Wheels within Wheels

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 BJP wants to keep its bid for power simple, but LK Advani’s yatra and Narendra Modi’s fast have a complex context

NEW DELHI ~ The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to keep it simple, and in that, it hopes the going for it will be simple too. Yet, the complex conundrum that it finds itself caught in never seems to end.

To cash in on street sentiment in urban India against the ruling United Progress- ive Alliance (UPA) Government, generated by various scams and catalysed by Anna Hazare’s fast in full media glare for a strong Lokpal, the party’s oldest leader and two-time Prime Ministerial probable will embark on another rath yatra. That is simple enough. Opposition parties will stoke any anti-incumbency sentiment to their advantage, or at least try to. The complexity, however, lies in the fact that it is LK Advani whose vehicle—done up as, what else, a chariot—will ride the anti-UPA wave, if any, on the roads of the country. Advani, after all, is a man with a history of rath yatras. He is also an octogenarian who refuses to give way to his party’s young leaders (relatively speaking).

Advani began building the tempo for his chariot excursion with a fiery speech in the Lok Sabha, during which he held up his fists in the air to denote imaginary handcuffs and declared: “I am ready to go to jail, send me to Tihar. I don’t think they have done anything wrong. They have done a good deed. If they are guilty, I am more guilty.” He was daring the authorities to arrest him for the 2008 cash-for-votes scandal, and by ‘they’, he was referring to former BJP MPs Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahabir Bhagora, who had been arrested along with Amar Singh for the scam. “I can’t say I didn’t know about it. I was Leader of the Opposition. Had it been wrong, I certainly would have stopped them,” he added, and by ‘it’, he was referring to the sting operation for which the three are now in judicial custody.

Advani’s raised fists evoked another image: of a photo-op used as part of the BJP’s 2009 campaign that had the leader holding up a dumbbell to show how fighting fit he was while staking claim to India’s prime ministership. The bravado this time round was similar, and at an evening meeting of the party’s top brass after his emotional speech in the Lok Sabha, he declared he would go on another rath yatra for “good governance and clean politics”.

The declaration left many of Advani’s younger colleagues crestfallen. That the party had sensed a mid-term election was not the point. What sunk heavily in was that even at 84, Advani was in no mood to let anyone else lead the party’s campaign for power.

Lok Sabha Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj and her Rajya Sabha counterpart Arun Jaitley are among the BJP leaders who could have expected to play that role in the next election, a role that goes with PM candidacy. So, Swaraj’s irritation at a joint press conference the two held a day after Advani’s announcement was no surprise. She nearly blew her top when asked if the yatra meant Advani was a contender for PM candidacy yet again. “Why do you people assume that if Advaniji is taking out a rath yatra, we will not be with him?” she counter questioned. “The matter was raised at the party’s parliamentary board meeting by the president. It was discussed and endorsed by everyone, and officials of the party have been given charge of the arrangements,” she added, to underline a consensus within the party on the idea.

Meanwhile, insiders say that BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s backing of the yatra indicates that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is not averse to Advani’s tour this time. This lack of aversion is explained by its resignation to the fact that no younger BJP leader offered to seize the opportunity to take to the streets. Advani had wanted to go on a yatra ever since the last session of Parliament ended with the UPA on the backfoot on the issue of corruption.

The complexities do not end here. The party’s yatra hopes are based on the premise that it will be able to convert the prevailing anti-Government sentiment, compounded by the success of Anna Hazare’s prolonged fast, into BJP votes. Hazare, on the other hand, is unlikely to let that happen so easily. In serial interviews to TV channels earlier this week, he called the yatra a gimmick. “If Advani is serious on the issue of corruption, then instead of a yatra, he should ask all BJP-ruled states to enact the legislation to appoint Lokayuktas… it is a gimmick,” he told one channel after another. “If the BJP says they support Anna, then they should bring Lokayukta bills in their states. First bring Lokayukta, and then [ask for] support,” he said in response to a question on whether he would support Advani’s yatra.

For many, Advani’s proposed yatra brings back memories of the 1990 rath yatra that he began from Somnath in Gujarat to muster support for a temple in Ayodhya. The yatra pushed the party to power eventually, but also divided the country along communal lines. The BJP has never managed to forge another coalition after the loss of its regime in 2004 owing to the communal card played by the party in the 1990s.

That Advani’s new yatra starts in Gujarat sounds ominous to those who do not recall his charioteer days with nostalgia. Speaking of Gujarat, the BJP has been euphoric lately over a Supreme Court order on a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, widow of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who lost his life to Ahmedabad’s 2002 riots.

The BJP has portrayed the order (of 12 September 2011) on the Gulberg Society massacre as a clean chit for Modi. Here again, the BJP is banking on simplistic notions of how the law works.

All that the apex court has done is direct the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on the case to take into account observations made by amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his government, before filing the final report in the trial court. “The Supreme Court has not only allowed the appeal of Zakia Jafri and directed the SIT to treat her complaint as an FIR, but has also directed the SIT to file a report under section 173(2) of the CrPC, which is colloquially also known as the chargesheet,” explains IGP Sanjeev Bhatt.

“The SC has also directed the SIT to place all the evidence collected by it, including the reports of the learned amicus before the magistrate empowered to take cognisance [of the case]. This was the only option open to the Honourable Supreme Court as per the scheme of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” adds Bhatt, who is currently lodged in a battle of sorts with the Modi government for sticking his neck out on the Gujarat riots.

Modi, in jubilation, has announced a fast for ‘peace, unity and harmony’. The mantra here again is to keep it really simple. But then, no one has any doubt that Modi is no Mahatma.