LK Advani has kept shrinking as a leader over time. Once the tallest leader in the BJP after AB Vajpayee and known for his intellectual clarity as well as ability connect to the masses, Advani has been reduced to being the party’s ‘mentor’ and ‘guide’ for the last some years. Blame it on the control-freak RSS or the intra-party machinations. But it was clear that the man who easily dwarfs other leaders in the party remained grossly underutilised.
He wants to hog the centre stage again. The ‘eternal yatri’ will be back on the chariot soon, traversing the country to spread the word on the Centre’s corruption. This yatra, the sixth in his political career, will proceed between October and November and conclude before the beginning of the winter session of Parliament. The usual gimmick, critics would scoff, but for Advani, who must be aware of the diminishing returns from such yatras, it’s the big opportunity to resurrect himself, if not the party.
The timing could not be better. The BJP, which claimed to be party with a difference, has got Congressised over time. With cases of corruption blowing up on its face every now and then, its image and credibility has taken a serious beating. The ‘difference’ flattened – Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign did as much damage to the Congress as to the BJP despite the latter taking some hasty rear-guard action – the party urgently needs to bridge that confidence gap with people.
But it is handicapped by the absence of a tall leader who would be convincing enough. Advani is the only tall leader in the party at this juncture. The others, despite their oratorical brilliance and ability to impress on television, have not grown big enough to catch the imagination of the masses. It’s only poetic justice that the party would fall back on the man whom it had dumped unceremoniously as party chief for his 2005 comment in Karachi, calling Muhammad Ali Jinnah a secular leader. He had been carefully pushed to the shadows after that episode, which dealt a blow to his prime ministerial ambitions.
In 1990, when Advani decided on his rath yatra – famous or notorious, depending on which side of the communal debate you are on — from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, it was a desperate move to offset the political damage caused to the party by the Mandal politics of the then Prime Minister VP Singh. It was a street smart move which polarised people in the country on communal lines and yielded rich political dividends for the party. The BJP soon became the second largest party in the country after the Congress and it has retained that position ever since.
But the rath yatra and the subsequent developments also turned out to be the albatross around the party’s neck. It came to be perceived as a communal party with a narrow agenda. In the era of coalition politics, the perception has turned out to be a huge impediment in the party’s growth.
Advani, far more perceptive than other leaders in the party, probably sought to correct that impression with that Jinnah’s comment. But it recoiled on him hard. The Sangh Parivar did not want another Vajpayee in the making. It kept throwing up party presidents who were neither brilliant at articulating ideology nor good enough to command respect of other party leaders. The consequent rot in the party is visible. It has gone worse ever since Advani has moved to the margins.
A lot has changed for the party between 1990 and 2011. It has come to power in several states and in the process lost the novelty factor. Allegations of corruption – Karanataka is the worst case — have caught up and it has lost its advantage over the Congress on this front. Worse, it has failed to produce competent leaders.
But given the current situation, Advani’s rath yatra could well be ‘hypocrisy yatra’. With his own party in the muck, he has nothing new to convey to the people. If he is planning to take those rhetoric-laced television debates to masses and corner the Congress, it might not work. They have seen through it all and they realise the gap between rhetoric and reality.
Anna’s movement reflected the popular disgust with the political class. The BJP would love to believe that it was against the Congress-led UPA only. But that would be a short-sighted position to take.
Advani, unlike his colleagues, must think beyond the Congress. He has to re-invent the party. The rath yatra should mark the beginning of the process.