There"s nothing worse than ambition thwarted, it would seem. The BJP, under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani, was soundly thrashed by the Congress in 2009. The country clearly has made up its mind on Advani at least. It is, therefore, tragic to see the octogenarian, who will turn 86 this November, beginning to play foolish games over the leadership issue when he should be playing elder statesman.
Over the weekend, Advani compared Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s performance in Madhya Pradesh favourably vis-à-vis Narendra Modi's Gujarat. He also made overtures to Nitin Gadkari - the same man in whose ouster from the BJP presidentship Advani played a lead role. That Advani will stoop so low as to play such tricks in a party which only recently began to develop a sense of optimism over the next election tells us something we didn’t know about him: he is willing to damage the same party he built in the 1980s and 1990s if his own ambitions are to be given the go-by.
To be sure, Advani has every right to have his own views on how good Chauhan’s performance has been compared to Modi. He is also at liberty to back anyone he thinks is more suitable for the party’s prime ministerial candidate. But surely he ought to know which way the political wind is blowing, and who the party’s cadre are rooting for to lead them in 2014. In this scenario, efforts to queer the pitch for Modi suggest that he has allowed his personal predilections to come in the way of rejuvenating the party.
It is not difficult to see why the real Advani is now emerging from the woodwork, and why he thinks he is in with a chance. There are several reasons why he is playing this high-stakes game that can only damage the party.
First, it’s obvious that Advani’s key trump card is Nitish Kumar – the man who threatens to walk out of the NDA if Modi is projected. Advani has a strong equation with Kumar, and his anti-corruption yatra was also flagged off by Kumar from Bihar. Within the BJP, everyone knows the Advani-Kumar equation, and thus there will be some buyers for Advani’s line. Advani may not be very popular right now with the party cadre, but when it comes to roping in allies, he is presumed to have wider acceptability than Modi.
Second, the RSS is uncertain about how much it wants to back Modi, who is seen as being too much his own man. Advani must also be counting on some degree of backing from the RSS in countering Modi’s sway in the BJP. And this connects well with his manoeuvres to bring Gadkari to head the committee to oversee the next assembly campaigns. Gadkari is widely seen as having the blessings of the RSS. Never mind that Advani played a key role in getting him out of the presidentship. Never mind also that the RSS, at one stage, wanted Advani himself out of the PM race. Politics, it seems, does not require any kind of consistency in what you profess.
Third, even Mulayam Singh Yadav has recently talked positively of Advani – with the obvious aim of getting more upper caste votes in Uttar Pradesh. If Singh is willing to risk Muslim votes—which clearly cannot be pro-Advani—there is surely some traction he sees in saying good things about Advani. But this is where Advani’s manoeuvres against Modi seem most dangerous for the party: if the BJP has to have any chance of gaining more than 180 seats, it has to win at least 25 seats in Uttar Pradesh, and not lose too many seats in Bihar. Advani’s gambit is probably intended to deny the BJP exactly this advantage. A BJP that wins with a weak majority in 2014 – say, with around 150-160 seats – will be ideal for Advani to enter the picture.
Fourth, the other logic of talking up Chauhan as against Modi is to seek a Lok Sabha seat for himself in Madhya Pradesh, now that Gujarat seems less than likely to host him if Modi were to be projected as the PM candidate. There has been talk that Advani will contest from Madhya Pradesh, especially if his candidature from Gandhinagar depends on Modi’s goodwill, which he cannot count on anymore.
Fifth, Advani’s final reason for injecting himself into the BJP leadership issue stems from his realisation that a section of the central leaders—most without an electoral base—senses a loss of power if Modi enters the picture. While Arun Jaitley is seen as aligned to Modi, Sushma Swaraj is Advani’s protégé. State-level leaders with national ambitions may also be wary of Modi, while other ambitious leaders are hedging their bets. Yashwant Sinha startled the media when he unilaterally backed Modi as PM candidate in January, but soon backtracked and said Advani would be a better option. Between January and April Sinha did an absolute U-turn.
Sixth, Advani was a key voice behind the ouster of BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. The latter, it is well-known, had his own equation with Modi. Gadkari mishandled the Karnataka crisis and ended up sending Yeddyurappa out of the party, when all the party needed was to give him a position of power within the party but without the chief ministership. It is clear that Advani and Modi will be on opposite sides when it comes to evolving a strategy to reviving the BJP in Karnataka.
The net results of Advani’s dubious exertions are clear: the party will be divided into two or more camps exactly at the time it can’t afford it.
The party’s national executive, which meets in Goa over the coming weekend, will thus see a lot of shadow-boxing, if not a pitched verbal battle between pro-Modi and anti-Modi groups.
Objectively speaking, though, the BJP has little option but to opt for Modi. As columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote in The Times of India: "In reality, the BJP has no real choice but to bite the Modi bullet. Anecdotal evidence—which counts for a great deal in India's political decision-making—has quite clearly indicated that the BJP's natural supporters are enthused by Modi in the same way as they were by the Ayodhya issue in 1991 and by Atal Behari Vajpayee's leadership in 1998 and 1999. More to the point—and this is privately conceded by the leaders of non-NDA parties—the Modi buzz has infected sections that, in the normal course, are not partial to the BJP."
Against this backdrop, Advani himself has two choices: play spoilsport and lead his party to another defeat and a round of internal blood-letting, or play the elder statesman and ensure a smooth transition.