If there ever was a party with a difference, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party. Or as it seems to be more and more, it is just different. Here, as the ruling coalition fumbles its way through the last years of its term, the BJP is unable to either find common ground with its allies or mount a sustained attack on the government. The ongoing presidential election is a case in point.
There have been rumours for months that Pranab Mukherjee, the Union finance minister, wanted the post. But the opposition, propped up by a media ever in search drama, went into a tizzy over India’s titular and constitutional head. That the numbers lay with the ruling coalition was either forgotten or ignored.
The Congress, as is its wont, played its cards close to its chest. And that only fuelled endless speculation and discussion. This is at a time when the Indian economy has suffered various blows, manufacturing is down, the government is trying to bat away several scam accusations and has been accused of “policy paralysis”.
Yet the best India’s opposition could come up with was to stall the Lokpal Bill — which no Indian politician seriously wanted anyway — and to organise a wishy-washy protest against a petrol price hike. And get itself into a might tizzy over the next president of India.
Once, after its hand was forced by its most bizarre ally, the Trinamool Congress, the Congress announced the candidature of Mukherjee, the BJP got even more flustered. Its pitch was already queered by PA Sangma, former Lok Sabha speaker and member of the Nationalist Congress Party and UPA member, jumping in as a candidate. He got support from two former NDA allies — the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK. This, in essence, made him neither a UPA nor a NDA candidate and therefore almost no chance of winning.
The BJP then had two options — to pick a strong candidate as a counter to whoever the Congress choose or to acquiesce the way the Congress had done to APJ Abdul Kalam’s candidacy in 2002. Instead it dithered. Now faced with Mukherjee, who has some cross-party appeal, the BJP finds itself on the same side as the Trinamool and the AIADMK. The BJD walked out of the NDA and Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalitha are never reliable. Together, they don’t have enough votes either way.
Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) made it clear at the outset that he did not want to contest against Mukherjee, so has Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena and possibly the SAD in Punjab.
The BJP itself does not know what to do. Some want to fight, others do not. And even if they do fight, candidates are a bit thin on the ground for them. Kalam had made it clear he would agree only if he was to be elected unopposed. Once Mukherjee entered the race, he backed out. Few BJP names will be acceptable to the allies. And in any case, winning is unlikely.
This uncertainty over the next president is symptomatic of a deeper problem for the BJP: what does it stand for? Is it still a Hindutva-driven party? Is it just anti-Congress? Its allies do not seem to buy its Hindutva line or Hindutva leaders. It cannot manage without allies in most of India. It cannot seem to combat the Congress even when the Congress fails most miserably.
It seems ideologically and intellectually bereft at a time when it needs to be strongest. The party with a difference has found its difference — it is staring at its own core nothingness. A philosopher might marvel at the concept of “shunyata” but for a political party in search of votes and power it means very little.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona