was this inability to both address and determine the future
direction of the BJP that led to an epidemic of unilateralism
after 2005. Advani travelled to Pakistan and tried to use
the success of his visit to press for an enlargement of the
BJP vision. He was roundly rebuffed. In Gujarat, Modi used
the 2004 setback as a signal to make governance more purposeful
and less prone to petty political interference. The RSS used
Advani’s “heresy” as the occasion to impose
many more full-timers into organisational positions at all
levels. Between the summer of 2005 and the anointment of Advani
as the prime ministerial candidate in December 2007, the BJP
IRONICALLY, IT was electoral politics that gave the BJP a
way out. In Bihar, Punjab and Uttarakhand, the BJP and its
allies ousted the Congress and its allies from power on the
strength of efficient election management, anti-incumbency
and a single-minded thrust on development. In Gujarat, Modi
had to fight both the enemy within and the Congress. He too
prevailed on the strength of personal charisma, invocation
of regional pride and a strong commitment to economic modernisation.
Compared to the post-riot shrillness of his 2002 election,
the 2007 election was won essentially on the strength of Modi’s
record of governance. The Sohrabuddin and “merchant
of death” exchange were heady asides that helped lift
the spirit of electioneering.
For the BJP, there was, of course, a monumental debacle in
Uttar Pradesh. Although BJP president Rajnath Singh refused
to permit a debate on the party’s pathetic performance,
it was well known that the real responsibility lay with the
RSS which managed the expensive campaign and decided the political
approach. The Uttar Pradesh verdict forced the rehabilitation
of Advani and willy-nilly settled the broad thrust for the
Sniper attacks from within the party and the Parivar on Advani
are certain to persist but barring the unexpected, the BJP
is going to face the 2009 election on a liberal, mildly right-of-centre,
good governance- plank and with a reinvented Advani as its
mascot. Advani’s transformation from the foremost symbol
of political untouchability to the benign and kindly elder
who is not afraid of defying party orthodoxy now appears complete.
At one time, Advani found it prudent to don the mantle of
a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the “iron man” who
served as a corrective to Jawaharlal Nehru’s infantile
wooliness. That symbolism hasn’t been abandoned entirely
but it has been subsumed by Advani’s emphasis on consensual
and non-divisive politics — he calls it the politics
IN THE high noon of Nehruvian India, Hindu nationalists had
to undergo constant political and intellectual derision. In
the eyes of the Indian Establishment — which, in turn,
took the cue from Jawaharlal Nehru — pro-Hindu tendencies
were considered “backward- looking”, “socially
reactionary” and completely unacceptable in polite society.
As Advani has stressed in his autobiography, his political
mentor Deendayal Upadhyaya tried to wipe out this political
stigma with outwardlooking political flexibility. Deendayal
even endorsed a slightly incongruous electoral understanding
with the CPI for a municipal poll in Delhi in the late-1950s.
He subsequently joined hands with Ram Manohar Lohia and C.
Rajagopalachari to build an anti-Congress front.
Later, Vajpayee took this process further. When Advani stressed
the BJP’s “distinctive identity” and wallowed
in the party’s “majestic isolation” after
the debacle of 1984, he was not laying down a non-negotiable
principle. In Advani’s mind, the turn to ideology between
1985 and 1995 wasn’t an articulation of faith; it was
dictated by political exigency. To him, as with many “political
Hindus” who found a home in the BJP, the Ram Janmabhoomi
issue was onlypartially a religious issue. It was primarily
an instrument to expose the flawed nature of the prevailing
secular consensus. Advani was always anxious to expand the
political orbit of the BJP but he was also aware that the
BJP would end its political untouchability only when others
were convinced that Hindu nationalism possessed a significant
electoral clout. After the BJP demonstrated its independent
political clout in 1991 and 1996, there was no way it could
be treated as a political pariah.
Between 1996 and 2004, the BJP was in alliance with most
of those who had earlier attached themselves to the Janata
Dal of VP Singh, not to mention the Dravidian parties which
conveniently shelved their long-standing opposition to Hinduised
ideology. Vajpayee and Advani’s openness merely firmed
up a trend that was rooted in electoral arithmetic. In the
end, the commitment to Hindutva and coalition building proved
complementary. To many BJP loyalists brought up on a strict
diet of anti-Congressism, Advani’s decision to visit
Sonia Gandhi on Holi and present her a copy of his autobiography
seemed completely inexplicable. Sonia, in their eyes, was
the “Italian” interloper who was visceral in her
hatred of the BJP.
However, regardless of what the loyalists thought, Advani’s
dramatic gesture, coupled with his repeated assertion that
political adversaries should not regard themselves as enemies,
earned him many brownie points from that section whose voting
preferences shift seamlessly between the Congress and BJP.
There is a huge overlap in the social profile of the two main
national parties which extends to decision-makers who are
naturally comfortable with either of the two parties at the
helm. By observing elementary civil courtesies with Sonia
— a gesture that is unlikely to be reciprocated —
Advani tried to drive home the importance of not viewing him
exclusively through the prism of a political party. Of course
he belonged to the BJP but he also had an identity that was
UNLIKE MOST politicians who are fanatically obsessed with
their life in politics, Advani not only maintains outside
interests but is not afraid to flaunt them. Films and books
are, of course, his passion. It could well havebeen stamp
collecting or photography. The point is that as he gets more
and more into the limelight, it is these
varied interests outside politics that will add to his appeal.
Spin doctors will find it incredibly easy to package Advani
as a “normal” Indian who values his family, his
hobbies and his friends — a man who has a life. It is
this picture of a wholesome middle-class Indian which will
go a long way in offsetting the whisper campaign the Congress
is expected to launch about his age.
Advani has often maintained in interviews that he has been
faithful to himself and not tried to mould his image to suit
political exigencies. He is both right and wrong. In fundamental
terms, the Advani of 2008 isnot any different from the Advani
of 1990 undertaking the Ram rathyatra. The man who was completely
distraught in a candle-lit room at dusk in Ayodhya on December
6, 1992 was the same man who agonised over the “misunderstanding”
with the party over his Jinnah remarks in 2005. What has changed
is not Advani but the political context in which he is perceived.
Except for a brief period in the mid-1960s when a section
of the business classes and the feudal elite rallied behind
the Swatantra Party, the Right was relatively inconsequential
during the period of Congress dominance.
Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi regulated the growth
and natural expansion of the private sector to such an extent
that the social base of Right-wing politics remained extremely
narrow. The appeal of the erstwhile Jana Sangh was, for example,
confined to either the Bania community in the bazaars or clusters
of disaffected Hindus such as refugees from Pakistan and downwardly
mobile Brahmins in Maharashtra. Except during riots when sectarian
fears were aroused, Hindu nationalism failedto capture the
popular imagination. The media and the cosmopolitan elites
were either socially unfamiliar with the vernacular intellectuals
who occupied leadership positions in the Jana Sangh or contemptuous
of them. The fear of the Hindu outlander in fact increased
after the voluble pro-Hindi and anti-cow slaughter agitations
of the mid-1960s. In the dominant discourse of socialist and
Congress India, the RSS and its associates were dismissed
WITH HIS vigorous and well-focussed articulation of the Ayodhya
movement, Advani was able to break the Nehruvian stranglehold
significantly but not entirely. Unlike Vajpayee towards whom
the opinion-makers were kindly disposed — he was forever
being called the “right man in the wrong party”
— Advani evoked very polarised responses: the BJP voter
worshipped him, sometimes even more than Vajpayee, but the
non-BJP section loathed him with passionate intensity. Matters
changed significantly after the NDA came to power, but the
importance of robust Hindu nationalism began to be appreciated
only after the growth of Islamist radicalism following 9/11.
In the past seven years, and notwithstanding the NDA’s
defeat in 2004, there has been a greater willingness on the
part of Hindu India to accept some of the basic premises on
which the BJP rests.
Much of what was dismissed as “communal” in the
1990s has been elevated into common sense in the first decade
of this century. In many ways, yesterday’s Right has
become today’s Centre. Mainstream India has come to
terms with the peaceful coexistence of a secular state and
an increasingly Hinduised civil society. There are important
temperamental differences between the Congress and the BJP
but the gap is no longer unbridgeable. On his part, Advani
took special care toblunt some of the raw edges of Hindutva
politics. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s confrontation
with the NDA over Ayodhya in 2003 may have disturbed the tranquillity
of the Sangh Parivar but it helped distinguish the BJP and
its top leadership from the loony fringe of Hindu politics.
The more inflammatory of Praveen Togadia’s denunciation
of his Pakistan visit did Advani’s reputation absolutely
no harm. Ironically, even Modi benefited from RSS and VHP
opposition during last year’s Gujarat election.
THERE IS absolutely nothing yet to suggest that Advani has
managed to secure any measure of Muslim support for the BJP.
Muslim voters are still likely to vote tactically for any
party that is best placed to defeat the BJP at the constituency
level. However, by tempering its militancy quotient and making
the odd placatory noises, Advani has allayed (the wildly exaggerated)
secularist Hindu fears of a BJP triumph being accompanied
by a wave of communal riots. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam
can happily release Advani’s book without being drawn
into controversy and Sanjay Dutt can afford to be photographed
with Modi at the same function. In social terms, the BJP has
formalised its stature as the alternative to the Congress
and there is no opprobrium attached to treating Advani as
a Prime Minister-in-waiting.
The Left could have provided the voices of indignation. However,
after its prolonged extra-marital relationship with the Congress,
the ignominy of Nandigram and the subterfuge of Taslima Nasreen,
the comrades have lost their moral halo. No wonder the labour
pains of the Third Front are unending. In the 1990s, many
secularists proffered a case for treating the BJP as an abnormal
phenomenon which had to be resisted by all means, including
the denial of civil liberties. A section of the English-language
media followed this approach somewhat over-zealously. Today,
the BJP is being increasingly viewed more and more as a “normal”
political party, with its share of pluses and minuses.
The BJP run state governments are judged for what they actually
are; they are not perceived as threats to constitutional values.
If the BJP and its NDA partners win a majority in the general
election, it will prompt a change of government at the Centre;
no one expects it to lead to a change of regime. Of course,
the widespread acceptability of a leader is no guarantee of
electoral success. There is always a presidential facet to
the parliamentary election but its contribution is overshadowed
by regional and local considerations. In the run-up to the
Lok Sabha poll, the BJP appears to be devoting its initial
energies in packaging Advani as a leader who has the ability
to steer India out of its vacillating course.
The emphasis has been on establishing Advani’s ability
to rise above mundane political pressures and articulate the
national interest—something he did very effectively
in opposing Raj Thackeray’s Marathi chauvinism in Mumbai.
Yet, in enhancing the stature of Advani, precious little attention
has been paid on the nitty-gritty of alternative policy or
on strengthening the BJP’s presence in areas such as
Uttar Pradesh. The internal tussles that disfigured the party’s
reputation for disciplined conduct have also been left unresolved.
Those who were disappointed by the RSS decision to repose
their trust in Advani are doing their utmost to ensure that
the BJP’s comeback is delayed by one more election.
Most ominously, there appears to be a Great Wall separating
the party organisation and an Advani organisation. Both appear
to be working autonomously and, sometimes, at cross-purposes.
None of these will matter remotely if the general election
becomes a verdict on the UPA government’s five years
in power. The present economic downturn, which is likely to
persist for more than a year, may gift the election to Advani
and the NDA. However, in case the concerns of the electorate
turn out to be more fragmented — as happened in 2004
— and the general election is reduced to a series of
state elections, the importance of leadership will be secondary.
It helps to have a leader who can contribute to a party’s
incremental vote. But if the election becomes a series of
bitter constituency-by-constituency battles with no common
thread binding the war, what will matter is the health of
the party at the grassroots. On this count, the BJP seems
grossly under-prepared. Advani has attained “touchability”;
now he has to ensure the BJP’s winnability.