The utter loneliness of Advani, eternal PM-in-waiting

Riding an elevator within South Block, the heart of India's government machinery, two upwardly mobile Ministers - P Chidambaram and Salman Khurshid - were recently overheard indulging in a bit of political banter.

Perhaps subconsciously influenced by media reports suggesting that Chidambaram was priming himself for prime ministership, Khurshid teasingly referred to Finance Minister Chidambaram as "PM", and was immediately corrected.

"PC, not PM," said Chidambaram, invoking the initials by which he is better known in political circles.

"Well, okay, PM-in-waiting, then," Khurshid said, evidently savouring the moment.

"Ah," exclaimed Chidambaram. "But that designation has been assigned to LK Advani for eternity!"

The senior BJP leader's status as having always been a bridesmaid, and never the bride, has become something of a running joke in Indian politics, and no one can fault Chidambaram for having a bit of harmless fun at the other's expense.

The Iron Man of Indian politics is showing symptoms of rust. Reuters

The Iron Man of Indian politics is showing symptoms of rust. Reuters

But it appears, based on some comments made by Advani and others on Saturday, that the 86-year-old patriarch still nurses residual ambitions of having one lost shot at the top job that has thus far eluded him.

Speaking at a BJP Foundation Day event in New Delhi, Advani suggested tantalisingly that ongoing efforts to confine him to a political old-age home, so to speak, were unwarranted. "I am active in politics with a dream to make India the greatest nation," he said.

There is, of course, nothing exceptionable in those remarks - but read in conjunction with Delhi BJP leader Vijay Goel's ambiguous comments at the same event - that the "next government at the Centre" would be formed "under Advani's leadership" - they have predictably led analysts to conclude that Advani is "back in the prime ministerial race."

(Goel subsequently clarified that he had only intended to say that a BJP government w, ould be formed at the Centre with Advani's patriarchal blessings, but by then the narrative had acquired a life of its own.)

In any case, a closer reading of Advani's other comments at the same event leads one to infer that he may well be positioning himself as  either a candidate in the event that political planets align themselves in a certain way.

There is nothing wrong in nursing a political ambition - in fact, it's refreshing when a politician actually admits to nursing prime ministerial ambitions rather than resort to faux Ceasarian humility in turning down the crown.

But Advani's political instincts don't appear to have signalled to him that he is, in a sense, yesterday's story.

To Advani's credit, in the late 1980s, his political instincts, which were rather more firm, ensured that the fledgling BJP leveraged the polarised political climate of that time to the party's advantage. Under his leadership, the BJP capitalised on then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's political ineptness in pandering to fundamentalists of all hues and carved out a Hindutva constituency. That campaign accentuated the communal polarisation of those times and culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.  And Advani, the Iron Man, was the face of that hardline and communally divisive Hindutva campaign, from which the BJP gained electorally.

But in the mid-199os, when the BJP found itself in a position to head a coalition government at the Centre, Advani was considered "untouchable" and seen as being too polarising to be Prime Minister. He  had to yield ground to AB Vajpayee, who was perceived as being somewhat more liberal, even given his roots in the RSS tradition.

If that grated with Advani, he didn't give public voice to it, and soldiered gamely on as Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister. But he did learn that his hardline image was an impediment in heading a coalition government, and went about remedying it by moving to the centre of the political stage. In 2004, with Vajpayee somewhat physically infirm, Advani may have sensed an opportunity to become the "bride", but the BJP lost power, quite against the grain of expectations.

In 2009, Advani had another shot  prime ministership - he was projected as the party's candidate ahead of those elections - but so uninspired were even hardcore BJP cadres by his nomination that they voted with their feet, and the BJP lost yet again. That ought to have taught him that it was time to seek political retirement, or at least retreat to being the political Bhishma, and yield space to youger, more dynamic leaders. But evidently that lesson remains unlearnt.

Today, the BJP has a clutch of young leaders who are rather more appealing to the party cadres, but like a guest who has overstayed his welcome, Advani insists on injecting himself onto the political stage. On Saturday, he  asked party workers to recall the Ram temple campaign - which he spearheaded - with pride, and invoked Samajawadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav's faint praise of Advani as a badge of honour.

In fact, for all the short-term electoral gain that the BJP harvested from the Ram temple issue, that polarising campaign have set the party's fortunes back in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh. The rise and continued dominance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party - as a direct response to the hardline Hindutva campaign - has effectively undercut the BJP in UP.

And today, the prospects of a revival of the BJP's political fortunes rest not on polarising campaigns like the Ram temple issue but on perceptions about the party's ability to deliver on good governance - on the strength of the performance of some of its stalwart Chief Ministers.

An 86-year-old patriarch who wistfully recalls memories of a communally polarising campaign from the late 1980s and early 1990s - when the world was a different place - is exactly the wrong man to represent a BJP that wants to project a forward-looking image of itself. And that Advani preened with pride over Mulayam Singh's foxy "certificates" shows just how much the physically towering Advani has shrunk as a political strategist. The Iron Man of Indian politics is showing advanced symptoms of rust and political corrosion. Which is why the eternal PM-in-waiting is today something of a laughing stock.