LAL KRISHNA ADVANI became BJP president in 1986, at a time when the party had only two seats in the Lok Sabha, and Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, naïve and conceited with a brute majority in the House, had ridiculed the BJP lawmakers—AK Patel and Chendupatla Janga Reddy—using the famous Family Planning slogan of the period: ‘Hum Doh, Humaare Doh’ (We Two, Our Two). In the 1984 General Election, despite a wave of support for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the wake of a series of riots in several parts of north India, BJP’s AB Vajpayee had adopted a soft Hindutva posture to secure a wider appeal for the party. This strategy backfired in the polls held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in which her son Rajiv Gandhi led a campaign, as pointed out by Christophe Jaffrelot and others, crafted around the theme of national integration with a pro-Hindu bias. The RSS chief at the time, Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, was an astute political mind who sensed an opportunity in a hardline Hindutva stance that had already won the RSS grassroots appeal. And Advani was destined to become the poster boy of this aggressive brand of politics, transforming the BJP—founded in 1980 as a successor to the earlier Bharatiya Jana Sangh—into a mass movement. He became the face of the Ayodhya agitation first started by the VHP to reclaim Hindu sites lost to ‘invaders’ over centuries past. Hindu pride became an irresistible slogan for the party following the poll drubbing. A political opportunity soon arose for Advani’s party when news of the Bofors arms scandal surfaced, putting the inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi on the backfoot. Advani and other senior leaders of the BJP, including Vajpayee, worked day and night to cobble an electoral understanding with the breakaway Congress group led by VP Singh, the Left parties and others. While Janata Dal, the new front launched by Singh and others, managed to form the second non-Congress national Government ever in Indian history, in 1989, the BJP and the Left parties offered it outside support. Advani’s strategy had clicked; the BJP had won 85 seats that year in the Lok Sabha under his watch, up from two in 1984. That Rajiv Gandhi launched his 1989 election campaign from Ayodhya was proof of the impact that Advani’s elevation as party chief would have on a man who had grossly underestimated the BJP.
Despite Advani’s contributions to the BJP, he was tagged as No 2, in Vajpayee’s shadow. This was because he chose not to challenge Vajpayee’s authority
When VP Singh went ahead with the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, a 1980 proposal to award 27 per cent reservation to Other Backward Classes in education and government jobs, the BJP resented it but waited for a chance to withdraw its external support. That came the day Advani, who had been leading a rath yatra on a chariot fashioned out of a truck from Somnath Temple in Gujarat to Ayodhya, was arrested in Samastipur, Bihar, on October 23rd, 1990, on the orders of Chief Minister Lalu Prasad, a close associate of VP Singh. After another short-lived Chandra Shekhar-led Government, the BJP faced a General Election in 1991, and despite a sympathy wave for the Congress following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Advani’s party secured 120 seats in the Lok Sabha. The BJP had arrived on the national scene, thanks to Advani’s hard work in turning a party of respectable parliamentarians into an electoral force to reckon with. In 1996, a BJP-led alliance won 161 seats, and in 1998, 182 seats, enough to form a government at the Centre. In 1999, the BJP-led NDA retained its tally of 1998, losing power in 2004 and returning only in 2014 with Narendra Modi’s ascent to the party’s top.
Until he incurred the wrath of the RSS in 2005 for having called Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah ‘secular’, Advani—a movie addict and cricket enthusiast—had had a great innings in politics. The RSS made him Leader of the Opposition in 1991 though Vajpayee, Advani’s senior, was also elected to the Lok Sabha that year. Advani thought it was inappropriate and dispatched KN Govindacharya to Nagpur to get then RSS chief Rajendra Singh to change his mind. Singh told Govindacharya, “You know the party is in this position because of the temple agitation.”
Despite his immense contributions, Advani has always been tagged as No 2, in the shadow of Vajpayee. That was also because he chose not to challenge Vajpayee’s authority, which he could easily have. In 1995, on November 12th, at a three-day plenary session of the national council of the BJP in Mumbai, he announced of his own volition that Vajpayee would lead the party in the 1996 General Election. The RSS, it is believed, had favoured Advani as its prime ministerial candidate, but, as luck would have it, he came under suspicion in a money-laundering case around that time. Despite the political setback, he would return to hold key positions in the Vajpayee Government (1998-2004), including the post of Deputy Prime Minister. He also nurtured younger leaders—including the one who would one day pip him to become the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Narendra Modi. At 90, the Karachi-born Advani, whose autobiography My Country My Life was a bestseller, is in his sunset years, having started off as an RSS pracharak in Rajasthan in the early 1940s and having spent some years in jail over his decades- long stint in politics. Yet, once called Iron Man II of Indian politics (the first being Sardar Patel), Advani’s contribution to mainstreaming Hindu right-wing politics perhaps eclipses that of any other. Love him or loathe him, his has been an extraordinary life.