R Jagannathan Dec 28, 2011
If Tuesday’s parliamentary debate is any guide, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to have lost it. Despite a powerful speech by Sushma Swaraj and a fairly incisive one by Yashwant Sinha, the truth is the Congress won the Lokpal debate by exposing the hollowness of the BJP’s flawed strategy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds on the Lokpal Bill.
In contrast to the Swaraj-Sinha challenge to the bill, Kapil Sibal, Manmohan Singh and – ultimately – Pranab Mukherjee simply countered with logic and fact. The BJP was left without a leg to stand on.
What is clear is that the BJP is as rudderless and unfocused as the Congress has been all these months. Given that 2011 gave the party all the chances it needed to show the Congress in bad light – with all the corruption cases coming home to roost – it simply blew it.
Apart from disrupting parliament the BJP thought it could latch on to the anti-corruption bandwagon and put the Congress in the corner. Reuters
All through the year, the Congress has been on the backfoot, and government strategists – from P Chidambaram to Kapil Sibal and Salman Khursheed – compounded their problems by dealing wrongly with the Anna and Baba Ramdev threats. Not to speak of the 2G and Commonwealth scams, and the country’s serious economic challenges (inflation, slowdown, rupee).
But what did the BJP do? Apart from disrupting parliament – a major mistake in the TV age, when all disruption looks negative to viewers – the party thought it could latch on to the Anna bandwagon and put the Congress in the corner. For a while, it even seemed to be succeeding, but as always, it depended too much on the Congress making all the mistakes. Once this stopped, the BJP’s strategy fell apart.
Look what happened on Tuesday.
The party, surprisingly, chose to dump the Lokpal Bill and instead called for another bill to be sent to the Standing Committee for deeper consideration. While this can be explained as an effort to give more teeth to the sarkari Lokpal, the way it came across was that the party was going to delay the bill even further.
The Congress saw through the strategy and insisted on passing the bill the same day, giving its opponents no chance to regroup. This essentially exposed the BJP’s pro-Anna strategy as hollow. When it came to the crunch, the BJP wanted to delay the bill, not strengthen it.
Next, the Congress messed up when it failed to get enough votes (50 percent of the house’s strength) to give the Lokpal Bill constitutional status. Sure, the party’s floor-managers will get an earful from the Dynasty, but what did the BJP do? It chose to embarrass the Congress by getting the bill defeated in the Lok Sabha. This gave the Congress a second chance to show that the BJP was not sincere about the Lokpal – and Mukherjee said as much. The people, he said, would “teach the BJP a lesson.”
The BJP may be patting itself on the back for spiking Rahul Gandhi’s guns – after all he was the one who pushed for constitutional status – but surely this is momentary?
The BJP also stood exposed on taking the anti-corruption bill to the states. It suddenly raised the bogey of a “threat to federalism” and said the Centre must not shove its bill down states’ throats. It took Manmohan Singh very little to puncture this balloon. He pointed out that the creation of Lokayuktas in states was one of the key points agreed in the August “Sense of the house” discussion.
Shashi Tharoor rubbed it in when the BJP tried to show off its “ideal” Lokayukta Bill in Uttarakhand. Tharoor said in the Uttarakhand Bill – which had the approval of Team Anna – the Lokayukta would need 100 percent concurrence among its members to investigate the CM, whereas in the Lokpal Bill, only three-fourths needed to okay it to put the PM under scrutiny.
For its part, the Congress seemed to bend over backwards to accommodate many of the points the BJP wanted to incorporate in the Lokpal Bill. In the process, it emerged as a statesman-like party in contrast to the BJP’s opportunistic role.
What is clear is that the BJP will no longer be able to ride the Anna Tiger – though question-marks have been raised over whether Team Anna is also losing steam. The poor crowd strength at Mumbai’s MMRDA grounds, where Anna has begun his three-day fast, tells its own story.
In terms of policy choices, too, the BJP seems to have no ideas. Whether it is FDI in retail or the nuke bill or something else, the party seems to be only interested in embarrassing the Congress, rather than coming up with its own ideas.
Perhaps, this is part of the strategy – to ensure that the Congress is shown as bumbling and unable to manage. But, in the end, the people will not forgive the party if it lets the country go downhill just to show the Congress up.
A party that wants to be in government some time in the future needs to stand for something. Currently, the BJP stands for nothing.