When the BJP came to power as the leading party in the NDA, friendly journalists and other sympathetic analysts were fond of saying that responsibility and power would smoothen the rough edges of the party, strengthen the moderates and tame the extreme elements. The BJP projected itself as a party with a difference: united, disciplined, honest and dedicated. Unfortunately expectations were belied on both counts. The communal temperature was pushed up by the vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and the RSS, who had no intention of being tamed, but, on the contrary, had every intention of using state power to fulfil their long-cherished desire of creating a Hindu Rashtra or nation. Despite the BJP’s claim that it had put its communal agenda on the back burner in deference to the sensitivities of its coalition partners, the agitation for the building of the Ram mandir at Ayodhya reached its peak in early 2002, notwithstanding the Supreme Court;s refusal to allow construction on the disputed site and the surrounding land. This agitation had a direct effect on the communal situation in Gujrat, which witnessed what many observers have called a genocide lasting for close to three months from February 2002. The ideological agenda of communalization of education was pursued with great vehemence by the RSS Minister for Human Resources Development, Murli Manohar Joshi.
The second claim, of being a party with a difference, received severe knocks from an almost endless series of scams that seemed to be surfacing with monotonous regularity. The first big one was the expose by Tehelka, a news-based Indian website, which laid bare the nexus between arm dealers, army men and politicians. It was a sting operation carried out by journalists posting as arms dealers, walking around defense establishments, and party offices, with suitcases which had cash as well as hidden cameras and tape recorders. The video tapes were aired on a television channel on compromised senior army officials, but the president of the BJP Bangaru Laxman, who was seen putting away Rs 100,000 into his table drawer. The president of the Samata Party, Jaya Jaitly, was found accepting a sum of Rs 200,000 at the official residence of the Defense Minister George Fernandes. Laxman and Fernandes both had to go. The government also had to appoint and inquiry committee. The government’s reputation also suffered because it was widely believed that Tehelka was hounded thereafter, and its staff and promoters harassed in a variety of ways, including being arrested. Even when it was revealed later that Tehelka had used means, such as hiring the services of call girls, which most agreed were unethical, the government’s attempt to use this to cast doubts on the veracity of the original expose did not cut much ice.
The unit Trust of India scam, in which millions of small investors lost their savings, also tarnished reputations as names of officials close to the prime minister and from his household were talked about. Similarly, in 2002, Ram Naik, the Petroleum Minister, came under a cloud because his ministry had allotted over 3,000 petrol pumps, gas agencies and kerosene dealerships to BJO and RSS leaders and their relatives. Parliament was stalled for days and allotments cancelled. This was followed by revelations that the largest number of allotments of prime land in the heart of Delhi since 1999 had been made to organizations affiliated to the RSS.
The ‘ mini – general elections’ in May 2001 in which Kerala, Pondicherry, Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal went to the polls had returned the Congress to power in the first three, the AIADMK, its ally, in Tamil Nadu, and the Left Front in West Bengal. With this, the number of Congress chief ministers wen up to eleven. The BJP had failed to make any gains. In fact, the only election won by the BJP in this period was in Gujarat, and that in very exceptional circumstances, which hardly added to its credibility. In 2003, it lost Himachal Pradesh as well, which was considered a stronghold, to the Congress. Later, it won Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and such was the optimism generated by this that the general elections, due only after October 2004, were advanced by about six months to April – May. The economy was thought to be in such good shpae, with large foreign exchange reserves, and low inflation, that the Finance Minister went on pre-election binge. The NDA launched what it thought was an unbeatable campaign: ‘India Shining’, but large numbers of Indians thought otherwise, and the result was described as the biggest upset of since 1977, when the Congress was swept out of power in the elections following the Emergency.