|Feb 7, 2000|
Thakre at Sea
The party chief runs a rudderless ship and is reduced to cipher at election time
By Farzand Ahmed
In their analyses of ailing organisations management gurus often take recourse to Peter's Principle. Simply put, this states that every individual rises to his level of incompetence -- and sooner or later is promoted to a job that he is patently unfit for. BJP President Kusha-bhau Thakre is a textbook example of Peter's Principle at work. A second- rung leader of admirable qualities, he finds himself completely at sea as head of India's ruling party.
If BJP sympathisers are worried they have reason to be. After a decade and more of growth as a disciplined, determined and decisive opposition unit, the BJP suddenly finds itself denuded of its best talent -- lost to the Government. No wonder, when it came to the customary pre-election rumblings and negotiations, the current party managers were completely clueless.
In Orissa, the chief interlocutor with the BJD, once a friendly ally but now a difficult customer, is Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan.
In Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal initially promised the BJP 35 of the total 90 seats. Now he's talking tough with HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi.
In Bihar, talks between the BJP and its allies, the Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) and the Bihar People's Party (BPP) had all but broken down, till Home Minister L.K. Advani stepped in. With some help from K.N. Govindacharya, party general secretary, he hammered out a solution that, nevertheless, has left no one happy.
Workers, particularly in Ranchi, went on the rampage and destroyed party property after the BJP sacrificed 24 seats to its allies and announced it would contest only 150. The bickering between the JD(U)'s Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan and Samata's Nitish Kumar saw the troika of senior ministers sulking. Finally, Advani had to threaten, "Either you agree to a give and take formula. Or I will go and announce that the talks have failed." Last heard Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was soothing the still ruffled nerves of the Bihari partners. On the other hand, senior partyman Shatrughan Sinha was walking about disgruntled, telling people, "I am no longer in public life, I am in private life."
In these circumstances, when Thakre's term as party chief ends in the third week of May nobody knows who'll be happier -- the man himself or the rest of the BJP. Right now Thakre heads the organisation, with K. Jana Krishnamurthy, J.P. Mathur, Kailashpati Mishra and Madan Lal Khurana as his vice-presidents. Of the quintet, Khurana is the youngest at 63. Thakre is ailing, having recently undergone two major operations in quick succession. More important, he has let the party drift -- right into a trap between the aspirations of party workers and the ambitions of allies.
Krishnamurthy guffaws when you tell him this, "Trapped? The BJP can't be trapped. When friendly parties contest persuasion works, not assertion." The uncharitable explanation is that assertion was not attempted because Thakre and his colleagues were incapable of it in the first place.
So the all-important negotiation -- "persuasion", to use Krishnamurthy's favourite expression -- was carried out at Advani's Pandara Park residence in Delhi rather than the BJP's headquarters on Ashoka Road, a few kilometres away.
The portents had been clear for some time. When the Government exchanged three terrorists for the hostages of flight IC 814, the party leadership didn't know what to do or say other than mouth banalities against Pakistan. It was left to Advani to analyse the decision as potentially damaging for the party. It was Advani again who announced that the BJP would train its ministers and prospective ministers in the art of governance.
When Uma Bharati wanted to launch an agitation against the Digvijay Singh Government in Madhya Pradesh, it was Advani who counselled her to first give up her post as minister of state for tourism. In all three cases, Thakre and company found out through the media. For a party that prided itself on nifty thinking, such lack of intellectual firepower must be difficult to accept. Matters have come to a point where the party's daily press briefing has become most irregular. In the words of a leader, "We have nothing separate to say."
Having eaten crow over the selection of mothballed Ram Prakash Gupta -- a man who forgets the names of even his ministers -- as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had to suffer the mortification of the geriatric brigade suggesting that Mishra be the party nominee for the top job in Bihar. An ageing Bhumihar, Mishra, if projected as the formidable Laloo Prasad Yadav's challenger, will be the BJP's harakiri weapon.
The state elections are not the only issue on which the BJP's official leadership finds itself bereft of ideas. The systemic crisis runs far deeper.
An entire generation of leaders thrown up during the Ram movement and in its aftermath -- Pramod Mahajan, Ananth Kumar, Juel Oram, Rajnath Singh -- finds itself in the Union ministry. The party's most media-savvy face, Arun Jaitley, too is busy being minister. Sushma Swaraj, the woman next door who was once seen as a possible party president, is not too visible.
Sushma, in fact, was in the forefront of an incipient rebellion when the BJP's National Council met in Chennai in December. The "Chennai Declaration" sought to establish the BJP as a responsible party, suited to administrative requirements, by affirming, "The BJP has no agenda of governance other than the national agenda of the NDA."
Sushma, Sundarlal Patwa, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, former Rajasthan chief minister, opposed this bald declaration as a dilution of the party's individuality and an attempt to make it subservient to the nda coalition. The party managers -- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and other senior ministers were missing due to the Kandahar hijack crisis -- were hard put to curb the vocal threesome.
Eventually, the Thakre team had to clarify that while it remained steadfast to its vision of India and Indianness, the programme was being revised "in tune with the changing times". The declaration was amended to add, "Although the ideals are constant, the ideology and its interpretations in the light of the changing situations and challenges have to be renewed from time to time." As the declaration itself was disparaged by some as the "Vajpayeeisation" and "de-ideologisation" of the BJP, Advani cautioned the party against being imprisoned by dogma. The point, nevertheless, is: nobody seems to be able to convey this message to the ordinary party worker.
In the immediate future, the BJP has to square two circles. First, it has to increase communication between party and government; today, the entities seem to be travelling in different directions. The Krishnamurthy panel, asked to review the party's constitution, has recommended the setting up of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) as an intermediary between party and government. To comprise both senior party functionaries and key ministers, NAC will institutionalise coordination efforts.
Of course, there are suspicions here as well. There are whispers that the RSS, upset with the Vajpayee regime's programme of economic reform as opposed to swadeshi, capitultion at Kandahar and probable signing of the CTBT, will use the NAC to monitor and bully the Government.
The second quest is for a successor to Thakre. There are, really speaking, two options for the party. The first is the easy route -- making somebody like Krishnamurthy chief and replicating the experience with Thakre. The second is a more audacious generational gamble. There are two names doing the rounds here -- Sushma and M. Venkaiah Naidu. Sushma is not quite a frontrunner because of an uneasy relationship with the prime minister. Naidu -- from Andhra Pradesh, an identity important given the BJP's forays into the south -- seems somewhat more comfortably placed and, with the assistance of Narendra Modi, capably defended the Chennai Declaration at the National Council conclave. Some day, his friends hope, he will defeat Peter's Principle. So does the BJP.