Bhishma pitamaha strikes back: Advani proves age still matters

In the new India, Bhishma pitamaha is petulant.

The great tantrum of L.K. Advani is being read, as Swapan Dasgupta puts it in The Indian Express, as the tragedy of a “petulant veteran who can’t stomach change.” “In reality, there is nothing more pathetic than a petulant octogenarian,” concurs an editorial in The Telegraph. Even more pathetic, this modern-day Bhishma pitamaha ended up with little to show publicly for his hissy fit – some soothing words, vague reassurances, a sugary yet I-told-you-so tweet from Narendra Modi.

Advani might never become the prime minister of India but he did demonstrate the grip the elderly still exert over a country that is obsessed with its youthfulness. If the old man was as irrelevant as many are making him out to be, the top brass would not have rushed to his house to massage his bruised ego. Rajnath Singh, the party chief, would not have dialled the hotline to Mohanrao Bhagat, the RSS boss, and handed the phone to Advani.

Whether it’s Anna Hazare or L.K. Advani, the elderly understand full well that the one power young(er) India has not been able to wrest from them is the power of emotional blackmail. The BJP’s young Turks would be happy to see Advani fade into vanaprastha. Swapan Dasgupta writes that fewer and fewer candidates wanted a public meeting to be addressed by the grand old man. “The central office often had to browbeat BJP candidates into hosting an Advani meeting just to prevent the old war horse from feeling completely unwanted.”

 Bhishma pitamaha strikes back: Advani proves age still matters

LK Advani. AFP.

But when Advani resigned in a huff, the party could not afford to shrug and move on in an act of ruthless realpolitik as Britain’s Conservative Party did to Margaret Thatcher. Aurangzeb got away with imprisoning his old father in the Agra Fort but that act still remains the indelible proof of his perfidy centuries later.

The BJP, and Narendra Modi, could not afford to be seen as aaj ka Aurangzeb, never mind that this modern day Shah Jehan is better known for tearing down a monument than building one. The optics, as our pundits like to say, would have been terrible, especially for a party that prides itself on being the valiant defender of the family values of "ek Bharat, shresht Bharat.”

It’s not that Indians don’t increasingly treat their elderly as unwanted and irrelevant. “Before the prized fish head always went to the grandfather,” Himansu Rath of AgeWell Foundation in Delhi had once told me. “Now it goes to the grandson.” “Children just leave their parents in other parts of the city where they get disoriented,” said Mathew Cherian of HelpAge. He recounted a story about an elderly lady from Kingsway camp near Delhi found abandoned near Ghaziabad. HelpAge tries to reunite the families. What’s the point, I had wondered. How can you force someone to love and respect their elders?

Well, this is India, explained Cherian patiently. When you bring the parent back, the neighbors say “Oh, look at these children, they left their parents on the road.” Economic pressures might fracture families. Social guilt helps to glue them back together, even if clumsily.

Advani clearly understood what many elders understand instinctively. They might not get the prized fishhead any more at home, but chain a nonagenarian to his bed on the terrace in view of the neighbours and they will call a television channel. In a country where bundling the elders into an old age home still carries enormous stigma, the BJP hardly wanted to be perceived as tossing its 85-year old patriarch into the wilderness even if Advani was largely bringing it upon himself. That would be a failure of family, hardly something the Sangh Parivar could brag about. Uma Bharti told journalists, “Modi is like a son to (Advani). Advani made Modi.” The party clearly did not want to be reminded “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

Other political parties are gleefully watching the BJP’s discomfiture but its dilemma actually mirrors a larger Indian predicament. India is a country that takes inordinate pride in its youth dividend. “It is an advantage for India now because the country is entering the demographic dividend phase while China is exiting it,” said Bikram Sen, a former director of India’s census board. But it’s also a fact that by 2020 there will be 140 million Indians above the age of 60. And the fastest growing segment is the 80-plus population. According to UN statistics by 2050 48 million Indians will be over 80.

“The younger are often earning more money and holding higher posts,” sociologist Ashis Nandy said in an earlier interview. “But do not forget the elderly can also stick onto their posts much longer. If you are heading an empire, children can no longer hope to inherit it as easily as they used to. So it cuts both ways.”

Advani’s emotional blackmail is nothing new for Indians. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, used it with remarkable cunning many times to browbeat his party into submission. The difference is Gandhi exacted real concessions from his party. Advani seems to have gotten very little.

But it would still be a mistake to dismiss his petulance as the last gasp of a fading old order. Advani’s brahmastra – public embarrassment - worked to the extent it did because he had not made the mistake many other older Indians make. They sign over their houses, property, businesses to the young leaving themselves entirely dependent on the fickle compassion of their children. Even in his moment of angry renunciation, Advani held onto his position as the chairman of the NDA.

History might not be kind about the last hurrah of Lal Krishna Advani. “A tall man with a small mind is probably what the verdict will be on the man who refused to exit,” writes The Telegraph. But in his stubborn act of petulance, Advani reminds us of one thing - age still counts for something here. We thought we were watching All About Eve, the Oscar-winning drama about the ingenue actress edging out her erstwhile mentor, playing out at the BJP’s coronation summit in Goa. But with a dizzying plot twist in the final reel, the petulant Bhisma-pitamaha of the BJP turned it into Baghban instead.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2013 16:40:42 IST