The parliamentary debate over the FDI-in-retail proposal over the past two days was, in the end, about everything else but the FDI-in-retail proposal. Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, each party positioned itself on the proposal not in absolute terms of where it stood vis-a-vis allowing Wal-Marts and Tescos to set up shop, but based on a pan-political perspective that oftentimes bordered on the ridiculous. The BJP, the Trinamool Congress and the Left parties, of course, tried valiantly to narrow the focus of the discussion back to the FDI issue, but although many more parties gave voice to their opposition to the FDI proposal, when it came right down to the voting, the parties' rationale for their vote took in considerations much farther afield - and the FDI proposal evaded the political radar screens and sailed through.
At one level, this of course reflects the perversion of parliamentary politics where a vote on even so politically inconsequential an issue as this provides parties the latitude to resort to deal-making that makes a mockery of the democratic process. BSP leader Mayawati announced that her party would vote alongside the UPA to defeat the BJP-sponsored motion seeking withdrawal of the FDI proposal, which effectively settles the issue in the Rajya Sabha. But her party's vote wasn't predicated on support for FDI in multi-brand retail: her party still opposed it, she said. But it did not wish to precipitate a situation where the "communal" BJP would capitalise on the political situation as might develop if its motion prevailed in the Rajya Sabha.
Mayawati's invocation of the "communal" tag for the BJP is of course entirely opportunistic: after all, her own party has aligned itself with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh when such an alignment served its political expediency. In any case, it's more than clear that she had traded in her party's support for the UPA on the FDI proposal in return for the Congress promise to take forward the provision for quotas for Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes in promotions in government service.
Yet, for all the cynicism that they breed, Mayawati's political calculations that underlie her party's vote on the FDI proposal also reflect a certain political savvy. She has rightly perceived the FDI-in-retail proposal as not being a game-changing electoral issue, and that her parliamentary vote will not cost her party much. However, she has used the vote to position herself against the "communal" BJP - always a winning proposition for her constituency - and used it as a trump card to secure a promise on the bill to provide for caste-based quotas in promotions, which too is a bread-and-butter issue for her party's supporters.
The quotas-in-promotions provision requires a Constitutional amendment, and given the Samajwadi Party's opposition to it and the arithmetic of this Parliament, there is no certainty of its passing. Even so, since perception and posturing still carry much weightage, Mayawati may be said to have leveraged her trump card for as much as she could possibly get away with.
The politics of the parliamentary vote also gives the BJP much cause for reflection on its past, its present and its future.
As much as the BJP may wish it otherwise and as much as it may militate against its core identity, the vote, and the politics that framed the discourse in Parliament, validates the consideration that politics in India revolves around the centre, and the BJP cannot hope to capitalise on the UPA government's egregious failure of governance if it doesn't position itself more towards the middle ground.
This may seem counter-intuitive at first. After all, the party implanted itself forcefully on the national stage with its Ayodhya Ram temple campaign, which harnessed the strident Hindutva vote base and culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid 20 years ago yesterday. And even today, Narendra Modi, the man who is rapidly emerging as the party's front-runner for the prime ministership, owes his vocal support base among hardcore BJP supporters to his strident Hindutva campaigns of the past, particularly after the Godhra train carnage and the riots of 2002.
But it is just as true that for all the short-term gains that the BJP harvested from both those instances when it lurched to the far right, the party has paid a price over the long term in terms of its political acceptability and its inability to build on its alliance base.
It is, of course, true that both those instances of the BJP's lurch to the right happened in specific contexts. In the late 1980s, the centre of gravity of Indian politics had shifted towards blatant minorityism that made a mockery of the concept of secularism. It's worth recalling that even national political parties resorted to ritual genuflections before the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, and went so far as to have him vet their candidates' list for elections. Parallelly, the Mandal Commission recommendations, which VP Singh implemented not out of any firm conviction to advance social justice but purely in order to secure his political support in the face of a power struggle with Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, attempted to cleave caste divisions within the Hindu fold.
It is in that specific context that the BJP seized on the Ram temple campaign to consolidate the 'Hindu vote' - such as it is - which enjoyed resonance for a while. But the pendulum of politics, which had earlier swung too far to the left, overcompensated by swinging too far to the right. For that brief moment, the BJP set the political agenda and increased its representation in Parliament and in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. But although the demolition of the Babri Masjid may have consolidated its diehard support base, it has proved a political liability over the long term: the party has lost its support base even in Uttar Pradesh, the epicentre of the Ayodhya movement.
Likewise, the 2002 riots in Gujarat - the other instance of the BJP's lurch to the right - may have helped the party and Modi consolidate their hardcore Hindutva base in Gujarat, which has since proved unassailable in the State. But the party has paid a price over the long term at the national level. The NDA's loss in 2004 owes as much to the 2002 riots as to the Congress' populist, welfarist campaigns.
And as much as Modi may be looking to reinvent himself in the decade since 2002, and more particularly in recent months as he goes about his sadbhavna missions, the riots of 2002 must rank today as the biggest impediment in his ambition to project himself on the national stage. Today, a Modi with his developmental record but without the taint of 2002 would have been virtually unassailable on the national stage - and a magnet for alliance partners - particularly in contrast to the dysfunctional UPA leadership.
The lesson for the BJP, from both the parliamentary debate on FDI-in-retail and the politics of the past two decades, is that while it may be able to harvest short-term gains when it raises the political temperature and lurches to the right, the core of Indian politics is still played out around the centre. And while the BJP did help to move the needle of the political discourse when it had shifted far to the left, it overcompensated on the other side, for which it continues to pay a political price.
There aren't easy answers to the BJP's dilemma, of course. But its best bet may be in finding the middle ground between making itself more acceptable at the centre of Indian politics without compromising on its identity as a balancing political force that keeps the pendulum from swinging too far to the left.