Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Last Stand Against Change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since he signalled his misgivings over the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the first among equals in the BJP, L.K. Advani has acquired a clutch of new friends. However, just as his controversial pronouncements on Mohammed Ali Jinnah during his Pakistan visit of 2005, earned him the short-lived backing of notables who otherwise harboured a strong allergy to the wider cause he represented, his most recent revolt has delighted all those who froth in the mouth at the very mention of Modi.

Unfortunately, in winning new friends, Advani has inevitably triggered a strong backlash within the BJP. His convoluted paean to Jinnah provoked a grassroots revolt and finally led to his removal as party president and the strengthening of the RSS grip over the BJP. In 2005, Advani lost the larger emotional battle but somehow kept a tenuous hold on the levers of decision-making by remaining Leader of Opposition and head of the parliamentary party. Furthermore, by converting a battle over ideas into a loyalty test, he was successful in retaining a position of nominal primacy in the party. He rightly calculated that the second generation leaders, most of them mentored by him, would never allow their dissatisfaction to overwhelm their larger gratitude to the man who catapulted the BJP from the fringes to the centre stage of Indian politics.

The Jinnah controversy, however, also led to the emergence of a very different Advani. First, the implicit trust that existed between him and the RSS was broken. Increasingly, Advani came to view the RSS involvement in the BJP as over-intrusive. He was particularly resentful that he had ceased to be the last word on party affairs. Secondly, Advani equated the criticism of his Jinnah pronouncements by his erstwhile protégés as acts of personal betrayal. Ironically, this bitterness with an ungrateful world increased after the NDA’s resounding defeat in the 2009 general election.

Ideally, as is the norm in democratic politics, Advani should have hung up his boots after the 2009 defeat. Instead, he retreated into a make-believe world, surrounded by durbaris who saw him as their only protection against a party where new forces were rising and new equations were being forged. By the time he was removed as Leader of Opposition and elevated to a ceremonial role as chairman of NDA, Advani had for all practical purposes become a resentful faction leader. At the same time, his desire to regain his absolute authority never waned and this could explain his unilateral decision to embark on yet another yatra against black money in 2011. Tragically for him, the political impact of that punishing journey was negligible. It was clear that Advani’s attempt to demonstrate his mass appeal had come to nought. Both the BJP and the electorate were looking for new leaders who could better connect to the 21st century and the aspirations of a young and even impetuous India.

The tell-tale signs of Advani’s diminishing appeal were there for all to see. The requests by candidates during Assembly elections for a public meeting to be addressed by Advani shrank embarrassingly. The central office often had to browbeat BJP candidates into hosting an Advani meeting just to prevent the old war-horse from feeling completely unwanted.

The tragedy of Advani is that he has been living in complete denial of his waning appeal. He has been single-mindedly seeking, or has been egged on to seek, yet another throw of the dice in 2014. However, unlike 2009 when his prime ministerial ambitions were accommodated by a party that didn’t have another fully groomed alternative, this time the rank-and-file of the party has clearly made up its mind. Initially a section of the RSS was hesitant and, indeed, a little fearful of Project Modi. But after some delicate Track-II negotiations, Nagpur has thrown its weight behind the Gujarat Chief Minister. Modi, it is now acknowledged, is the only leader who connects with both the initiated and an aspirational India.

Whether it was the unflinching stand of the RSS top brass or the onrush of grassroots emotionalism that finally prevailed in Goa last Sunday is best left to posterity to judge. What can be said with certainty is that Advani didn’t endear himself to either the RSS or the BJP by first trying to create impediments in the path of Modi, then boycotting the Goa meeting and finally resigning from a few (but not all) party posts. Insofar as he has successfully converted the boisterous celebrations in the BJP ranks into what appears to the outside world as an inner-party war, Advani still remains a formidable strategist.

His moves are well thought out. First, he has openly signalled his displeasure over Modi’s emergence as the BJP face for the 2014 election. He has become the rallying point for those leaders who are a little afraid of the consequences of a Modi takeover. He has made what was a pretty clear decision seem terribly contested. Secondly, he has imposed roadblocks in the path of the BJP’s alliance partners being overwhelmed by the Modi machine. This, he hopes, will prevent the BJP from putting all their eggs in the Modi basket and tempering their projection of the Gujarat Chief Minister. And finally, by muddying the waters, he has sought to keep alive his own chances of emerging as a stop-gap, consensus choice in the event of a fractured popular verdict.

There is a problem with this carefully crafted plan to convert defeat into victory. Unlike the Congress which lays great store on calculation, the BJP is a party that is inordinately influenced by emotionalism. In the BJP’s eyes, Advani is not an honourable dissenter as Vapayee was in the Ayodhya years; he is being increasingly cast as a petulant veteran who can’t stomach change.  

Whatever the future of Modi, Advani today stands diminished in the eyes of those who once venerated him. His new admirers will use him, but as a human shield against the advance of the very party he served with distinction for so long. 

Indian Express, June 12, 2013

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