There are some items of alarmism that don’t even endure for a week. The contrived hysteria over the communally divisive potential of L.K. Advani’s Bharat Uday Yatra was a classic seven-day wonder. With the first phase of the yatra from Kanyakumari to Amritsar having passed off without even a single incident of civil disorder, it may be opportune to address some of the real issues thrown up by the deputy prime minister in the course of his third extended journey around India.
The foremost question concerns the image of Advani. Portrayed casually as the archetypal hardliner, his recent utterances have been a source of consternation to many. Travelling south to north, Advani has been talking about development, good governance and Hindu-Muslim amity. Yes, he has also been talking about the inevitability of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. But this is couched in the assurance that the contentious temple will be built with the full cooperation and consent of both the communities, after a negotiated settlement. Indeed, apart from constant references to the ideological inheritance of the Bharatiya Janata Party, there is absolutely nothing the non-partisan secularist would find objectionable to anything Advani has said during the yatra.
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The questions have relevance since it is not usual for a front-ranking political leader to embark on a cross-country journey merely to be a messenger of feel-good. The Ram rath yatra of Advani in 1990 invoked raw passion and the gut anger of Hindus who imagined they had been short-changed by Neh- ruvian secularism. The upsurge was strong enough to redefine the political agenda for the next decade.
By comparison, this yatra is a more sedate and cerebral exercise. Although directly linked to the general election — which neither the Ram rath yatra of 1990 nor the 1997 Swarna Jayanti rath yatra were — its primary concerns are not made for emotional outbursts. Advani is not triggering anti-establishment sentiment, he is merely sensitizing people to the larger objectives of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government — to make India a developed economy and a global power by 2020. Not since Jawaharlal Nehru traversed the country preaching his (flawed) vision of state-sponsored development has a mainstream political leader tried to sell governance as a mass issue.
The break from conventional politics should not be underestimated. Unlike Nehru, and even Indira Gandhi, who built their political constituencies on the strength of what the government would do for the people, Advani is focussed on creating the necessary environment that will enable the people to harness their creative energies. The focus is not state action but the creation of a wholesome policy framework which includes peace in Jammu and Kashmir, better Indo-Pakistan ties, good Hindu-Muslim relations and a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya issue. The ideological shift is obvious.
Right-wing politics was always there in India. Advani’s contribution lies in catapulting liberal economics into the political arena, as a mass issue.
On the face of it, this is a break from the BJP’s traditional concerns centred on national identity. Yet, there is a strong element of continuity. When Advani talks development and good governance, he is not aiming to build a second Singapore in India — as Sri Lanka’s president, J.R. Jayawardene, did before the civil war erupted in 1983. He is positing India as a global power, both economically and politically.
In his presidential address to the BJP national council last month, M. Venkaiah Naidu described the party’s ambition as making India the jagatguru. Advani has been more circumspect, preferring the term vishwa shakti. But they both add up to the same thing — linking economics and governance to assertive nationalism. Hitherto the BJP has been associated with cultural nationalism, a euphemism for Hindutva. Now it is linking nationalism to governance.
A necessary concomitant of this approach is the attempt to broaden the ideological parameters of the BJP. In April 1998, in the first national executive meeting after the National Democratic Alliance government was form- ed, Advani drew inspiration from theNew Labour of the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and touched upon the need for a New BJP. He was drawing directly on his 59-day Swarna Jayanti rath yatra when he went around the country paying tributes to all those — regardless of ideological leanings — who fought for India’s independence. In speech after speech on that campaign, he touched on the need to respect everyone — Congressmen, revolutionaries, Hindu Mahasabha-ites and even communists — who were patriots. At Nagpur last week, he even paid tribute to the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad — an attitude that is in sharp contrast to the churlish disdain of the secularists for Veer Savarkar.
The implication was obvious to anyone who cared to understand. A mass-based political party, he seemed to be suggesting, needed to outgrow its origins. The Jan Sangh may have begun life as an extension counter of the Hedgewar Bhavan in Nagpur, but the BJP needed to look beyond. The choice was between operating as a narrow ideological party and making a bid for power by coopting all the positive strands of the Indian experience. This is precisely why the BJP has been so forthcoming in allowing its ranks to be swelled by those from very different political backgrounds. This is also why Advani has been linking the NDA experience with Nehru’s first ministry of 1947-51, which included representatives of non-Congress parties like B.R. Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee.
It is an expansion strategy that has also been dictated by the rapid degeneration of the Congress into a crowd around one family. For long, the BJP has sensed an emerging vacuum at the centre of politics. Advani’s political flexibility and innovation are essentially responses to this opportunity.
Of course, the transformation of the BJP would not have been possible without the symbolic presence of Vajpayee. The prime minister is not terribly ideological, but he is a master consensus-builder. What has helped him craft a broad-based alliance is the undeniable fact of his maintaining his distance from the Ayodhya movement. Advani’s 1990 rath yatra may have catapulted the BJP into the largest single party. However, as the experience of the 13-day Vajpayee government suggested, an incremental surge was not possible unless the BJP could placate the sceptics that it was not a revolutionary party. Advani’s image, unfortunately, argued against the success of the project. This is why Vajpayee is both central and indispensable to the BJP’s transition into what Advani calls an “aggregative” party.
The future of this project will depend substantially on the outcome of the polls. If, as is the conventional wisdom, the NDA wins and Vajpayee constitutes his third government, the focus will shift completely to governance. As for the party, there is a process of “Congress-ization” in progress. This is not an ethical transformation, although some lapses are evident, but an attempt to replicate the broad-based culture of a dominant party. The BJP is evolving into middle-age, but without discarding its youthful inheritance.
From the party of Hindutva, the BJP is attempting to become a “Nation First” party. It is seeking a role as a conventional right-of-centre party that blends liberal economics with nationalist culture. Advani’s latest yatra is an important step in this transformation.