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The path ahead for Advani and the BJP

December 21, 2009 19:38 IST

Advani now needs to play the role of an elder statesman and steer the fortunes of his troubled party, writes Vivek Gumaste.

Nearly six months after biting the dust in the Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party continues to writhe in existential agony as it seeks to finds its moorings in a political landscape that is turning hostile and becoming increasingly unfamiliar; a task made all the more difficult by the functional vacuum in leadership resulting from the crippling effect of the post election fracas on Lal Krishna Advani's leadership. The current organizational restructuring purports to address this deficit. However it would be a colossal blunder to sideline Advani completely or if he himself decides to take himself out of the picture.

Defeat is a surreal moment which brings out the worst in a person or an organisation and so has it been with the BJP. Pent up frustrations have exploded disclosing unimaginable malice, subliminal rivalries have surfaced finding in this difficult time an opportune moment to settle old scores, exposing, in  the process, the raw underbelly of a party that prided itself on its exemplary discipline.

This mad exhibition of uncontrolled emotions needs to be capped and this unbridled energy channeled into a constructive format that revitalises the party saving it from more rot. And the man who has the greatest stake in this recovery, and the man who can effect this change is paradoxically the person at the center of the storm: Advani himself albeit in a transformed role, for he remains despite his recent attrition, still the tallest leader in the BJP. This must be unquestionably Advani's brief.

The Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri Masjid has presented the party with a golden opportunity, reminding the BJP of Advani's key role in the party's rise to centrestage and bringing about a semblance of unity, which Advani must capitalise on by projecting himself as a leader par excellence with no personal axe to grind and devoid of any official strings or divisive influences. The elevation to the position of chairman, a position specifically created for him, helps him slip in to this new role.

For a man whose entire life has been single mindedly dedicated to the zeal of Hindutva and for someone who was placed on the highest pedestal of the party, this past bout of acerbic castigation must be an unpleasant and challenging experience. But it was also a moment that called for introspection; an exercise in self-analysis that Advani should undertake, in seclusion, free of the hindering impact of his own personal ambition and bereft of the distracting counsel of his so called well wishers.

It has been a long and arduous journey for Advani, one that has taken him from the riot torn city of pre-independence Karachi to the elite political circles of New Delhi. It is also a passage that embodies the heart rending agony of the cruel vivisection of India from a Hindu perspective, complete with alienation from the land of his ancestors, displacement from the place of his birth and relocation as a refugee in his own country. While the myriad other leaders of the Hindutva movement have embraced the ideology through the force of sheer mental conviction, Advani's commitment to the cause bears the stamp of  practical reality firmed by his own personal tribulation.

An ideology needs to be translated into a political reality to be fruitful. Ideas that remain confined to the realm of thought can only be classified as utopian with no utility value. Marxism penned by Karl Marx found an evangelical interlocutor in Russia in the form of Lenin. Likewise it was Advani who through his innovative rath yatra awakened a dormant nationalistic urge among a sizable section of Indians and placed the BJP the via media of the Hindutva movement squarely on the centrestage.

In the 1984 general election, the BJP netted a paltry 2 seats with a popular vote of 7.3 percent. While the BJP improved on this performance by increasing its vote share to 11.36 percent in the next general election, it was the 1991 election that proved to be the turning point. Its share of the electorate skyrocketed to 20.11 percent, a whopping increase of close to 10 percentage points; a feat that even the overwhelming sympathy factor in favour of Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 was unable to replicate for the Congress party. One cannot but attribute this phenomenal rise of the BJP to Advani's brilliant strategy.

Yes, there have been great stalwarts of the Hindutva movement in the past like Veer Savarkar, Shyam Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya who finessed the tenets of this philosophy and laid the framework for Hindutva to become the dominant political ideology of India of the 20th century. But there is no denying that it was Advani who gave this concept a practical connotation making it an acceptable and understandable theology applicable to day to day politics. Advani is to Hindutva as Lenin is to Marxism. And it is this legacy of Advani that is in jeopardy today and one that Advani needs to salvage.

Despite his spectacular success in marshalling his party's resources, Advani was content to play second fiddle to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the larger interest of the organisation. He was a perfect foil to Vajpayee. While Vajpayee played the role of an elder statesman pitching his inclusive appeal to the nation at large, it was Advani the 'nuts and bolt' man who countered the mundane practical hurdles. Despite the talk of a subtle rivalry between the two deliberately played up by the media, I cannot recall of even a single instance of Advani challenging Vajpayee for a position of power be it that of party president or the coveted post of the prime minister of India: a clear testimony to his self-effacing nature.

But no human being is a saint. Personal ambition lurks in the back of the mind of even the austere ascetic. So it was not unnatural for Advani to aspire to the position of prime minister post Vajpayee. Ambition per se is not a derogatory trait and can be a driving force incentivising many an individual to attain seminal success. But when egotism supplants altruism and becomes the end point rather than an incidental catalyst, it becomes a liability. That precisely is the tragedy of Advani at the fag end of his illustrious political career. What should have been the pinnacle of his career has turned out to be a horrendous nightmare.

Given the right course correction, Advani can still make amends benefiting both the party and himself. While Jaswant Singh's tirade can be dismissed as the piquancy of a caned schoolboy, there are rumblings from other quarters that Advani needs to heed and address even if they represent misperception rather than actuality. After all life is all about perception at times.

Anil Chawla, a dedicated party sympathiser in an open letter to Sudheendra Kulkarni (a one time Advani aide and a key member of his kitchen cabinet in this election) complains about groupism in the party (LK and His Gang. Outlook India, July 11):

When you analyse the BJP and RSS with a cold surgeon like approach, you ignore the role that LK's family and coterie has come to play in the party. Elections of 2009 were not fought by BJP against Congress, but were reduced by LK and his gang to a war by LK against one and all. The party has been systematically hijacked and decimated over the past decade and a half by LK's coterie.

A scathing indictment of Advani with a hint of a personal grudge! Nevertheless the charges leveled in this censure are weighty and Advani needs to address them for these very concerns that of an exclusionary style of leadership and parochialism find an echo in the writings of other respected party members as well.

In an ostensibly general expose of how political parties degenerate but one undoubtedly prompted by the crisis in the BJP, Arun Shourie, a BJP Member of Parliament (How the Party Withers Away. Indian Express, July 16) surmises:

The leader, cocooned, does not notice the ground slipping away, in part because he is by now surrounded by clever courtiers. The moment a victory turns up, they are able to produce a dozen reasons to show that it is due to the leader, and, incidentally, themselves. The moment a defeat occurs, they are able to produce two dozen reasons to prove that it is due to others. And another score why the defeat is due to special, transient, exceptional, local circumstances, and, therefore, is no cause for worry.

The circle becomes tighter and more and more homogenous, more and more subservient and sycophantic.

As the leader and his cohorts move within this ever-narrower circle, they see less and less of what is going on without the circle, they hear less and less.

Advani stands at a crucial juncture of his career and one that calls for a paradigm shift in his style of functioning: a move that will not only redeem his reputation but place the party firmly on the right track. And if he does not take these remedial measures there could be a far greater casualty: Advani's legacy in the Hindutva movement reemphasised by the recent Liberhan report and the future of the BJP itself.

In Advani's autobiography, My Country, My Life, there is a very insightful description of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya:

It was Deendayalji's conscious choice not to become the party president and, instead, remain in relative anonymity to build the party, patiently and meticulously. He travelled across the country, training thousands of young men and women with his motivational lectures, encouraging them to live a life of struggle and sacrifice in service of the nation, grooming new leaders, and giving the right guidance to the fledgling party on a wide variety of political, economic and social issues that dominated the national scene. Deendayalji loved to interact with people of all categories and of diverse ideological inclinations, giving them a patient hearing and also communicating his own thoughts to them. Thus, he soon had admirers all across the political spectrum.

In view of Deendayalji's track record of service to the party and his growing stature in national politics, his colleagues at the central level as well as the state units of the party would, almost every year, urge him to become the party chief. But he would politely decline each time. Such was the level of his natural inclination for self-effacement that he was uncomfortable carrying the designation of presidentship of the party; attachment to any symbol of power was out of sync with his personality.

It is time for Advani to emulate his idol. He must relinquish all trappings of power, cut himself off from the coterie that surrounds him, and divest himself from the opportunistic advisors that crowded him (fortunately some have already disappeared) and assume the role of an involved elder statesman devoid of every iota of personal interest. In doing so he will be able to navigate the party through these trying times and fulfill the mission that he set out to accomplish from Karachi in 1947.

Vivek Gumaste