As Amit Shah replaces LK Advani in Gandhinagar, BJP will miss a thinker-doer in top party echelons

Lal Krishna Advani, 91, is not contesting from his long-time Lok Sabha constituency of Gandhinagar in Gujarat in this election, surely his last. On the ballot from Gandhinagar is Amit Shah, a very different kind of political being. Advani’s “retirement”, forced or consensual, from electoral politics, marks easily the pivotal moment in the relatively short history of the BJP.

Apart from their obvious difference in stature and importance in the political history of the BJP, this change signifies two things. One, that the takeover of the political machine by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is complete and, two, the new generation of party leaders want to display, even flaunt, their break with the past.

 As Amit Shah replaces LK Advani in Gandhinagar, BJP will miss a thinker-doer in top party echelons

BJP senior leader LK Advani. Reuters

Advani, a “thinking” politician who single-handedly made the BJP a national player, never got his due, as “ideologues” almost never do. In his prime, he was vastly overshadowed by his contemporary and close colleague former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee, as RSS ideologue Govindacharya put it controversially long ago, was the “public face” or “mukhauta” of the BJP. The BJP is seen by core RSS cadre as the political wing of the Sangh Parivar. As the "mukhauta" (incorrectly translated as “mask”), Vajpayee, with his exceptional oratory and depth of knowledge about foreign affairs, the Hindi heartland, its culture and sagacity easily took the spotlight.

Advani was always in the background, perhaps nursing his own grievance. It is possible that Advani will be nominated to the Rajya Sabha so his parliamentary career is extended in deference to his stature. But the message is unequivocal: His time has come and gone.

To examine Advani’s role in the making of the BJP, it is important to understand the role of Gujarat in the national polity. After the Hindi heartland, Gujarat has played the most important role in the making of the modern Indian State. Some would say, Mahatma Gandhi, who hailed from this state, alone would tilt the scales in favour of Gujarat over any other state or province. Add to this Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Ironman of India, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, another Gujarati — who was instrumental in defining what the Indian State would not be — and the importance of Gujarat becomes obvious. However, everyone knows, it is not enough to be Gujarati alone: national politics starts in the Hindi belt. The road to Delhi runs through the heartland.

The significance of Advani’s place in Indian, not just BJP, politics is that he is neither a Gujarati nor a heart-lander. In a Parivar dominated by Brahmins, he is a Lahore-born Sindhi, a child of Partition. Virtually no senior politician can claim this distinction. Modi, 68 years old now, was not even born when that traumatic event, which continues to shape the subcontinent, took place.

That vintage notwithstanding, it was patently obvious that Modi’s sudden rise to national prominence, which Advani tried desperately to stall, and the latter’s unprecedented success in 2014 — the biggest for the BJP and the most decisive for the country in three decades – overwhelmed Advani, leading him perhaps to doubt his own importance. It is not easy to surrender the crown but Advani did just that at the BJP parliamentary party meeting days after Modi’s massive victory. He himself set the stage for his “fade out” when he called Modi “great” in front of 280 newly elected MPs. In his inimitable style, Modi, a master of political theatre, turned the tables on Advani by declaring: “The party is my mother! Please do not extoll me so much. How can a kid be greater than his own mother?” Modi’s masterly demurrage left Advani, the patriarch, looking isolated, even forlorn and churlish.

Modi has, of course, acknowledged his debt to those that came before him but his nomination of Amit Shah from Gandhinagar of all places tells a different story. It is the single most jarring note in a straightforward changing of the guard. Jarring because Amit Shah, the pragmatic, daring-do practitioner of realpolitik has become the default replacement for Advani, the political intellectual and one of the ideological founts of the BJP. Which is not to undermine his talent for realpolitik or organisational skills in building the party structure brick by brick.

While it is indisputable that this is a Modi election for the BJP, which has practically nothing other than their leader and his record as prime minister, the BJP’s ability to mobilise urban youth owes mainly to the RSS. Without unstinted RSS support and help, the disaffected, sometimes extremely violent and unlawful gangs of BJP youth are merely that: impatient jobless militants confusing Lord Rama’s iconic BJP poster with the Lord Himself.

The RSS, though famously — allegedly — centred in Nagpur, Pune and other cities in the west, needs its cadre in the Hindi belt if it is to win. While Maharashtra is not unimportant, especially financially, it is only one state in a vast hinterland where “Hinduism” lives and thrives. In Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, down into “southern” Andhra Pradesh, it is calmer, less militant and more embracing. As all of India is.

Shah, a good organiser by all accounts, does not compare with thinking politicians like Advani for the BJP. He is an enabler, a man who turned Modi’s talent into gold.

This election cycle, unlike the last, which was mainly anti-incumbent and aided the BJP, is nothing like the last one. If the BJP is to win, it has to be with a vote of affirmation, not negation of a hapless leader like ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was widely dismissed by the Indian voting public as ineffectual and worse, servile to the Gandhi family.

With Rahul Gandhi in charge of strategy and his sister in charge of campaigning, the fight is closer than Prime Minister Modi imagines. As Rahul’s promise to put Rs 6,000 every month in the account of every poor Indian suggests, all the meticulously grooming by mother Sonia and old party hands seems to be bearing fruit, even if it has taken painfully long to ripen. Rahul also understands Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy around the world and in Asia. Rahul, before he became the Congress president, spent about a week in Singapore with the giant of Asia: the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a man who commanded the respect of the world on his own terms. According to sources, the wise Lee counselled Rahul to bide his time till he (Rahul) himself felt ready. In 2012, even during Manmohan’s weakest hour, Rahul refused an explicit offer for him to step in as prime minister.

The BJP needs all the tailwinds it can manage, and cannot afford any headwind at all. Its main disenchanted constituencies are the small farmers and the urban, educated unemployed but law-abiding youth.

In December 1991 when Advani was on his game-changing Rath Yatra, this author was on my own unimportant and unheralded “padayatra” to gather material to write a book. On the old Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway this author was accosted by a group of young BJP workers. They demanded to know who I was. I told them I was an off-the-book journalist. Being the front flank of Advani’s Rath Yatra, they imagined I wanted to cover their MP’s news-making yatra. I demurred when they made a generous offer to escort me to their leader’s presence and watched as the petrol-fuelled Rath approached and passed on. After all, I was walking in the opposite direction.

But Advani rode on. And the BJP rode piggyback. From a measly two-seats party in Parliament in 1984, it rode to 89 seats later that year and to 182 seats in 1998. All thanks to Advani and his unique brand of politics, a mixture of deep thought and assertive action. As he goes into General Election 2019 — and beyond — it is this unique blend that Modi and the Parivar will miss the most.”

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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2019 20:49:23 IST