Two things have emerged from the drama that unfolded in the Bharatiya Janata Party over the past week or so. One, the party has finally made a decisive move towards the inevitable generational shift that it kept holding off despite two successive General Election losses; and two, the BJP’s toughest fight in the next election would again be against itself.
Despite Lal Krishna Advani’s absence from the BJP’s national executive meet held in Goa on 8-9 June, the party went ahead and announced an all-India role for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the head of its election campaign committee, seen as a precursor to his anointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Just a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a faction of the party to defy Advani and bulldoze such a decision through.
The message it sent out was clear: Advani may sulk all he likes, but his era is a thing of the past, and a younger lot led by Modi now calls the shots.
That this is Modi’s party now is no longer a matter of conjecture. For all practical purposes, it is a fact.
But what has also become clear is that Advani has not entirely been outplayed by the Modi faction backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The BJP’s crafty old strategist may have cut a lonely figure this past week, but he may still have a workable plan. Advani’s rebellion against Modi’s elevation has been quelled by the RSS, which has asked him to abide by the ‘Parliamentary Board’s rejection of his resignation from [three] important posts—membership of the national executive, parliamentary board and central election committee’. But it is not quite the climbdown that it is being made out to be. Note that Advani had resigned from those three party posts, but not from the party itself, and nor as working chairman of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Constituents of the NDA, with the exception of the Janata Dal (United), welcomed Modi’s elevation on Sunday, but on Tuesday they were no less categorical about their respect for Advani’s leadership, asking the BJP to mollify him. The Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna had a banner headline, ‘Ram Chale Banvas’, likening Advani to Lord Rama, the hero of the BJP’s early electoral successes. The JD-U was quick to say that Advani’s resignation had put the “NDA on ventilator support.” This party also used the opportunity to reiterate that it would not settle for someone not seen as “a secular face” (read Modi) as the coalition’s PM candidate. “If Advani is not at the helm of affairs, it will be difficult for us to continue in the alliance,” said JD-U General Secretary KC Tyagi in New Delhi, “There is no compromise on a secular face for PM.”
Advani is well aware that it is not the BJP alone but the NDA that will challenge the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2014. Given the national mood, the BJP might notch up more seats than the Congress, or at least reduce the 90-seat gap between the two, but it will never have the parliamentary strength needed to form a government on its own at the Centre. That’s a given.
On a two-day visit to demand special category status for Odisha, Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal, a former BJP ally, also made it explicit in media interviews that Modi may have worked well for Gujarat but he didn’t think Modi had a chance at the national level. The BJP has been trying to win the BJD back to the NDA fold, and the odds of this appear to have reduced.
That Modi sees himself as the next PM is obvious. What is on Advani’s mind, however, evokes far more curiosity. The octogenarian is not known to work without a plan, and this time round, he deployed what has been a trademark Modi tactic, considering the latter’s command of a vast following among RSS and party cadres: take the battle out into the open and then negotiate behind closed doors.
Recall, Modi made his first public display of disaffection with the Advani-led Delhi faction by staying away from the national executive meet held in September 2011 in Delhi, and has been on the ascendant within the BJP since. Modi had absented himself amid growing differences with Advani. He was unhappy with Advani’s plan of a Jan Chetna Yatra for good governance and clean politics that would coincide with his own Sadbhavana Mission, a series of 36 fasts beginning later that month aimed at gaining a Muslim-friendly image—or at least shedding his anti-Muslim one. It was also meant to portray himself as a potential PM.
Advani, the party’s original crowdpuller whose ascent (and the BJP’s) started with his 1990 Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, saw himself as the party’s mission man and prime mover of public opinion. For years, he was the party’s chief proponent of Hindutva as an ideology of ‘cultural nationalism’. And Modi, a new-gen Hindutva leader trying to live down the Gujarat riots of 2002, feared that Advani’s latest yatra would overshadow his Sadbhavana (defined, in Modi’s words, as ‘inclusive growth with collective efforts’) given the public mood against corruption. Advani shifted the starting point of his yatra from Porbander in Gujarat to Sitabdiara in Modi-baiter Nitish Kumar’s state of Bihar.
That clash, between the Yatra and the Mission, went in Modi’s favour. For an otherwise sharp politician, Advani had failed to notice the Advani-fatigue that had set in within the party after two Lok Sabha defeats. The BJP wanted a winner. The BJP wanted a triumphalist.
In May last year, Modi had tested his clout by threatening to boycott a BJP national executive meet in Mumbai until his bete noire Sanjay Joshi was ejected from the decision-making body. Modi issued his threat on the morning before the meeting began and compounded it later that evening: if he didn’t have his way, the entire Gujarat unit would stay away from all national executive meetings. The party gave in. Joshi resigned the next morning and Modi strolled in late that afternoon. Upset, Advani and Sushma Swaraj, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha and a key member of Advani’s camp, skipped the party rally in Mumbai. Modi had stolen everyone’s thunder and few partymen seemed to miss Advani and Swaraj.
Last week in Goa, it was the first time in Advani’s life that he’d stayed away from a national executive meeting. And the tactic he used was quite like Modi’s earlier. Even before that conclave, there were signs that Advani was spoiling for a spat in the full glare of media publicity. Just days earlier, he had set the stage for a fight by praising Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Modi, he said, may have turned Gujarat into one of India’s best developed states, for which he deserved credit, but it was Chouhan who took over a backward MP and turned it around. “Despite that, I found Chouhan very humble, like Vajpayee,” Advani said on 1 June in Gwalior. All hell broke loose within the BJP. His implications were all too clear. Even the Congress jumped in to take potshots at the party for its lack of unity, even as BJP leaders tried to clarify that Advani is a ‘father figure’ who likes to encourage all party leaders he meets on his travels.
“Advaniji is Modi’s mentor. He brought him forward. Modi was a pracharak,” Uma Bharti told another bunch of journalists. BJP President Rajnath Singh took his cue from the RSS and declared that Advani was being misunderstood. “I think [his] statement has been wrongly interpreted,” Singh said at a press conference in Hyderabad, “There cannot be two opinions that Narendra Modi is the most popular leader in the country.” Two days later in the same city, Singh’s predecessor Venkaiah Naidu had this to say: “I do not understand where the controversy is. Advaniji praised Narendra Modi, Advaniji has praised Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and when he goes to Chhattisgarh, he praises Raman Singh.”
None of it fooled anyone. Everyone could make out what was happening. Advani was using Chouhan’s shoulder to fire at Modi. Singh’s statement meanwhile sent out the signal that the RSS—and thus he, by default—stood with Modi, not Advani.
Advani was not the only BJP leader who skipped the Goa meet. Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Uma Bharati, among others, were missing too. With the RSS openly supporting Modi, though, Bharati fell in line and shot off a letter to Singh saying she had been too ill to attend the meet and no controversy need be raised over it. Jaswant Singh told TV crews he too was unwell. Sinha, in contrast, was more forthright in expressing his displeasure with the party’s Modi turn. “I do not suffer from Namonia and I am not unwell. There can be other reasons for not going,” he told TV crews in New Delhi during the parleys in Panaji.
Once it was all over, whispers within the party ran hot and heavy about the future of all Modi opponents. A powerful BJP leader aligned with Modi asked a bunch of reporters outside the Panaji venue: “There were others [with Vajpayee] who opposed Modi here in 2002, where are they today?” After the post-Godhra riots, a BJP meet in Goa had deliberated on Modi’s ouster as Gujarat CM. Advani, who had backed Modi, prevailed over Vajpayee and a few others—such as Arun Shourie and Shanta Kumar—who wanted Modi sacked for his ‘Raj dharma’ failure.
On the morning of 9 June, as the BJP was busy preparing to celebrate Modi’s ascent, Advani slid a warning note under the door. That note, a blogpost on his blog that has of late become a whipping post for rivals in the BJP, spoke of his tryst with Vishvaroopam, Kamal Haasan’s controversial film. Advani was not merely writing about the special screening that Haasan had arranged for him and his friends: ‘A remarkable piece of sandalwood carving on display at our Prithviraj Road residence is of Shri Krishna administering Geetagnyan to Arjuna at Kurukshetra, and in that process giving him a darshan of His Vishwaroop. What is even more significant about this carving is the fact that the artist, hailing from Chikmangloor [Karnataka], has depicted on the back side (sic) of this excellent Vishwaroop carving not only several other scenes from the Mahabharata, like Draupadi Cheer Haran, and Bhishma Pitamah on his bed of arrows, sermonizing to the Pandavas, but also all the Dashavataras, from Matsyavatara and Kurmavatara to Krishna and Kalki.’ Speaking of the film in particular, Advani wrote: ‘The story is about a meeting Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had during the Second World War, in which Hitler tells the Italian Supremo that the sins committed by the two of them would prove very costly for them after death. When Mussolini said to his friend that so far as he was concerned when his own end came he would go to the Vatican and seek help from the Pope who is believed to have a Pass for Heaven. Hitler asked him to commend to the Pope his name also. This anecdote is accompanied by a demonstrative exercise with a pair of scissors, and a sheet of paper, in which the story ends up with both the two Fascist leaders landing in Hell, and only the Pope reaching Heaven.’ There have since been dozens of different interpretations of the tale within the BJP, with party leaders in private and political rivals (and newspaper cartoonists) in public having jumped in to identify the allusions of the story’s dramatis personae.
Late that night, emerging from the frenzied celebrations of the afternoon, Modi tweeted the following to suggest that the BJP was preparing for life after Advani: ‘Spoke to Advani ji on the phone. He gave me his blessings. Honoured and extremely grateful to receive his blessings.’ A day earlier in Goa, Singh had claimed he’d spoken with Advani who wanted to attend the meet but he directed him not to. The octogenarian’s resignation the next morning in Delhi made it clear that the party’s top leaders were not just withholding information, but also changing facts to suit their convenience.
Advani’s resignation letter of 10 June to Singh was starkly drafted: ‘For some time I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going. I no longer have the feeling that this is the same idealistic party created by Dr. Mookerji, Pandit Deendayalji, Nanaji and Vaypayeeji, whose sole concern was the country, and its people. Most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas.’
Going back on Modi’s appointment as chief of the party’s poll campaign was out of the question for the BJP. But Advani’s ability to hurt the party was evident in his choice of words. Even for Modi to have a fair chance of success, many realised, wooing Advani back was essential.
The Modi camp, which had thought ignoring Advani’s absence at the Goa meet would hasten his rath trundle into the sunset, had made a miscalculation. The RSS stepped in to resolve the crisis, with Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat picking up the phone to speak with Advani.
That is now a matter of record. It has blown the lid off the oft-made claim by the BJP and RSS that the latter is only a ‘cultural organisation’ (and thus not bound by regular rules for political parties). The RSS’s role in BJP affairs, clearly, is not just advisory. It is the party’s remote control set in Nagpur. This lid was blown off by none other than the Sangh’s favourites Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh. After two days of denials that the RSS had issued any directives, on 11 June, Singh announced at Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence that the RSS chief had intervened to end the crisis. This is the statement put out by the BJP president: ‘Today afternoon, RSS Sarsanghchalak, Shri Mohan Bhagwat spoke to Shri Advani and asked him to respect the BJP Parliamentary Board decision and continue to guide the Party in national interest. Shri Advani has decided to accept Shri Bhagwat’s advice.’
By forcing the RSS chief’s name and role onto the record, Advani has made a point that could work to his advantage. The leader’s differences with the RSS go back to 2005, when his description of MA Jinnah as ‘secular’ in Pakistan roiled the Sangh. To Vajpayeeise himself, Advani was trying to dilute his Hindutva poster boy image, and the RSS had him pay with the party president’s post.
Advani has also tugged the question of the party’s PM candidate out of the public arena and back into boardroom discussions, where strategy counts for more than slogans. Modi today is the Advani of the early 1990s, even if the party’s Modi faction is trying to sell him as its new Vajpayee. It is unlikely that Modi’s ‘development’ plank will propel the party to power.
What the BJP needs is a coalition, and Advani understands the implications of this better than the rival faction is willing to admit. He has learnt a thing or two from experience. It was his BJP that made Vajpayee PM, and it could yet be Modi’s BJP that crowns him. Advani may have reduced himself from the party’s guiding light to a factional leader. But his new role is no less exciting than Modi’s.