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The BJP's identity crisis
September 28, 2005
Lal Kishenchand Advani, the Sangh Parivar's alleged loh purush, has finally eaten crow and announced he will 'demit office' as BJP president in December. This follows a bitter fight with the RSS, which was inaugurated in April when Sarasanghachalak K S Sudarshan publicly demanded that Messrs Vajpayee and Advani should make room for younger leaders.
Advani has tried to put a brave face on his humiliating exit by telling the RSS that it should not dictate or veto the BJP's political and organisational decisions. 'This perception,' he said, does 'no good either to the party or to the RSS.'
Advani's last act of 'self-assertion' or 'defiance' left many BJP leaders dumbstruck. But the central, overwhelming truth is that the RSS ordered him to quit the party presidency, and he abjectly capitulated. No amount of hair-splitting about whether the RSS and the BJP have a 'symbiotic' relationship, or a mother-child 'umbilical cord,' can mask the fundamentally skewed nature of their ties. The RSS is the pater familias of the Parivar. Its word is final.
The writing on the wall became all-too-visible after an RSS conclave in Surat decided on July 2-5 that Advani must go. Advani started looking for an 'honourable' exit and begged Vajpayee to plead for a 'compromise' which would at least let him choose the timing of his departure.
A deal was reached on July 17, but only after Advani grovellingly telephoned Sudarshan, visited the RSS's Jhandenwalan office, and genuflected before second-rank Sangh leaders Mohan Bhagwat and Suresh Soni.
This genuflection robbed Advani of whatever little authority he had left within the BJP after the fierce controversy triggered by his remarks over Mohammad Ali Jinnah, at the end of which he had to gulp down a BJP resolution which sharply disassociated the party from him.
All hell broke loose in the party. Lesser leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti, and later, even Madan Lal Khurana, Pyarelal Khandelwal, Jana Krishnamurthy and Bangaru Laxman felt free to take pot-shots at Advani.
Khurana openly defied Advani by asking him to step down and was expelled from party membership for six years. But within three days, Advani had to backtrack. This was a way of needling Advani, and more crucially, of undermining his authority.
Behind the Khurana drama lurked a much bigger power struggle: one between Advani and Vajpayee himself. Vajpayee grew resentful that instead of showing gratitude to him for rescuing him from an RSS assault in July, Advani had regrouped his cronies and started behaving as if he were the boss who would stay leader forever.
It was tragic (at least from the BJP's view), yet inevitable, that the repeated confrontations in which the BJP president found himself embroiled had to end with a sordid and now-barely-disguised personal squabble between the two party's 'tallest' leaders.
Both stand greatly reduced in their moral-political stature as the BJP faces its gravest crisis in its 25 year-long history. For a long time, the BJP successfully papered over the clash of ambitions between the two men.
It worked out a via media and division of labour between them, which survived numerous differences: over tactics, the anti-Babri mobilisation, sharing of power in the Cabinet, and the Gujarat pogrom. In the last few years, however, the rivalry has come into the open, with all its crassness.
Advani groupie M Venkaiah Naidu gave the game away in 2003 when he denigrated Vajpayee as vikas purush, while glorifying the loh purush. Soon, other skirmishes followed, leading to Vajpayee's sackcloth-and-ashes tantrums and periodic resignation threats, followed by the assertion that he neither was 'tired' nor had 'retired.'
Both men used different leaders of the Sangh Parivar to fire darts to each other. They have been barely on speaking terms in recent weeks. Now, Vajpayee has had the final say. By underlining Advani's 'self-effacing' contribution to the party and talking in Chennai about how he always prefers to be 'in the background', Vajpayee subtly hinted that the man should get back into the shadows and stay there.
Advani should be judged not merely by his inept handling of relations with Vajpayee, but by his long-term role in shaping the BJP. Until recently, he went to great lengths to put the RSS in the forefront of the Parivar, whether through the Ayodhya campaign or reassertion of Hindutva.
As he put it: 'Our inflexible stand on our association with the RSS gave us a distinct ideological identity, about which we have never been apologetic nor will we ever be.' He acknowledged that Hindutva and the Ayodhya campaign were the key to the BJP's success in graduating from two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 89 seats in 1989.
Politically, Advani gained substantially from the RSS's 'interference' in BJP affairs, about which he now bitterly complains. He couldn't have become the deputy prime minister in 2002 without the Sangh's pleading for him. It's a sour irony that the Frankenstein he himself built up devoured him!
Despite his hardliner instincts, Advani lacked firm convictions. Through his six years in office, he advocated the separation of ideology and governance and emphasised pragmatism. He repeatedly said: 'In India, a party based on ideology can at the most come to power in a small area. It cannot win the confidence of the entire country.'
But when the BJP lost the 2004 election, he attributed its defeat to its preoccupation with 'issues of governance' and its neglect of its Hindutva 'core constituency.'
However, by early this year, he again returned to the 'pragmatism' theme. According to his supporters, Advani concluded from the BJP's rout in the 2004 election that religio-political mobilisation has reached a plateau; the BJP cannot regain power by relying on it -- even if it successfully revives the Ayodhya campaign. Growing caste divisions in the Gangetic plains prelude that.
The Sangh was disgusted at Advani's repeated 'duplicity.' Even more maladroit was Advani's decision to pick the 'Jinnah-as-a-great-leader' issue as a means of confronting the RSS, which along with the VHP, had become overbearing towards him by early this year.
Advani was dialling the wrong number. Focusing on just one speech by Jinnah, while neglecting his embrace of the Two-Nation Theory and pivotal role in the Pakistan movement, was not only intellectually dishonest; it was plain tactless.
Advani could have convinced nobody in the Parivar of the need for 'moderation' by doing so, and emphasising that India and Pakistan are 'separate and sovereign,' and Partition is 'unalterable.' This was a breathtaking leap for a man brought up on Savarkar's ideology of Hindutva, but it impressed nobody.
The more Advani tried to 'Vajpayeee-ise' himself, the more unconvincing and abjectly contradictory he became. One of his greatest mistakes was his failure to understand Vajpayee's chameleon-like character, his forked tongue, and his ability to play both sides of the street. Vajpayee defended and rooted for Hindutva, and yet held out 'the hand of friendship' to Pakistan.
Vajpayee proudly reiterated his life-long identity as a swayamsevak. But he visited the Minar-e-Pakistan in 1999, bestowing respectability on the creation of Pakistan. He placated the RSS from time to time, and yet sacked Sangh ideologues like K N Govindacharya.
Vajpayee preached Rajdharma to Narendra Modi during the Gujarat pogrom, but within days, he asked, 'kisne lagayee aag (who lit the fire in Godhra?).'
Advani, with his ham-handed and unconvincing ways, was simply unable to straddle these different worlds. In recent days, he gave the impression that he was led by little more than greed for power. Power has of course been the driving force behind other BJP leaders, including Vajpayee too.
But Advani claimed to be different. He lost credibility when he was seen to be addicted to holding two posts.
Advani is now a lame-duck BJP president. Top BJP leaders are shunning him. His importance will shrink -- irrespective of what happens in the Bihar elections, where the BJP-Janata Dal (United) might do better than earlier. Advani's position as Leader of the Opposition will be further weakened.
The National Democratic Alliance is already in a bad way, with internal desertions and receding support from once-friendly parties like the Telegu Desam. The BJP is riven with infighting in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and only to a slightly lesser extent, in Rajasthan -- all four states where it rules. Elsewhere too, it is gripped by factionalism, lack of direction and policy bankruptcy.
The BJP's identity crisis is acute. It simply cannot decide whether it should be a 'modern,' contemporary, mainstream party which is responsible to the electorate and its political constituency, or remain an organisation driven by primary loyalty to an unelected body like the RSS, with its parochial, all-male, secret society-like, viciously communal culture.
Advani's exit marks the end of an era, but not the end of this identity crisis. On the contrary, the crisis seems set to further worsen.