• Naman Vakharia


Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a history of complex political behaviour with media, dissenters, and in their internal structure. Saba Naqvi, a veteran journalist who is currently teaching at Jindal School of Journalism and Communication, has covered the party for over two decades. She has keenly observed and interacted with the different leaders and stalwarts of the party. In this candid and honest conversation with Naman Vakharia, the journalist compares BJP and its functioning from her experience.

Lal Krishna Advani made BJP come alive in the realm of electoral politics. It is he who gave way to the Hindu-nationalistic agenda using the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Moreover, Advani did not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Advani and other BJP leaders were recently acquitted in the Ram Mandir demolition case, and Advani appeared in the news once again. So, from your experience covering the party, do you think L.K. Advani is relevant in today's BJP and Indian politics?

Saba Naqvi: Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then BJP party president in the 1980s, aimed to make the party a socialist, centrist, and a milder version of the Congress party. However, Vajpayee lost the election. It was L.K. Advani who electorally revived the party. He gave it an ideological direction using the Ram Mandir agitation movement which was already a cause taken up by the Vishva Hindu Parishad. This makes Advani a critical player in the history of BJP. Advani never made it to the top of the party even though he was the Deputy Prime Minister and Vajpayee retired after the NDA lost elections in 2004. Advani after the 2004 elections was trying to hang in there and re-kindle the party,but in that process lost a lot of support from the party. Currently, he is not relevant and was ruthlessly pushed away after the arrival of Shri Narendra Modi in New Delhi. However, he remains a significant symbol of the past. BJP was a coalition in the 2000s, and now in 2020, they enjoy a full majority in the Lok Sabha. How different is the functioning of the current BJP from the BJP in the times of Vajpayee and Advani?

Saba Naqvi: The inner-party democracy in BJP has vanished. Now, they have a high-command and a centralised culture, as the party is led by individuals who form the Gujarat tradition, where a similar model was followed. There is the ‘presence of hailing the great leader’ attitude, and there are no multiple centres of power in the current structure of the BJP. The role of media is essential in any democracy as it shapes the public opinion. Politicians also understand the public voice through the questions posed by journalists and reporters. How has BJP used the tool of media?

Saba Naqvi: BJP has always been good at using whatever media was available, even in the pre-WhatsApp and Facebook era. In the days of Vajpayee, BJP was an open and talkative party and regime. Everything happened before the media, and it was extremely media friendly. One could meet Advani in the North Block. If you have a journalist pass to the parliament, you could go and talk to the Ministers and the other Members of the Parliament. Even the Prime Minister’s Office was accessible, and appointments were given easily. It is entirely different now. The party is very closed off and not as free as it used to be. Nevertheless, it has its spokespersons who go to T.V. news debates, and it conducts regular media briefings. They have always made themselves heard a lot, but the now easy access is unprecedented. L.K. Advani brought BJP into electoral prominence, and Amit Shah is the chief strategist behind the electoral campaigning for BJP in today's times. How different is Amit Shah from L.K. Advani? Is Shah the new Advani?

Saba Naqvi: Shah is an executioner and works with the arithmetic of electoral politics. He deals with how to ensure votes for your candidates, so that they can win in the first past-the-post system, whereas Advani is a thinker and an ideologue. It was Advani who imagined the right-wing idea and came up with slogans like” pseudo-secularism”. On the other hand, Amit Shah is thinking about how to win the elections. Shah’s tasks were the ones which Advani could not do. There is no comparison between the two. Leaders like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj had an individualistic personality and charm. But you do not see the same dynamic in today's politicians from BJP.

Saba Naqvi: Arun Jaitley was a unique character and spoke to everyone and knew how to spin the media and was not scared to speak his mind. It was a loss for BJP to lose him. Sushma Swaraj played less of a role than Arun, but was a diligent and efficient M.P. She was an articulate and a confident orator and had the capacity of speaking to the media. There is a shortage of leaders like that as Modi and Shah select everyone, and people are not allowed to be themselves.

Since December 2019 and the start of 2020, students have come out on to the streets. They are vehemently and vociferously protesting and raising their voices, questioning the government. On the question of dissent, how was BJP’s reaction to the critique and dissent received under Vajpayee? Was it the same as it is today?

Saba Naqvi: All governments try and use strong-arm practices against dissenters and critiques. Vajpayee was a parliamentarian, and the Vajpayee administration had many members from trade unions, they had respect for debates and parliamentary democracy. The crushing of dissent never happened in the manner it is happening today. Today, there is a one-party rule coupled with a declining democracy, a phenomenon which is common with world democracies.

About the interviewer: Naman Vakharia is a final year student pursuing bachelors in Global Affairs at OP Jindal Global University.

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