NDA 2 needs Atal 2

BJP must learn to respect India's diversity, stop being RSS's political wing.

Any Indian politician whose ambition is to become prime minister, or who sincerely wishes to pursue political power for the sake of serving the nation — personal ambition and desire to serve the nation are not mutually exclusive — is bound to meet two great teachers in the course of his or her political journey. They are democracy and diversity. A leader who learns the right lessons from these two gurus has the chance to succeed. He who discards or defies their uninfringeable teachings is bound to get his comeuppance.

Indira Gandhi once recklessly defied democracy, for which she paid a huge price. Congress leaders have since learnt that authoritarianism doesn't work in India. To its credit, the Congress party's greatest strength is that it has never given up faith in India's diversity, especially its religious diversity — call it secularism. And this faith, unmatched by any other constituent of the country's political establishment, has stood the party in good stead. Often, its championing of secularism has amounted to tokenism, using Muslims as a vote-bank to perpetuate its own power. Even so, the Congress remains the party with the largest pan-Indian and pan-society footprint.

With growing public disenchantment with the UPA government, that footprint will surely shrink in the 2014 general elections. For India's good, any contender for power must take special care to rejuvenate, through good governance, not only the country's floundering economy but also its democratic institutions, its commitment to socio-economic justice and its secular traditions. Is the BJP capable of this task?

The BJP has been a good pupil at the feet of the guru of democracy. Indeed, much of the prestige that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the BJP's previous avatar) earned in the minds of democracy-loving Indians came from its leaders' spirited struggle against Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism during the Emergency. But when it comes to dealing with India's diversity, the BJP is still a learner, unwilling at times, unable at others, and always inconsistent. And insofar as learning any useful lesson in politics entails a good bit of unlearning, the BJP's progress has been slow, halting and even riddled with reversals. This is because the unlearning pertains to the socially restrictive Hindutva ideology of the RSS, which seeks to control the party's thought process, its organisational architecture and leadership choices.

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