RSS headquarters at Nagpur to attend a function of an organization of RSS clan (of which BJP is a part). Yet, he saw no possibility of his being able to communicate his views to the powerful elders of his own clan.

A clerk in the state office of BJP, Madhya Pradesh had an even more poignant comment. He said that people are not fools; people can see that the government in Delhi reduces the prices of computers while increasing the price of everything else. This humble clerk has worked for more than two decades at the party office for a pittance. He has seen the present top leaders of BJP at a time when they were just struggling for survival. Naturally, he is bitter. He feels that he has wasted his life for a party that has now been hijacked by self-centered egoists, who do not care for issues that concern common men like him.

BJP has always taken pride in itself as a cadre based party with a difference. RSS clan is known for its emphasis on discipline. Historically, RSS clan and BJP have been run on the lines of a benevolent dictatorship that strives for consensus. The lines of communication within the Sangh parivar have always been two-way - from top to bottom as well as from bottom to top. Yet, in recent years, BJP leadership seems to have lost its touch with the bottom ring of its own party. The lines of communication within BJP now seem to run only one way from top to bottom.

Moreover, there is a schism that seems to have emerged within the party. On the one hand, is the top leadership and their cronies who live in metros, move in fancy cars and live a five-star existence. On the other hand is the large mass of junior and middle-level party workers who are struggling to keep the body and soul together. It is ironic that the former set never tires of delivering long sermons to the latter but has no time to listen to the grass root realities that are a part of their everyday existence.

It is interesting to study the interaction that takes place when the two classes meet. The interaction can be broadly defined as two P's - Preaching and Pleading. The higher creatures preach and the lower ones plead for favours, which are rarely granted except to the chosen few. This is necessary to maintain the exclusivity of the select club.

It is no wonder that whenever BJP comes to power in any state or centre, it finds it extremely difficult to make any political appointments. In 1990, BJP came to power in Madhya Pradesh. BJP Government in MP took more than two years to make essential political appointments. A few months later the Government was dismissed. The same scenario is being re-enacted in Delhi. This adds to the feeling of alienation of the party worker.

The growing disenchantment of the party worker and middle level functionaries of BJP with the party combined with the communication gap that has developed between the haves and have-nots within the party is too serious a matter to be ignored. Senior BJP leaders seem to be listening more to the voices from Mumbai Stock Exchange than from their own cadre and from the people of the country. It is high time that the King moved out of his bunch of courtiers and met the kid who can tell him that he is naked.

Beef-extract-in-tea controversy may be based on some facts or may be baseless. Yet, it has exposed the weakness of the leadership of BJP in responding to unexpected developments. It is high time to preach the Bible to the Pope. RSS founders like Guru Golwalkar and Hedgewar never wanted any organization of the RSS clan to construct buildings and property. Yet, BJP and many other organizations of Sangh Parivar have constructed magnificent buildings. May be all that the BJP needs to do is to follow its own ideals and move out of magnificent buildings and fancy air-conditioned cars to the humble houses of its own cadre. BJP leaders must move out of the ivory towers and put their ears close to the ground. If they can do so, the mood of despondency that grips the hierarchy will soon turn to optimism.

Let us hope that BJP leaders will learn because it is not only BJP that is at stake. India's democracy needs political parties to be in good health. The failing health of Congress on one hand and despair in the BJP on the other should ring alarm bells in the minds of all those who care for India & democracy. Let us pray for the good health of these two national parties and for some good sense for their respected leaders.


7th July, 2000

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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