BJP must see Advani's dissent as a blessing in disguise

In terms of timing, BJP patriarch LK Advani's dramatic show of dissent over Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's elevation in the party hierarchy is being widely perceived as awkward for the BJP. For sure, Advani's grandstanding, which came barely a day after the party's national executive named Modi chairman of the election campaign panel, caused the full-throated celebratory cheers of party cadres to freeze in mid-syllable. The drums and dholaks, on which party supporters banged away in Goa with gusto, fell strangely silent on Monday as the political significance of Advani's revolt began to sink in.

Even at the party rally in Goa on Sunday, after Modi's appointement had been announced, speaker after speaker had given voice to a forward-looking political agenda directed at taking on the Congress-led UPA with full vigour. "Well begun is half done," said Arun Jaitley, and in nominating Modi as the camapaign panel chairman - which is telegraphic code for 'prime ministerial candidate' - the party had begun its campaign in style.

Advani's dissent can help steel the BJP's resolve and clarify its thoughts. Firstpost

Advani's dissent can help steel the BJP's resolve and clarify its thoughts. Firstpost

Speaking soon after, Modi built on that aphorism. "Well begun," he said, "is half won."

If any of the leaders on stage had an inkling of the anti-climax that awaited them on the morrow, they didn't show it.

In fact, everyone from BJP president Rajnath Singh to Modi himself actively fed the perception that Advani's concurrence - or at least his paternal "blessings" - had been secured for the project to name Modi as the new captain. For three whole days, Rajnath Singh kept up the pretence that Advani was truly unwell and that he, Rajnath Singh, himself had persuaded him from coming to Goa in the interest of his health. If he had indeed been in touch with Advani, would he not have known of the heartburn that agitated the BJP  founder?

Modi went one better. Right after his 'promotion' had been confirmed, he put out the message on Twitter that he had spoken to Advani on the phone and secured his blessings - and that he remained in gratitude to Advani. Subsequent media reports, citing sources close to Advani, have it that such a phone conversation between the two leaders never actually took place - and that the closest it came to that was when Modi's office got in touch with Advani's office. If confirmed as true, such reports point to the disquieting possibility that Modi may have resorted to wilful misrepresentation of the truth on this matter.

Perhaps Rajnath Singh and Modi were just doing the political hustle - in the belief that Advani would not challenge them outright. Artifice is, after all, intrinsic to politics today. But Advani did call their bluff, which is why the bombshell that he dropped on Monday had such explosive potential.

But although Monday's developments have caused a turmoil within the BJP, and caused celebrations over Modi's elevation to be stilled for now, in terms of timing, it actually does the BJP good to deal with this crisis now, rather than close to the election. Although elections are not due until April-May  2014, it seems likely that the UPA will opt for early elections later this year. This gives the BJP at least more than adequate time to sort out this leadership tussle, and get in stride for what could be a rancorous contest.

Modi's elevation was always going to be problematic - both within the party and within the broader NDA alliance. He is, after all, seen as a force for creative destruction, as Firstpost observed on an earlier occasion. Every major enterprise that makes bold to change the status quo releases both beneficial and malefic influences, and Modi does it more unapologetically than any other Indian politician, he was always going to face headwinds, even within the party.

So, if a showdown was inevitable within the party, it is better to get it over with, rather than have it drag on until the election season is near at hand. To that extent, it's a good thing that Advani has revealed his hand at least now. And rather than resort to circumlocutions and Mahabharata metaphors in his literary outpourings - which have had political analysts reading between the lines - he has thrown the gauntlet, so to speak, in full public glare. It has given the BJP cause to undertake a reality-check exercise on the perception that Modi has universal support among the electorate.

The BJP is doubtless conflicted today. It must of course be a wrenching experience to tell its patriarch that it no longer cares for its counsel or that he has overstayed his welcome. But, however tactfully done, that too is an inevitable rite of passage. Having decided to make a generational shift in its leadership, the BJP should stick to its resolve, however melodramatic the coming days will be, and however much political opponents may seek to exploit the division in its ranks.

Only that way can the party break free from being held hostage to its past. Tempered by the fire that Advani has set off, the BJP can, if it plays its cards astutely, emerge stronger from this crisis.

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