AT THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY’S national convention in Indore this February, over 4,000 members of the party’s National Council massed inside an enormous air-cooled tent to discuss what the party considered significant issues in politics, economics, foreign policy, affirmative action, and also to witness and ratify a changing of the guard. The tenure of Rajnath Singh, a Thakur from Uttar Pradesh and the party president from 2006 to 09, was over. He was giving way to Nitin Gadkari, a Brahmin from Maharashtra.
At 11:00 am on 18 February, the entire top brass of the party leadership had taken their places before the delegates on a grand flower-bedecked dais with a backdrop of a sari-clad woman at work in a idealised agrarian idyll: the sun shining, thatched huts, children at play, a windmill. Everyone in the tent, including members of the press, had already stood to attention while the song ‘Vande Mataram’ resonated through the tent over loudspeakers. Now the departing president was speaking, in a grave, orotund Hindi, about the party’s history, its recent troubles, and its future.
The very look of the convention was an attempt by the BJP, in a time of crisis, to reconnect to its history. In its 30th year, and smarting from the reverses of the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the party had organised one of the ‘back to the basics’ gatherings it seemed to find attractive from time to time. In Indore, as it had in Bandra in Mumbai at its inaugural convention in 1980, and again in its silver jubilee year in 2005, the party had erected a massive political squatter camp at Omaxe City, a massive, 36-hectare private plot just outside Indore city limits, on the Mumbai-Agra highway. Small white tents, each with five beds, a fan, and an attached bathroom, stretched away to the left and right of the main thoroughfare as far as the eye could see. (Women delegates had a more comfortable time in a block of flats.)