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Amid Flying Bricks and Rubble

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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The party that Lal Krishna Advani built so dedicatedly for so long has started coming apart and the ‘iron man’ is still at the centre of it all, whether partymen and the RSS want him there or not

Ironies never cease. It was just a few months ago that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling-party-in-waiting, led by an over-enthusiastic prime-minister-in-waiting, plunged into the 15th Lok Sabha election. The party and its leader were riding an imagined comeback wave. The resolve was steely, the ambition sure-fisted, and the image colour-coordinated. The party’s loh purush (iron man) Lal Krishna Advani even lifted dumbbells for news photo-ops to give new meaning to the claim that only he was fit to be PM, vis-à-vis the Congress’s Manmohan Singh, who was recovering from a major cardiac surgery at that time.

Advani’s campaign managers, led by a former communist named Sudheendra Kulkarni who served in Vajpayee’s PMO, packaged his desperation to land the top job with enthusiasm that exceeded that of people less than half his age. Giant posters and cutouts proclaiming that the BJP’s octogenarian leader was the one and only option to lead the country, filled up the visual space around us. Of course, the poll results were another story. The 30-year-old party was trounced.

Now, the BJP is coming apart exactly the way Advani built it—brick by brick. The electoral losses, the dissidence, the disarray and the commotion, they’re all making it fly apart. And where there was once triumphalism, there is rubble dwarfing the man who once rode a chariot to bring the BJP to power at the Centre.

As if blockbuster TV clips of Jaswant Singh’s claims and Arun Shourie’s outburst were not enough, even the man who coined the party’s electoral slogan, ‘Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar’ (Strong Leader, Decisive Government), has snapped his ties with the party. It was Advani’s speechwriter and key advisor Kulkarni who had devised the pointedly ‘presidential style’ campaign for the BJP’s 2009 bid for power. The unique selling proposition, it was evidently assumed, was the iron man’s iron.

To observers, that only stiffens the intrigue. Not only has Kulkarni walked out on the BJP, he has banged the door so hard that a few more bricks and skeletons have tumbled. With the party’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) hovering around, the dust is nowhere near settling either. After the 2009 loss, the party’s second in succession, partymen had expected Advani to discreetly pass the baton on to the next generation, lest the party disintegrate. That did not happen. Soon after the defeat, he had offered to resign as Leader of the Opposition, but recent events revealed his intention to cling on for the entire term of the Lok Sabha. This, despite a nudge from the RSS leadership that he should go. The obstinacy has proved costly. The two major meetings held—in New Delhi and then in Shimla—to map out a future turned out to be arenas of a million mutinies feeding on follies of the past.

Many more in the party are now keen that Advani departs without ado. “The Jinnah episode in 2005, his failed bid to be PM in 2009, and then his offer to quit, have all made his position weak,” says an insider from an opposing camp, “The RSS too wants him to go.” Trouble has come even from within his own camp. Though Kulkarni had quit weeks ago, he announced his exit from the party two days after it expelled former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh for his book. Kulkarni went on to add that what Jaswant Singh had said about Pakistan’s founder in his book (Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence) was exactly what Advani had said in his. The former aide maintains that the expulsion was “graceless and baseless”.

In spite of being so close to Advani, Kulkarni unwittingly exposed what many see as the BJP’s hypocrisy. His remarks underlined the fact that Advani, the party’s de facto boss after the retirement of Atal Behari Vajpayee, had two sets of rules: one for himself and another for others. After all, Advani had led the party’s 2009 campaign in spite of having hailed Jinnah as a “secular man” in 2005 on Pakistani soil. But Jaswant Singh had to face expulsion by a kangaroo court in Shimla—ironically, the same place where Jinnah’s stance had scuttled the 1945 Shimla conference—that gave him absolutely no chance to make his case in defence of his views.

With each passing day after Jaswant Singh’s summary expulsion, new revelations only make Advani look worse. While Jaswant Singh has insinuated that Advani is a liar and backstabber, Arun Shourie has contrasted him with Vajpayee to highlight the change in the BJP’s leadership and appeal. Citing anecdotal evidence during a 45-minute freewheeling TV interview, through which Shourie invited disciplinary action against himself, he pointed fingers at Advani for his relative moral flexibility vis-à-vis Vajpayee.

SENSE OF BETRAYAL

Immediately after his expulsion, Singh called a press conference in Shimla on 19 August. “I am saddened and angered by the manner in which this has been done. It would have been better to convey this not on the phone but in person. I have been a founding member of the BJP from the day it was formed 30 years ago. If Rajnathji and Advaniji had called me there and conveyed this, I wouldn’t have said no,” he said. “There ought not to be selectivity on the issue by the leadership,” he added, hinting at Advani’s remarks on Jinnah. On his return to Delhi on 20 August, Jaswant Singh had a touch of remorse in his voice—for a relationship he had once cherished; he said he had backed Advani on his Jinnah remarks in 2005, while the latter chose to let party President Rajnath Singh brusquely show him the door. The senior leader’s anger against Advani was palpable. He felt he had been let down by a man he had stood by—over the same historical figure.

By the next day, it was clear that Jaswant Singh wanted to avenge his humiliation. The former foreign affairs minister claimed that Advani had been lying about being unaware of his flight to Kandahar. This incident dates back to December 1999. The Indian Airlines afternoon flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi, IC-814, was hijacked on 24 December with 155 passengers on board. Advani was the home minister then. All these years, Advani has claimed that he was unaware of Jaswant Singh’s flight to Kandahar accompanying terrorists released from Indian prison in a highly controversial exchange to secure the release of IC-814’s passengers held hostage. “Advani knew about this. I covered [up for] him on the issue,” Jaswant Singh said in a TV interview. “I had to tell a lie to protect him,” he revealed. “How can they (terrorists) be released from prison without the home minister consenting and signing pieces of paper?” he asked.

Meanwhile, in Shimla, BJP President Rajnath Singh announced at a press conference at the conclusion of the party’s three day Chintan Baithak (introspection conclave): “Advaniji will continue to lead the party as he is our leader.” In saying so, Rajnath Singh made it clear that Advani could not distance himself from the disarray.

SIGNS OF COLLAPSE

As a new day dawned, Jaswant Singh fired another salvo at Advani, aimed at popping the secular aura that Advani had tried to claim with his Jinnah-was-secular remark in 2005. Jaswant Singh invoked the Gujarat carnage of 2002; according to him, Vajpayee as PM had wanted to take action against Chief Minister Narendra Modi after the riots that ravaged the state, but Advani stopped him. Any action against Modi, Jaswant Singh recounts Advani cautioning the PM, would’ve resulted in an uproar in the BJP. Vajpayee, though, was so disturbed by the violence that he even wanted to resign.

In yet another revelation, Jaswant Singh said that Advani was aware of the cash-for-votes sting operation that rocked the Lok Sabha on 22 July 2008—the day the UPA Government sought a vote of confidence in the 14th Lok Sabha. It’s a day not easily forgotten. Three BJP MPs, Ashok Argal, Faggan Singh Kulhaste and Mahavir Bhagora, had flashed bundles of currency notes in the House, claiming this to be cash offered as bribes by Samjawadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh to vote in favour of the Congress-led UPA. The Congress was quick to describe the sordid event as the ‘handiwork of the BJP’s dirty tricks department’.

The UPA survived the vote. But more than a year later, the BJP is wracked by it. The party has made feeble attempts to refute the charges, but Advani has been silent. Former BJP President M Venkaiah Naidu, who had said a few days before Singh’s expulsion that “no action” was being contemplated against the latter, suggested that Singh’s views on Kandahar were irrelevant since he was no longer in the party. Sadly for the BJP, Arun Shourie has endorsed what Jaswant Singh said about Kandahar and Godhra. At the time of going to press, Shourie is still a member of the BJP, though he has been asked to explain his conduct—which the one-time journalist seems in no mood to modify. The party’s outburst against Jaswant Singh, he says, “was based on manufactured outrage”. The reason why the BJP chose to make the book’s references to Sardar Patel and not Jinnah the basis for the expulsion was “so that nobody points fingers at Advani”. The party, he alleges, “has become a mutual projection and promotion society”.

MEASURING ADVANI

In his famous TV interview, Shourie suggested doing away with the entire top brass of the party. “After Atalji’s departure, his quiet withdrawal, what we see now is a great deal of pygmi-isation,” he told his interviewer. “Whatever the advantages you show him, there are certain things he (Vajpayee) won’t do,” Shourie remarked. Two days after people heard Jaswant Singh speak about the manner in which Advani stayed Vajpayee’s hand on Gujarat, they saw Shourie talking about how the riots caused grief to a prime minister “with a poet’s sensitivity”. The iron man was now being shown up as cold, calculating and insensitive.

Advani, many reckon, ought to be an embarrassed man today. In any case, since the 2009 debacle, things have been on a downslide for the BJP. “In the Delhi Assembly polls, we trailed the Congress by less than 3 per cent votes. In the Lok Sabha election, the difference shot up to 20 per cent. Obviously, our projection of the leadership was faulty and the people rejected it,” says a party insider.

The committee headed by party Vice-President Bal Apte to examine the rout has even dared to say as much. Advani’s projection as the PM candidate was an error, it said, while issues of internal security and price rise were either not ‘positioned effectively or there was a mismatch or both’. The report’s summary was distributed to the Shimla meet’s delegates, but its existence was later denied by party General Secretary Arun Jaitley. It is well known, however, that the report points out that party leaders failed to corner the Congress on the Mumbai terror attacks but ended up being hauled over the coals for the Kandahar episode.

On his part, Kulkarni says the RSS and Advani’s detractors did “great damage to the party in the 2009 polls” by asking him to step down from party presidentship in 2005. “The manner in which Advaniji was asked to step down was uncalled for. It undermined his authority,” he says. Despite having parted ways with the party (after he found himself “unable to carry on due to ideological differences”), Kulkarni believes this is not the end of the beginning either for the BJP or Advani. “The party will bounce back,” he says, “provided they learn their lessons and restore Advaniji’s authority as the supreme leader of the BJP.”

But things are still in limbo. National secretary of the party and former MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiren Rijju, quit earlier this week to join the Congress. Its grand alliance, the NDA, is also breaking up. Just before the Haryana Assembly election, Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) has snapped ties with it. Advani and the central leadership had forged this alliance in Haryana despite objections from the BJP’s state unit (in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP and INLD didn’t win a single seat).

In Punjab too, the BJP, despite winning 19 of the 23 Assembly seats contested, plays second fiddle to its partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, much to the state unit’s dismay. Little wonder that the Bal Apte Committee places some blame on poor alliance choices particularly in these two states (of the 23 seats, the NDA won only five).

The muddle has won Advani uncharitable comparisons with Vajpayee as an alliance manager. To many, this speaks of an image makeover gone horribly wrong. Back in 2005, Advani was reshaping himself as someone fit to succeed Vajpayee as a moderate leader at the head of a multi-party coalition. This was seen as a necessity for Advani more than the party; the BJP had lost the 2004 election… but had ruled India from 1998 to 2004 via an NDA government led by Vajpayee. This could be done again, thought BJP strategists, with Advani taking over Vajpayee’s role.

WISHFUL THINKING

Yet, even a political novice could see the wishful thinking in the succession plan. Vajpayee was the moderate that Advani could never hope to be. This had its own irony, for it was Advani who had led the party to its heights of glory with his chariot march in 1990. After he took over as party president in 1986, Advani planned and led the Ram Janmbhoomi movement for a temple in Ayodhya. In 1991, the BJP bagged 120 seats (up from two in 1984). It was left for Advani to build the party. By 1996, it was India’s largest party in the Lok Sabha. But by the time the BJP got a chance to lead a coalition, in 1998, the demands of moderation ensured that Vajpayee got the top job.

When Advani tried to shed the ‘anti-Islam’ image of the BJP in December 2005 via his visit to Pakistan, he found his party ranged against him for his Jinnah remark. His rehabilitation came soon, but the RSS remained suspicious.

So it wasn’t a big surprise when, just a day before the BJP’s Shimla meet, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat asked older leaders to make way for younger ones. Bhagwat added that the RSS had never asked Advani to withdraw his offer to quit as Leader of the Opposition. Thus it was that Bhagwat’s statements set the agenda for the meet. The Sangh Parivar’s message was loud and clear: there should be no compromise on ideology, and no tolerance of individual agendas (read: Advani’s prime ministerial ambition) that harm the larger interests of the party.

More than the Sangh Parivar, it is the country that needs a credible opposition. But, despite his lost credibility, Advani is perhaps still listening to an inner voice that tells him, ‘He who builds a party reserves the right to lead it too, wherever it goes.’ Buried under rubble, if it comes to that.