Amelia Gentleman International Herald Tribune
Delhi, THURSDAY, APRIL 27, 2006
Shortly after breakfast last Saturday, the man tipped as the savior of India's main opposition party was reading the newspapers at home when his youngest brother arrived and shot him three times at close range.
Pramod Mahajan, the general secretary of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, remains in intensive care, fighting for his life. His brother is in custody and has told the police that he was fed up with the way his powerful elder sibling "ignored" him. The attempted fratricide has been called a family tragedy.
More important (although no BJP activist has been tasteless enough to say so outright), the attack on Mahajan is also terrifically inconvenient for the party.
Debilitated by an unresolved leadership crisis and ideological uncertainty, the BJP, the second- largest party in Parliament, has yet to recover from its unexpected election defeat in 2004. For many, Mahajan represented a plausible future leader, capable of dragging the party out of turmoil.
His disappearance from the party leadership will inevitably affect the direction the BJP takes as it rebuilds. The Asian Age, the national daily newspaper, stated in an editorial this week: "As Pramod Mahajan battles for his life, at stake is something more than just his survival: At stake is the survival of the modern, progressive face of the party that Mr. Mahajan represents."
Doctors at the Hinduja hospital in Mumbai have expressed irritation at the stream of politicians, celebrities and medical experts from around the world who have clustered around Mahajan's bedside this week. Party colleagues have been pressing surgeons to reveal the seriousness of his injuries, and the response has not been reassuring. Facing a possible liver transplant and grappling with a severely damaged pancreas, even if he survives, the politician will clearly be out of action for many months to come.
As the party's best fund-raiser and a key electoral strategist, his prolonged absence deals another severe blow to a party already reeling from almost two years of setbacks – corruption scandals, infighting, televised battles between senior party figures, top-level expulsions and resignations. "Nothing has gone right for the BJP since it lost power," the news magazine Frontline concluded this week.
This latest calamity has highlighted the extent of the chaos within the party, which governed India from 1998 to 2004. "It is in a mess," Swapan Dasgupta, political commentator and BJP watcher, said. The centrist Hindustan Times recently dismissed the organization as "directionless, frustrated and faction-ridden."
The first problem is the unresolved question of leadership. For decades the movement has been dominated by the forceful twin presence of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy, Lal Krishna Advani, who together have molded the party since its creation in 1980. With a combined age of 159, both men must know their political careers are nearly over – and yet they have failed to retreat from the front line.
Vajpayee, 81, announced that he would not contest another election in December, but he continues to dominate party thinking. "No one would dream of defying him, irrespective of any formal role he may or may not have. He is consulted on all major matters and his word prevails," Chandan Mitra, editor of Pioneer, the rightist newspaper, said.
Despite two resignations and several public swan songs last year, Advani, 78, remains the leader of the opposition and has indicated that he would like to stand as a prime ministerial candidate in the next election. In an attempt to whip up support, he embarked on a yatra – a political pilgrimage – to the nation's remote regions, but the popular response has been muted and even Mitra admits that he has not "set the Ganges on fire."
While at 56 Mahajan is hardly in his first flush of youth, in BJP terms he is a spring chicken, and for many he represents the most promising of the "generation next" leaders. In a roundabout way, Vajpayee anointed him as leader- in-waiting when he stood down.
The second issue facing the party in defeat is its ideological confusion.
"At the moment they stand for absolutely nothing. That is the basic problem. They have no leadership and no ideology," Vir Sanghvi, political commentator and editorial director of The Hindustan Times, said.
During its two years in the wilderness the party has been struggling with a prolonged identity crisis – uncertain whether to veer in the direction of religious extremism or choose a more secular, moderate path.
Some party members attribute the 2004 defeat in part to the violent anti- Muslim pogrom in the BJP-governed state of Gujurat in 2002, where thousands of Muslims died, amid accusations of BJP complicity in the killings.
Convinced that the party's rallying cry of Hindutva – Hindu nationalism – was no longer a bankable vote-winner, Advani toyed with softening the party's image, tilting toward a secular stance last year, but in the process he so enraged the party's powerful hard- line Hindu parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Volunteers Association) that he was forced to step back.
With continued doubts over the core platform of Hindu nationalism, the BJP is flailing for direction. C.P. Bhambri, politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said: "A party has to reinvent itself after a defeat and they have to add something new. The BJP lost two years ago, and they are still talking the same old language, the same old issues. It has become a stagnant party."
"They really do not have any new ideas which might make them popular," Kuldip Nayar, a veteran political commentator, said. "The electorate now wants a more moderate force which will focus on the economy. Extremism is seen as hindering that."
The governing Congress party has delighted in its opponent's disarray. Endless introspection means that the BJP has provided toothless opposition to the government. In by-elections currently under way in five states (admittedly in areas where the BJP has never traditionally done well) the party is not expected to advance.
No one suggests that Pramod Mahajan could have shaken off the party's problems single-handedly. His critics, somewhat tongue-tied by his tragic circumstances, mutter that there were questions about his "ethical standards."
But as his allies paste up huge posters of his face in the capital, with slogans wishing him a speedy recovery, they say he is a resourceful and pragmatic politician who is already much missed.
Within the party, weary activists are bracing themselves for a renewed leadership struggle, complete with fratricidal infighting of a different order.