By Swapan Dasgupta
Soon after the BJP’s resident Humpty Dumpty proclaimed that L.K. Advani would remain Leader of Opposition not merely for the full term of the 15th Lok Sabha but for the “next 50-100 years”, an impish party worker forwarded me an SMS doing the rounds: “There is a move”, it read, “to name all railway waiting rooms after Advani so people can wait forever without feeling upset.”
Political defeat can be very cruel, especially for former next Prime Ministers —to paraphrase Al Gore’s self-deprecating humour. The past three months have been particularly harsh on the man who was once lauded as the “iron man”. From being the BJP’s tallest leader and one of the most respected figures in politics, Advani has suffered a steep fall. He has been mercilessly attacked by a former colleague like Jaswant Singh who nurtures a deep sense of betrayal, uninhibitedly lampooned by a frustrated Arun Shourie, deserted by his favourite harbinger of bad advice, and mocked by a Twitter generation that knows only the present. Beset by controversy after controversy, including the one on Kandahar that may make it difficult for him to face Parliament, Advani has seen a dramatic erosion of his moral authority in a party he nurtured with dedication and foresight. In the past 10 days, as the BJP implodes around him, he has even borne the ignominy of being pitied and patronised by individuals of amoebic standing such as “Tarzan”. He deserved better.
The irony is that Advani’s unfortunate predicament is largely self-inflicted. On May 16, it was apparent to everyone but the most obtuse that the unequivocal rejection of the BJP and NDA also amounted to the rejection of their prime ministerial aspirant, around whom the campaign was built. True, the battle was never entirely presidential and other factors also shaped the final verdict. But what was certain is that Advani didn’t succeed in attracting incremental votes in the same way as Vajpayee did. If the BJP’s dip from 181 seats in 1999 to 138 in 2004 was occasioned by anti-incumbency, the further fall to 117 seats in 2009 could be attributed to crumbling alliances and the absence of Vajpayee. The reasons for Advani’s failure to give the party a boost can be debated but the failure itself is undeniable.
Advani’s inability to be an electoral magnet didn’t imply that he was only fit for relegation into the dustbin of history; it merely underlined his limitations in one department of politics and that too at a moment in time. In the past, political leaders have been decisively rejected in one election only to make a spectacular comeback in another one. Vajpayee was a casualty in 1984; he became the flavour of the season in 1998 and 1999. Rajiv Gandhi’s fall between 1984 and 1989 was dramatic, as was Indira Gandhi’s rejection in 1977. But none of them ever lost their electoral potential.
Those who persuaded Advani to re-assume the Leader of Opposition role argued that a man who the party thought fit for the PM’s job on May 15 couldn’t be junked as Shadow PM’s job on May 16. It was a flawed argument. There was never any question of the BJP projecting an 87-year-old veteran in 2014 as its PM candidate. This year’s election was Advani’s last shy at the top job. His failure meant that it was time for a new face.
Advani’s instinctive reaction to the 2009 verdict was right. He wanted to step down from any formal leadership position but not withdraw from active politics. This retreat would have allowed him to use his considerable moral authority to facilitate a smooth transition and, more important, to guide the BJP in a responsible direction. He would have naturally acquired the status of Chief Mentor and, in effect, been the most important voice in the BJP for the next few years.
By undertaking a line job yet again, Advani miscalculated seriously. He incurred the wrath of those who were never at ease with him in the first place. Today, they are using Vajpayee’s name to take devastating pot shots and wound him grievously. Secondly, his decision to bat on allowed the likes of Rajnath Singh to use him as a human shield to undertake sniper attacks on all those he perceives as threats. If someone as small-minded as the BJP President is merrily lighting bush fires, it is because Advani’s moral authority has plummeted.
The BJP wouldn’t have been gripped by debilitating convulsions if Advani had taken a leaf from the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Deng Xiaobing and even Sonia Gandhi—leaders whose authority never depended on the positions they held. Indians love sacrifice, at least the pretence of it.