Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 12 of Firstpost print.
“I am growing old and it is time for the younger generation to step forward.” BJP president LK Advani, then 68, will go on to repeat these words during the 35-day Suraj (good governance) Yatra of 1996 but his party would hear nothing of it.
A few weeks earlier, Advani had been chargesheeted in a hawala case, accused of receiving slush funds. At the party’s Ashoka Road headquarters in Delhi, the atmosphere was tense as senior leaders gathered for a meeting late January.
Advani had resigned as the Lok Sabha member from Gandhinagar, much against the wishes of party colleagues. He also vowed not to contest an election till cleared of the charges, forcing the BJP to field his friend and party senior Atal Bihari Vajpayee from Gandhinagar for that year’s national election. Party general secretary KN Govindacharya hailed Advani’s move as a “great gesture which will internalise values of ethical and moral rectitude within the party”.
This was Advani at the pinnacle of his political career, a leader who thought nothing of sacrificing personal ambitions for the party he had helped built from scratch. A leader who put “party before self”.
Fast forward to March 2019. The BJP’s first list names party president Amit Shah as its Gandhinagar candidate for the April-May Lok Sabha election, signalling the end of the electoral journey for 91-year-old Advani.
On 4 April, Advani broke his silence in a telling blog post. In reiterating the BJP’s predominant principle of “nation first, party next and self last”, Advani chose not to mention his Gandhinagar successor, Shah. The bitterness is hard to miss as he asks the party to introspect and not to see political rivals as “enemies”. As the BJP gears up for another poll battle, aiming for a famous win, the man who made it possible is now a diminished leader, way past his glory days but unwilling to accept the changed reality.
The timing of the blog post, in which he also says that the party never looked at its adversaries as anti-nationals, is not lost on anyone. Coming in the middle of an intense and highly polarised campaign, Advani’s musings are timed to embarrass the party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his protégé, moved swiftly to take the sting out of the veiled attack by endorsing Advani’s message through a tweet. But rivals saw an opening. The insult to the patriarch, they said, was yet another example of Modi’s dictatorial attitude.
But only if they knew, or cared to remember, that Advani was often accused of “unilateralism” and that, too, by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.
In the BJP, as well as its forerunner, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), Advani’s exercised complete control and that, too, for decades -- from 1970s to 2013.
His position as undisputed leader took a knock for the first time in 2004, after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance couldn’t retain power. Voters just didn’t take shine to the BJP even though Advani led an aggressive campaign.
So tight was his grip over the party that Advani assumed the role of the Leader of the Opposition, pushing aside an ageing and frail Vajpayee in a carefully orchestrated move by his lieutenants. The two were good friends but the relationship was tested. Vajpayee went on to be the prime minister, which Advani was forced to support.
The year 2004 marked a turning point for Advani. He was suddenly a man in a hurry. He managed to upset the Sangh Parivar when he usurped the BJP president’s position vacated by M Venkaiah Naidu. Advani was not only the leader of the Opposition but also the BJP chief, defying the party’s ‘one man, one post’ principle. “I don’t see any rancour. On the other hand, my position is strengthened by holding both the posts,” he had said when asked by this writer if he knew of the bitterness his decision had caused.
His control of the party was complete but cracks were appearing elsewhere. He began facing hostility from Sangh Parivar constituents. He had a run-in with the founder of RSS’s trade union wing, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, who refused to interact with him.
Ashok Singhal, whose Vishva Hindu Parishad virtually laid the ground for Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra that catapulted BJP to the national stage, was equally bitter. Singhal refused to share stage with Advani at a dharm sansad (religious congregation) of Hindu saints and leaders at Haridwar soon after the 2004 defeat.
The strain between the Sangh Parivar and Advani was there for everyone to see. Yet, Advani, an astute politician and strategist, completely misread the signs. He was confident of overriding any challenge. After all, he was the BJP chief and the younger generation of leaders he had groomed was in awe of him.
It was this confidence, or hubris if you would, that saw him make arguably the biggest mistake of his political career. During a visit to his birthplace of Karachi in June, 2005, Advani described Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a secular leader and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. His attempt to reinvent himself and soften his hardline image backfired spectacularly. The BJP, still coming to terms with the poll defeat, was stunned and struggled to explain its chief’s change of heart.
Not just the party, Advani, too, was in for a shock. He thought the party would play along. But as the crisis snowballed, Advani asked his junior party colleagues to hold a press conference to defend his statement. Sushma Swaraj refused. The RSS, already upset with his transgressions, pinned him down by engineering a chorus of protest from leaders like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
Upset over lack of support, Advani on his return handed over his resignation letter to BJP general secretary (organisation) Sanjay Joshi. Though aware of his clout, the RSS and the BJP Generation Next decided to ease out Advani until Narendra Modi, the-then Gujarat chief minister, intervened. Modi prevailed and Advani continued as the BJP chief for another year before passing on the baton to Rajnath Singh in 2006. Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh, too, played down Advani’s Jinnah remark.
The damage, however, was done. At the national executive in Chennai, which came before he relinquished charge, Advani alluded to RSS interference in the BJP and suggested it desist the temptation. That was harsh coming from someone who had grown up in the Sangh. Advani was 14 when he joined the RSS.
After Chennai, it was downhill all the way. But, Advani was never the one to give up easily and fought for every inch of political space. Much of his clout was lost but he was still Advani, the man who had pushed the BJP from the margins to the centre stage of Indian politics. When the 2009 general election came, the Sangh Parivar coined the “Advani for PM” slogan, looking to draw a contrast between a powerful prime ministerial candidate against a “weak” Manmohan Singh.
Even before the first vote was cast, Advani had lost the perception game. His flip-flops, including the Jinnah comment, had battered his strongman image. The BJP lost and Swaraj, another of his protégés, was the Leader of the Opposition in the new Lok Sabha.
But, Advani was not done. He got himself appointed the chairman of the BJP’s parliamentary party, along the lines of a similar position created in the Congress for Sonia Gandhi.
In October 2011, he made another attempt to burnish his credentials of a popular leader. He launched another nationwide rath yatra from Chhapra, in Bihar, which was flagged off by chief minister Nitish Kumar. Advani chose Bihar instead of Gujarat, as he tried to play Kumar against Modi to prove his wider acceptability within the NDA fold, which would have brought him closer to the big prize: prime ministership.
The yatra didn’t do much for him, but he continued to dominate the BJP till 2013. Then he made the mistake of not attending the party’s national executive at Goa, where Modi was picked to lead the campaign for the 2014 election. The Modi era had dawned.
Advani persisted with resistance to the shift, even when Modi was proposed as the prime ministerial candidate. But the Modi wave not only swept away the Opposition but also the Advani era as the BJP won a majority on its own for the first time.
The party’s decision to name Shah and not Advani from Gandhinagar is the corollary of gradual marginalisation of the leader who redrew India’s political landscape by defining it along “pseudo-secularism and minoritism” lines. Advani was not only the BJP’s longest-serving president but also the most powerful.
He was ruthless too. The first decision he took as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh chief was to sack its former president Balraj Madhok for working against party interest.
His pairing with Vajpayee was formidable and the duo practically ran the party. Advani was instrumental in convincing the RSS leadership to allow the BJS’s merger with the Janata Party to join the Morarji Desai government in 1977. His role as information minister in the Janata Party government was much appreciated. He, along with Vajpayee, again took the lead in breaking away from the Janata Party on the issue of “dual membership” — allegiance to the government or the Sangh Parivar — and anti-RSS stance of socialist colleagues.
The BJP was born on April 6, 1980, with the RSS as its ideological parent.
Though Vajpayee was the first BJP chief, Advani was considered ideologically closer to the RSS. Unlike Vajpayee, Advani’s politics was perfectly in sync with that of the RSS.
Even his “unilateralism” was seen as aligned with the greater goal of the Sangh Parivar. He was seen as disciplinarian, no-nonsense and a complete party man. The impression conformed to the Sangh Parivar’s credo of “primacy to organisation over individual”.
In his autobiography My Nation My Life, which came out in 2008, Advani says, “I am also troubled by the fact that this spirit of camaraderie and mutual trust, idealistic and goal-oriented approach to party work, is something that has got diluted over the years.”
His words almost echoed a passage in the 1940 novel Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. Protagonist Rubashov, who played a vital role in the Bolshevik revolution, says, “The party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in the history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course, she leaves the mud which she carries and corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in history does not belong in the party’s ranks.” Rubashov is eventually executed for treason by a regime that espoused the cause of proletarian dictatorship.
History is ruthless and individuals, irrespective of their stature, are but a footnote. Advani’s marginalisation is nothing but the march of time. The Sangh Parivar, too, has its own code for people and events. At their meetings, RSS volunteers often sing “Manushya tu bada mahan hai”, an ode to human strength and greatness. But, at the same time, they are reminded about human fragility and fallibility.
So, to err is perfectly human. And that is the lens through which Advani will be examined. His indiscretions will go down as transient and will count for little when weighed against his contribution to the Sangh Parivar. History, at least that of the Sangh Parivar, will be kind to Advani. There is no disputing his place in its pantheon.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Apr 14, 2019 12:54:18 IST