Modi’s Real Challenger

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It is LK Advani—as circumstances conspire to give him yet another shot at India’s prime ministership

It was intended to stop Gujarat’s Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister Narendra Modi from becoming the National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate. But by the time Bihar’s Janata Dal-United Chief Minister Nitish Kumar finished his hard-hitting speech aimed at Modi on 14 April, at the end of the JD-U’s two-day national executive meet in Delhi, the saffron party had to contend with an even more uncomfortable truth. In his speech, Nitish Kumar did not mention the BJP’s old prime ministerial aspirant LK Advani even once, and yet it was obvious that the BJP veteran under whom the NDA contested the last Lok Sabha election remains the focus of the Bihar CM’s preoccupations.

Although Nitish Kumar did not mention Modi by name either, the eligibility criteria for a PM that he enumerated in his speech, as underlined by the JD-U’s political resolution, seemed designed to disqualify the Gujarat CM. Asking the BJP to declare the NDA’s candidate by the end of 2013, Nitish Kumar did take a name to sum up what his party considers the necessary attributes for such a leader: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The candidate, he made clear, would have to be someone like India’s former PM.

The JD-U resolution elaborated it: the aspirant must possess impeccable secular credentials, believe in inclusive growth, take into account the demands of backward states, and stay committed to the NDA’s national agenda of governance, whereby the Ayodhya issue, Article 371 and demand for a common civil code are kept out.

On the face of it, while that goes against Modi, it does not exactly favour Advani, the BJP leader who is widely considered the architect of the Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya movement that culminated in the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, either. But then, this is not the first time in Indian politics that a party is using ideology to further its political agenda. Though Nitish Kumar has not specified who in the BJP is “like Atal Bihari Vajpayee” as he sees it, many of his party leaders have dropped enough hints that the JD-U would not mind Advani as the NDA’s candidate.

JD-U spokesperson KC Tyagi, asked at a press conference who in the BJP could be likened to Vajpayee, had this to say: “We have earlier also fought elections under the leadership of Advani. So how can we say that we were wrong?” He also mentioned Advani’s speech at the BJP’s national executive gathering last month, in which the veteran leader referred to the party’s need of a charter for minorities, and said the JD-U was in agreement with him. Another JD-U leader, Narendra Singh, a minister in Bihar, said that Modi ranks sixth or seventh in the BJP’s hierarchy. “If seniority is taken into account,” he said, “Modi is far below and Advani is number one.”

JD-U leader Devesh Chandra Thakur was even more open on the question of Advani’s candidacy for the PM’s post. “The NDA contested under the leadership of LK Advani [in 2009]. I do not think there should be a problem for any NDA faction to go to polls under his leadership. Advani will definitely be more acceptable to most factions of the NDA,” he said after the party’s national executive meeting. “What further indication can Nitish Kumar give?” asks another JD-U leader considered close to the Bihar CM.

It is not without reason, therefore, that the JD-U show in Delhi has left the BJP at war with itself. Advani, who appeared to have been swept away by a Modi wave in the party, is not just back in the reckoning but has started emerging as a challenge—perhaps no less than that posed by the Congress—to the Gujarat CM’s bid to capture the country’s top political post. For, as soon as Nitish Kumar warned that he would walk out of the NDA if his party’s demands were not complied with, both anti- and pro-Modi camps in the BJP saw a flurry of activity.

First to come out in the open was senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. “Advaniji is the seniormost, most respected leader and if he is available to lead the party and government, then that should end all discussion. Everyone should fall in line and work together for the party under his leadership,” he said in an interview to The Economic Times soon after the JD-U leader’s speech. Incidentally, Sinha was among the first to demand that Modi be declared the NDA candidate after the BJP’s landslide victory in Gujarat’s Assembly polls. “The cadre still want Modi and most people want him,” said Sinha on his U-turn, “But that was always being discussed in the context of leaders who belong to a generation below Advani. As far as Advaniji is concerned, he is in a different league.” Sinha also argued that the party must do everything to save the NDA from a split. “If you go back in history, I am the father of this alliance,” he said, “I forged the alliance with the Samata Party (the JD-U’s predecessor), when George Fernandes was the president and Nitish Kumar a senior leader. I will be the last person to wish it to break.”

Yashwant Sinha’s salvo seems to have hit its target. The very next day, Madhya Pradesh’s BJP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan also vocalised support for Advani’s candidacy. “It is a blessing for our party that there are so many talented leaders with us, but no doubt Advani is the tallest leader. Everybody in this country knows this fact,” Chouhan said, adding that the party’s call on whom to project as the candidate would be decided by the Parliamentary Board, the BJP’s top decision-making unit. “My vote will be with [whoever] the party decides [to pick] as its Prime Ministerial candidate. I don’t have a personal opinion on this,” he said, “If needed, I will express my opinion before the Parliamentary Board when asked.”

If voices in favour of Advani are gaining strength in the BJP, so are those that seek to anoint Modi as the party’s obvious choice. “Narendra Modi is the most popular BJP leader in the country,” says BJP President Rajnath Singh, though he refrains from naming him as the official candidate. Similar pro-Modi remarks by some state-level leaders of the party have also started becoming public, not just as an expression of anger against Nitish Kumar but also against this sudden revival of interest in Advani as the NDA candidate.

The Modi-versus-Advani debate is threatening to turn into a major crisis in the BJP, with the division widening by the day and making it harder for its Parliamentary Board to make a clear and final choice for the next General Election. Though Nitish Kumar has issued an extended deadline—till year end—to resolve the issue, many in the BJP believe that a delayed decision would only harden the division and aggravate infighting.

In fact, this delay has already shaken the alliance led by the saffron party, which is now at loggerheads with what was once its most stable ally, the JD-U. The BJP’s partnership with Nitish Kumar’s party has not only been a success in Bihar, it has been the bedrock of the NDA. However, Modi’s own undeclared bid for candidacy—and the unconditional support that Rajnath Singh seems to have extended him—has strained ties between the BJP and JD-U to what could be snapping point.

For those in Advani’s camp, retaining the JD-U as an ally is important. Ever since the NDA was formed in 1998, ties between the two have been so crucial to the alliance that the president of the JD-U (Samata Party earlier) has always been its convener, while its chairperson has been a member of the BJP. Over the years, the NDA has witnessed the departure of several parties, including the AIADMK, Trinamool Congress, Telugu Desam Party and Biju Janata Dal. Despite this, the NDA has held together as a credible formation primarily because the BJP and JD-U have stayed united.

If the BJP decides to let Modi lead the alliance’s Lok Sabha charge as PM candidate, the NDA is bound to split. The JD-U would then have no option but to leave. The BJP, in such an eventuality, would be left merely with the Shiv Sena and Akali Dal as partners. Even these two parties have been restive about the BJP’s leadership. The Shiv Sena has stated that Modi is not its preferred choice. On the eve of the JD-U national executive meet, the Sena hinted that it wanted the BJP to pick a candidate. “Narendra Modi was not in the PM’s race when Sushma Swaraj met Bal Thackeray,” Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray said on 11 April. “Let the BJP decide on the PM candidate first, we will decide after that,” he added. Uddhav’s statement is significant given that the late Sena founder Bal Thackeray had backed BJP leader Sushma Swaraj for the role.

So the JD-U is not the only NDA member against Modi’s candidacy. The Shiv Sena has reservations too. The BJP is thus fast becoming antithetical to the NDA itself.

The BJP leader who draws strength from all this is Advani, the man who has lately attracted words of praise even from top leaders of the Samajwadi Party (which, for the record, also ruled out an alliance with the saffron party though). A week before Nitish Kumar raised a storm in the BJP over Modi, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav hailed Advani for his honesty and sacrifices. “People get angry when I say Advaniji is an honest person. He has suffered a lot during the country’s partition and has spent a life of hardship. If a person is truthful and honest, irrespective of the party he belongs to, he should be praised,” Yadav said on 8 April at a gathering in Varanasi. Earlier, on 23 March, on a similar occasion in Lucknow, the SP chief had used his apparent admiration of Advani to reproach his son Akhilesh Yadav’s government in Uttar Pradesh. “Advani sahib says that UP is in very bad shape and corruption is rampant. Now I have to assess the situation when a senior leader like Advani says such a thing. He never lies. He always speaks the truth, as I have said many times. I will go and meet him again,” the elder Yadav had said.

Around the same time, Ram Gopal Yadav, an SP general secretary, found kind things to say about how the NDA Government of 1998-2004 had functioned under Vajpayee and Advani. “The NDA’s coalition was led by Vajpayee and he was a big personality,” he said, “Other leaders in the coalition such as LK Advani are among the biggest leaders of the country.”

For the NDA to make a serious bid for power after the next General Election, the BJP will need to not only keep its existing flock together but also reach out to such potential allies as the AIADMK, TDP, BJD and Trinamool Congress. A section of the NDA feels that an Advani-led NDA would be better placed to lure these parties as allies, while retaining existing ones, than a Modi-led NDA. This reasoning finds an echo even within BJP circles these days. “Modi can never act like a magnet, which is such an essential trait for any leader in an era of coalition politics,” says a senior BJP leader in Advani’s camp.

An elaborate game of deception appears underway. Developments within the BJP following Nitish Kumar’s warning bear the imprint of Advani, who is known to speak his mind through loyalists so as to keep as much manoeuvring space for himself as possible. He seems to have picked up this art from Vajpayee, who ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls had frustrated Advani’s bid to project himself as the party’s new face. Vajpayee’s famous remark back then that he was “neither tired nor retired” had almost sealed Advani’s fate as a contender for PM candidacy.

In 2009, Advani did succeed in emerging as the BJP’s candidate, but this was only because of Vajpayee’s failing health. In any case, the BJP was routed in that election, a humiliation that saw Advani gradually being dethroned by his party with the active backing of the RSS, its patron-in-chief. This process was accentuated by Modi’s third consecutive victory in Gujarat in December 2012.

Now that Nitish Kumar has served Advani an opportunity to reverse his decline in influence within the BJP, the veteran of saffron politics—a tag he has tried to shed—is unlikely to let it go.

As the BJP deals with its current crisis, both Advani and Modi prefer to remain mum on the PM issue. Yet, the resurfacing of the ambition of a man who was the Sangh’s mascot of the Ayodhya movement is bound to interrupt, if not stall, the march of a man who has an even more hardline Hindutva face.

The irony is that it is happening in the name of relative secularism. Or is it about relative communalism?