The premature end of L.K. Advani’s tenure at the helm of the BJP will mark more than a change of guard at the top. The party will ready for an ideological makeover, more closely aligning with its core ideology of Hindutva.
It will probably lead to a clearer line of communication with the parent organisation, the RSS, even as this opens up the risk of political isolation.
There is deep irony in Advani’s bowing out symbolising a saffron revival. As party leader from 1986 on, he steered both the BJP and the country to an era where its ideology of Hindutva gained in appeal and attraction. If the rath yatra of 1990 brought in mass support especially in the north, Advani also showed he knew where the limits of such mobilisation lay.
In December 1995, he had proposed as head of a BJP-led coalition the man with a much wider appeal: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As home minister from 1998 on, Advani took care to stress that governance and not ideology was the hallmark of the ruling alliance.
Yet it is after the defeat of the NDA in May 2004 and his return to office that his appeal began to wear thin. The statement on Jinnah in Pakistan in June 2005 was a straw. But it mattered enormously in a party and a movement where strident anti-Pakistan sentiment is often linked to strong affirmation of how Hindutva alone can define what India is and stands for.
Finding a successor is easier said than done though many obvious candidates have a mark against them. Vajpayee remains the party’s most impressive icon, with an acceptance far beyond the rank and file of the saffron fraternity. But he is clearly in the twilight of a long innings. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi has the opposite image problem: while a purist in ideological matters, he has often found it difficult to carry his colleagues with him.
The well-known faces of the party such as Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj are all Rajya Sabha members without a strong state-level base. Narendra Modi is under continuing dissident pressure in Gujarat and cannot gain wider acceptance outside the state or in the larger body politic after the massacres of 2002.
Rajnath Singh fits the bill in more ways than one. But much will depend not only in the inner party conclaves of the BJP in Chennai and after; it will also hinge on the ability of Advani’s successor to fine-tune equations with Nagpur.
This is more than a matter of pleasing a few people at the helm in Hedgewar Bhavan in Reshim Bagh. Now that it is in Opposition, as was the case in the late 1980s, the BJP will become more, not less reliant on the spine provided to it by the functionaries of the RSS.
Advani did more than just fall foul of his movement’s core tenets. His appeal for open debate fell on deaf ears with even the second-rung leaders groomed by him across the decades stepping back.
The loss of a sense of timing and judgement were equally evident in the handling of state units in provinces where the party is still in power. In Bhopal, Uma Bharti virtually questioned his ability to keep the top rung together. Her return to the fold only exposed a hollowness of the national leadership, which this month’s episode with M.L. Khurana in Delhi has reinforced.
Contrary to perception, the record will go to show that Vajpayee, more than Advani, has had an iron fist in a velvet glove. His amiable nature has often concealed an ability to strike at detractors when he is on the up. Nanaji Deshmukh exited active party work in 1980 when the BJP was created. Two decades later, it was K.N. Govindacharya’s turn to feel the heat. He, too, left.
Advani was inducted into the leadership post after the UPA wrested power in 2004. His tenure was marked by swings in emphasis in ideological terms. His very first speech saw him evoke the Ram Mandir issue; the last in Chennai two days ago talked of “appeasement of minorities”.
Yet the search for the political centre proved his undoing. The very organisations that had spurred him on in the nineties now turned their ire on him. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal were only the most prominent such groups. Suddenly, his own fans bereft of direction denounced the lauha purush or man of steel.
It is here as much as in ties with the Sangh that the challenge will be a difficult one. A new leader from a different generation will signal renewed succession struggles as the party prepares for the post Atal-Advani era. This was not the case when the party was in office as the centre of gravity had shifted to the government.
Things are bound to be very different now. The Advani denouement will confirm that the baton of leader may pass from one to another but the Sangh cannot be defied by anyone.
How this will play out in the larger scheme of politics is still unclear. Hindutva is diminishing in appeal and the politics of coalitions is here to stay. Already Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar has called for reservation for Dalit Muslims. In the south, Chandrababu Naidu has moved on beyond the embrace of the BJP. In Chennai itself, the party, a mere marginal presence, has no relationship with any regional party.
Renewed stress on Hindutva may go down well with the Sangh but can hardly help the party. If it is indeed ready for a long haul, it will have to contend with a longer spell in Opposition than it may have bargained for.