The shock treatment that Advani administered to the BJP has simply no parallel in India’s modern political history, says Sudheendra Kulkarni in this piece written exclusively for Rediff.com.
Strength, said Mahatma Gandhi, does not come from physical capacity. It comes from one’s moral capacity. Strength in this sense is age-agnostic.
L K Advani, the 85-year-old and super-fit patriarch of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is an admirer of the Mahatma. He does not agree with all that Gandhiji did and preached. But in one key respect, he is more Gandhian than most Indian political leaders. If truthfulness is the source and the main criterion of one’s moral capacity, Advani is unfailingly truthful in his political and personal conduct.
When he does not want to reply to a certain question, he may not reveal the truth hidden in the answer to that question. But he will never tell an untruth. He will never mislead someone or indulge in a cunning or dishonest ploy for self-benefit.
In India’s increasingly competitive and divisive multi-party politics, there are many who do not agree with the ideology of the party that Advani belongs to, nor with his views and positions on many issues. Nevertheless, he commands respect across the political spectrum -- from the Congress party to the Communists, and from the Samajwadi Party to the Shiv Sena.
He is admired for his physical fitness and his mental agility, for his vast experience and dedication, but above all he is respected for his personal honesty, trustworthiness and integrity, ingredients that are becoming rare not only in politics and governance in general, but also in interpersonal relations within a political party.
Advani is Gandhian in another sense. He believes in the Mahatma’s maxim -- ‘In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place.’
He demonstrated it yet again when he stunned not only his own party, not only the political establishment but also the people of India with his extreme step of resigning from all the positions he held in the BJP on June 10.
He consulted none of his colleagues before taking this step, knowing fully well that a majority, if not all, of them would express their disapproval. What particularly startled others, and shocked his own party, was what he stated in the letter of resignation that he sent to Rajnath Singh, his party president.
A man with courage of conviction
Advani did not write a mere a one-line resignation letter. Rather, he said three things about the BJP, which no leader of the party had dared to say publicly in the past.
First, he said that he could not ‘reconcile either with the current functioning of the party or with the direction in which it is going’.
Second, he remarked that the BJP is no longer ‘the same idealistic party created by Dr (Syama Prasad) Mookerji, Pandit Deendayalji (Upadhyaya), Nanaji (Deshmukh) and (Atal Bihari) Vajpayeeji, whose sole concern was the country, and its people.’
Third, and most damningly, he censured many of the top and middle-level functionaries of the BJP by commenting that ‘most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas.’
Even Vajpayee, who founded and built the BJP along with Advani, never criticised the party openly like this, even though it was well known within party circles and outside that he had serious differences with the BJP’s stance on certain issues and, particularly, with the interference of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the affairs of the BJP. Therefore, in terms of the sheer directness and depth of criticism of one’s own party, and that too by someone who has been an architect of that party, the shock treatment that Advani administered to the BJP has simply no parallel in India’s modern political history.
The fact that he withdrew his resignation two days later does not take away the seriousness of his critical comments on his party, because he has not retracted from them. Rather, the BJP’s parliamentary board, its highest decision-making body, has assured that it will ‘properly address’ the concerns raised by him.
This, again, is unique in the history of the BJP.
Coming from any other person in the party, such severe and publicly voiced criticism of the party’s leadership would have meant an end to his or her association with the party. In Advani’s case, such is his strong moral standing within the BJP, that, formally at least, its parliamentary board has had to say that his concerns will be ‘properly addressed’.
Does Advani have a personal agenda?
Two questions arise here. Was Advani’s action dictated by the call of his conscience? Second, was his call of conscience guided by his own personal agenda?
A person’s conscience is his or her own inner voice that is never audible to others, and most often not fully audible even to the person concerned. Precisely for this reason, we cannot dismiss a stand taken by someone when that person claims it to be guided by the ‘inner voice’.
For example, we cannot scoff at Sonia Gandhi’s explanation for sacrificing the office of prime minister when her party had unanimously offered it to her in May 2004.
Advani has not claimed that his decision was in response to the call of his conscience. But it isn’t difficult to glean that he could not have taken such a momentous decision --especially one that he knew could potentially harm him in a debilitating way -- without it stemming from the depths of his agonising conversation with himself. After all, in preaching and practicing discipline and self-restraint in the internal functioning of the party, Advani has had few equals.
Precisely for this reason, he was both respected and feared by his party men, until his position was thoughtlessly weakened by the RSS in the wake of a manufactured controversy over his visit to Pakistan in 2005 and his comments on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
Therefore, if such a scrupulous disciplinarian chose to take the extreme step of not just resigning from all the key party posts, but also severely chastising his party’s senior colleagues for both ‘the current functioning’ of the BJP and ‘the direction in which it is going’, it is reasonable to conclude that Advani’s conscience has spoken through his action.
But did Advani do what he did because he too was guided by a personal agenda? Specifically, was his action triggered by the fact that he had been ‘sulking’ -- a favorite word in a section of the Indian media in its description of his current state of mind -- because the party is not going to contest the next parliamentary elections by declaring him as its prime ministerial candidate?
The party did fight the 2009 general elections under his leadership, and faced a debacle, winning less seats than it had done in 2004. There is little doubt that Advani’s leadership, weakened from within by certain party leaders and the Sangh Parivar, contributed largely to the BJP’s defeat. On critical issues and at critical junctures, when he ought to have shown toughness and foresight, he chose to remain weak and indecisive. This proved to be costly since it undermined his own political attack, mounted in the course of his poll campaign, on Dr Manmohan Singh as the ‘weakest ever prime minister’.
Nobody has ever accepted Dr Singh to be a strong prime minister. His strength in office came, and continues to come, from a politically strong leader like Sonia Gandhi who believed in him.
In Advani’s case, he was indeed debilitated by the Sangh Parivar, which no longer believed in him and which, moreover, stoked the leadership ambitions of some in the so-called ‘second generation’ functionaries of the BJP.
Since the defeat of the BJP in the 2009 parliamentary elections, there is nothing in Advani’s conduct to suggest that he has indulged in scheming and manipulation to advance his personal agenda. Yes, he has not announced his retirement from active politics, much against the wishes of many people in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. This is perhaps because he may genuinely believe, and rightly so, that he still has something vital to contribute to the nation and to the party that he has so painstakingly built.
Five years later, a new ‘strong’ leader, Narendra Modi, has emerged in the BJP, whom many in the party and Sangh Parivar are over-eager to see as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
However, there are some in the BJP and the RSS, and many outside these two organisations, who reckon that he is not suitable to become India’s prime minister.
The elements of Modi’s ‘strength’ are qualitatively different from those of Advani’s, something that is well known to people who know both of them closely. As the chief minister of Gujarat for the past 12 years, Modi certainly has many admirable achievements to his credit. But are these achievements enough to qualify him to become India’s prime minister? No.
There is no evidence of Modi being a collaborative team worker within his own state party unit and government; how then can he be expected to manage a coalition?
It is a sign of the utter shortsightedness of the BJP, a party that claims to be guided by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya’s ‘Integral Humanism’, a philosophical treatise of lofty ideals, and a party whose tallest leader, Vajpayee, once praised Advani as the ‘Deendayalji of our times’, that it has now begun to value Modi’s ‘strengths’ over Advani’s.
An autocrat is sought to be enthroned, and a perfect democrat is being marginalised and humiliated. A self-centered leader who has shown that he cares two hoots for the party organisation and longtime party colleagues in his own state has suddenly become all powerful in the BJP’s national scheme of things, whereas a selfless leader who toiled for many decades to build the party brick by brick is being cast aside as a useless relic.
And a foxy party president, who has his own astrologically-induced delusions of becoming India’s prime minister, has allowed himself to be prodded and dictated by vested interests to undermine Advani’s position in the BJP.
And all this is being done with scant regard for the fact that one of the greatest achievements of the Atal-Advani leadership was to make the BJP acceptable to a large number of non-Congress and non-Communist parties, and thereby building India’s first stable federal coalition in the form of the National Democratic Alliance.
How completely free of myopia, intrigue, mistrust, manipulation, factionalism and unscrupulous power games the BJP was in 1996, 1998 and 1999 when Advani, as the supreme commander of the party organisation, had been striving single-mindedly for the cause of making Vajpayee India’s prime minister!
This stark contrast highlights the decay that has begun in the BJP -- and which will most certainly accelerate if Advani is further humiliated and forced either to retire or to rebel.
Advani’s message serves a timely warning to the party against its own impending downfall. The way forward for the BJP, if it is to avoid being marginalised and even decimated in the forthcoming general elections, is to reinstate Advani as its guiding force, ably assisted by a team of nimble second-rung leaders.
Whether Advani becomes India’s prime minister is immaterial. His greatness as a person and also as a political leader who has rendered service of abiding value to the nation will not be determined by whether or not he moves to 7, Race Course Road, although it must be said that, amongst all the active political leaders in India today, he is most suited to head the next government.
Why? Because, in spite of his age factor -- which is more than compensated for by the factors of experience, wisdom and fitness -- and with all the serious shortcomings in his party’s non-inclusive ideology and politics, the strengths that Advani personifies are still the strengths that ageless India needs.
Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Prime Minister’s Office between 1998 and 2004. He was also active in the BJP from 1996 to 2013, and worked closely with L K Advani. Kulkarni resigned from the BJP in January due to strong ideological differences over two issues -- the BJP’s neglect of Indian Muslims and the growing control of the RSS over the BJP. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.