It takes supreme artlessness of enterprise to end up with an outcome that is the precise opposite of what you set out to achieve. BJP senior leader LK Advani has demonstrated over the past 48 hours that his political instincts, which were once razor-sharp (even if they were harnessed in the nasty business of communal polarisation), have become severely blunted with age. Nothing else can account for his petulant resignation from the positions he held in the Bharatiya Janata Party – and his subsequent retraction of his action without anything to show for it but some face-saving deferential chirrups from the party and its mothership, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
When Advani threw down the gauntlet to the BJP on Monday, a day after the Goa conclave of the party formalised the nomination of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its campaign committee chairman, it was intended as an assertion of his centrality in the power fulcrum of the party. His message to the party, which is in the throes of a generational change, was this: Ignore me and my views on how the party should be run – and I’ll play spoiler to your best-laid plans. It was political blackmail, no less; that the party’s founder who had built it up from scratch and groomed a generation of second-rung leaders should have resorted to such a low trick is astounding. In that one moment, the “tallest leader in the BJP” (quite literally) appeared to visibly shrink; the ‘Iron Man’ of Indian politics began to show signs of rusting.
Late on Tuesday, Advani was persuaded, by leaders from the RSS and the BJP, to withdraw his resignation. The precise details of what concessions were made to him to backtrack aren’t in the public domain, but the statement read out by BJP president Rajnath Singh only contained boilerplate claims that Advani would be consulted in matters pertaining to party affairs.
The decisions taken at the Goa conclave, particularly the nomination of Modi as the campaign panel chief, still stand. Since Advani’s show of dissent came in the wake of that decision, it has been widely interpreted as suggesting that he was displeased with Modi’s elevation. Subsequently, however, leaders close to Advani have been throwing their voices to suggest that in fact Advani was not averse to Modi’s nomination, but was merely unhappy with the manner in which it had been pushed through.
Evidently, Advani, who is chairman of the broader NDA coalition that the BJP heads, only wanted to see a larger pool of candidates for the prime ministership - rather than have Modi’s name railroaded through.
That consideration is not without merit. Even if one concedes the point that Modi is (in the opinion of the diehard supporters of the BJP) the best candidate, the NDA would be well served by having more options. But to resort to political blackmail over this issue, in the manner that Advani did, was a clear case of political overkill. In any case, the BJP can hardly influence its NDA coalition members to accept its choice of candidate for prime ministership if does not command a big enough tally in the next elections.
What happened in Goa was that the BJP parliamentary board made the calculated bet that the party’s best prospects of enhancing its electoral tally in Elections 2014 lay in having Modi as the face of the party. It is possible to contest the wisdom of that claim – and, in fact, the calculation may backfire on the BJP.
The possibility of Modi becoming a serious contender for the prime ministership arises only if the BJP secures in excess of 200 seats. That’s a big ask, but the party reckons that with Modi as its mascot and as a vote-multiplier, it can get there and perhaps even beyond. If that calculation fails, there’s no earthly prospect of Modi becoming a candidate ever, given realpolitik considerations.
In that case, of course, Advani’s formula – for someone else from the BJP (including, perhaps, himself) or even the larger NDA coalition – would automatically be the more realistic candidate.
To that extent, nothing has changed from Sunday (when Modi’s nomination was announced) until Tuesday (when Advani withdrew his resignation).
Which is why Advani’s resignation drama was entirely pointless. It is the arithmetic of elections that will determine who will be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. If the BJP (improbably) wins 220 seats under Modi, virtually no power can stop Modi from becoming prime minister. But if the Modi juggernaut cannot propel the BJP beyond the 150-seat mark, no huffing and puffing by Modi’s supporters can implant him as candidate; heck, even he wouldn’t want to be a candidate in such circumstances.
What Advani has, however, achieved with his pre-emptive show of dissent is to validate his own irrelevance. His action has not moved the political needle one inch either way. In the end, he merely comes across as a vindictive Dronacharya who cannot bear to see his notional ‘disciple’ Ekalavya triumph over his ‘preferred candidate’ Arjuna.
The BJP’s margadarsi is a rudderless old crotchety man who has clearly lost his political bearings.