L.K. Advani, the BJP’s PM-in-waiting carries the huge burden of his past, of NDA’s failings and his advancing years
Lal Kishen Advani has been anointed leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party after many trials and tribulations — and a great deal of humiliation. Yet the party's war trumpet signaling its readiness to face another general election has been unusually muted, and somewhat out of tune. Coming as it does on the eve of the first round of Gujarat polling, the designation of Advani as Prime Minister-in-waiting is a complex one. The decision has been pending for quite a while and an announcement was expected on his 81st birthday on November 8.
Some say that the decision is aimed at showing that it is not connected to the outcome of the Gujarat state assembly elections — whatever it is. Others argue that it could be seen as a means of getting some bump out of the electorate, because Mr. Advani represents Gandhinagar and has carefully cultivated his constituency, even though reports from the state indicated that attendance at his rallies was thin.
It is more than likely that the real reason is to put Narendra Modi in his place. In many ways Modi's persona and age seem to be better tailored to lead the party of Hindutva than that of the ageing Mr. Advani. But Modi’s style that brooks little dictation from the Sangh Parivar or anyone else goes against the grain of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh that prides itself in keeping its pracharaks and sympathisers on a short leash.
Mr Advani has come to the fore also because he is the last man standing in the group of leaders who have had their hat in the ring for the past three years. Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's reluctant retirement has been brought on by chronic illness in the past year. Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi's presence at the ceremony indicates that for the present, at least, he has conceded Mr. Advani's claim to primacy. Both he and the hapless Mr. Rajnath Singh became lame duck ever since the party was decisively trounced in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls earlier this year.
What remains to be seen now is whether there is a similar shift in the RSS. As long as Mr. K.S. Sudarshan remains Sarsanghchalak, the BJP will be forced to adjust to his eccentric demands and not be able to set its own agenda. As of now it would appear that the RSS wants a dual party-government type system where it can retain control through the party president who owes his position to the organisation. But this has not proved to be a workable proposition. Mr. Vajpayee's success lay precisely in avoiding the Sangh dictation. On the other hand, the manner in which the RSS savaged Advani on the “Jinnah was secular” remark indicates that the new leader has much less room for manoeuver.
Advani brings to the party a number of strengths. He is clear-headed and a good networker with regional parties which is needed to establish a new National Democratic Alliance. He has the loyalty of the younger crowd of leaders. But given his long innings, his weaknesses are also manifest. Primary among these is that he is cynical and self-serving.
He tailored his personal beliefs to ride a chariot across the country for the cause of building a temple for Lord Rama at Ayodhya. He did the same last year when he visited Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mazar in Karachi and declared him secular. Cynicism is a pre-eminent trait of all successful politicians, but in Advani’s case it has been a source of weakness and brought disaster for the country and himself. Its latest manifestation is his opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal, something that the pro-American Advani knows is good for the country, but he cannot get himself to say so because he sees no advantage in it for himself.
And, of course, there is the issue of age. Though he is in excellent health, he is 81. That is an age when infirmity steals up with ruthless speed and unpredictability. More important, he will be pitted with the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi who has recently been anointed crown prince of the Congress. Besides Rahul, there is the relatively young Sonia (61), who is increasingly assertive and sure-footed because the “Italian origin” slur has found little footing with the electorate. While Rahul has yet to make his mistakes, and will any way be given a long rope because of his inexperience, Advani has already made his, and will be judged on their basis.
Mr. Advani saw the moment of his greatness wither a long time ago. If it did not do so after his Babri Masjid movement destroyed social peace in the country, it certainly did so with his indifferent performance as Union Home Minister. The repeated instances of terrorism — Parliament, Akshardham, Kaluchak and the humiliation of exchanging a plane load of hostages in Kandahar for three top terrorists — are damning. His failure to formulate an effective strategy beyond talking tough marked out Advani as the non-Sardar Patel. A former intelligence chief's assessment was that “Mr Advani is incredibly shallow”. He showed an unusual appetite for accessing intelligence information, but he did little with it.
His remarks on Pakistan just after the nuclear tests were downright irresponsible and his predilection towards the US nearly got India caught into the Iraqi quagmire. The handling of a law to tackle terrorism, POTA, was so partisan that it prevented the enactment of an effective anti-terrorist legislation. He was completely swamped by the Intelligence Bureau and Home Ministry bureaucracy and did not provide the kind of ministerial leadership that was expected from the strong man of the BJP.
Beyond his own person, Mr. Advani has to contend with the problems of his party. While it does not have the stultifying leadership culture of the Congress which is dominated by a family, the BJP is a house divided everywhere. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s relationship with his Cabinet colleagues, including Deputy Prime Minister Advani, were just a shade better than that of Shah Jehan with his sons.
The basic problem that Mr. Advani and the BJP have to confront is that they are a party espousing Hindutva, and by and large subsist on upper caste Hindu votes, but their potential allies come from a variety of parties, some based on caste, some on ethnicity. They do not see Hindutva as their lodestar, and neither do they necessarily demonise Muslims. The issue of Muslims has gained considerable salience considering that the National Democratic Alliance almost certainly lost the 2004 general election because of the Gujarat massacres of 2002. In the UP Assembly elections earlier this year, the BJP’s sorry showing was not just because of the state of the party organisation and leadership, but the fact that across the state Muslims made it a point to support the candidate most likely to defeat the BJP nominee. Alienating a bloc of voters is not a recipe for success in elections, except perhaps in the special conditions of Gujarat.
Advani and Vajpayee know that a pure Hindutva party does not have much traction with the electorate. Advani has himself publicly spoken about how the Jana Sangh had to become the “Bharatiya Janata Party” and later constitute a National Democratic Alliance before it could wield power at the Centre. Both Vajpayee and Advani had boasted that their government had a riot-free record in relation to Muslims, and then came the Gujarat cyclone and all pretensions were blown away.
Vajpayee’s attempt to sack Modi was defeated. And the consequence was the defeat in 2004. Vajpayee’s efforts to woo the community through a Dalit party president Bangaru Laxman, too came a cropper when he was caught in a sting and Bangaru’s remark that Muslims were the “blood of our blood” forgotten. Advani’s elliptical, though clumsy effort in hailing Jinnah nearly ended his career with the Parivar.
No two general elections are ever the same, and neither do issues that dominated one transfer to the other. The coming elections, whether in 2008 or on schedule the year after, will also be no different. To become Prime Minister, Mr. Advani will have to go beyond Lord Rama, rath yatras, terrorism or Pakistan. He has been a resourceful, if ruthless, politician in the past; what the future holds now for him only time will tell. But his margin for error is already that much thinner.
The article appeared in Mail Today December 12, 2007