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Is Advani's yatra his last attempt at prime ministership?

Last updated on: September 24, 2011 10:58 IST

Is Advani's yatra his last attempt at prime ministership?

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Neerja Chowdhury

Strange are the ways of Indian politics. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani, who was the most convinced supporter of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and among the first to "bless" his fast, and dependent on him because his Lok Sabha constituency Gandhinagar falls in Gujarat, now seems all set to queer the pitch for the Gujarat chief minister's national ambitions, says Neerja Chowdhury.

Advani's rath yatra against corruption will now be flagged off by none other than Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has made no secret of his dislike for Modi. The anti-graft yatra will start from Sitabdiara, birthplace of Jayaprakash Narayan, on the Bihar border, on JP's birthday, October 11.

For the first time in 20 years, Advani will also not be going to Somnath on Sunday, for the anniversary of his first rath yatra. Nor is he expected to attend Modi's huge rally in Gujarat, billed as "mother of all rallies", against injustice, also to be held on Sunday.

Approaching Nitish to flag off the rally would be like a red rag to Modi. At the time of the last Bihar elections, Nitish had gone out of his way to show he had little in common with Modi. He had even gone to the extent of cancelling a dinner for the BJP, to make his point.

During Modi's recent fast in Ahmedabad -- seen as a first step towards a larger national role for him -- Nitish had made his feelings clear. While his Janata Dal-United colleagues minced no words criticising Modi, Nitish, in an evocative gesture, just joined his hands and moved away, as if to say, "please spare me", when asked by reporters for his views.

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Image: Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani

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The Bihar CM is taking a calculated risk

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Nitish is taking a calculated risk with his decision to flag off Advani's rath yatra against corruption. It will undoubtedly be reminiscent of Advani's first rath yatra for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, which may not go down well with the Muslims who the Bihar CM has wooed with success.

It may also give a handle to opponent Rashtriya Janat Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, who had stopped Advani during his first yatra and sent him to jail.

Earlier, Advani had hoped to kick off his yatra in Gujarat -- either in Karamsad, Sardar Patel's birthplace, or in Porbandar, where Mahatma Gandhi was born -- and have Modi flag it off.

But Modi was reportedly cool to the idea. Advani acolytes suspect that the Gujarat CM had a role in getting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to summon Advani to try and get him to declare that he was not in the PM race.

The former deputy PM was called to Nagpur on Wednesday to meet RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. From all accounts, Bhagwat is believed to have conveyed to him that he should not think of prime ministership, that he should not stand for the Lok Sabha next time, but play mentor to younger leaders.

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Image: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar

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The RSS is not endorsing Modi -- YET

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However, emerging out of the meeting with the RSS top brass, Advani had made a cryptic statement, underscoring two points. That he had achieved more as an RSS and BJP worker than he would have done as PM, and that the country had given him much more than he would have got as PM.

But he did not unambiguously rule out 'PMship' for himself, as the Sangh might have wanted him to do.

The RSS has not yet given its endorsement for Modi's candidature for PM either. But as far as Advani was concerned, it did not want to take chances, and be confronted with a fait accompli as had happened with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayi.

The Sangh has to contend with its own dilemmas, and is going easy on the issue of the BJP's prime ministerial face. It would like Modi to come down a peg or two -- he has had open spats with the Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders, and has acquired a profile larger than the party or the Sangh, much to their worry.

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Image: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi

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The RSS leadership may not openly favour Modi

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But when push comes to shove, the RSS leadership may well decide to back him. They sense an opportunity for the BJP in the given situation today, and feel he may be the party's best bet.

But the RSS would like to do it in a way that he is obliged to them -- and therefore pushes the saffron agenda, if he becomes PM which, much to their chagrine, Vajpayee did not do.

But they would like this to happen without having to come out openly in his favour, and without being put in a position when they are obliged to ensure his victory, or to defend him when he does not come up to scratch.

Having burnt their fingers over Nitin Gadkari, who was their choice for BJP presidentship, they do no want to repeat the mistake.

Advani too is taking a calculated risk.  By having the yatra flagged off by the Bihar CM, it is as if both Advani and Nitish are cocking a snook at Modi. And Modi being who he is, does not forget or forgive easily.

Could this mean the end of the road for Advani, as far as electoral politics goes? Certainly, seeking an election from Gujarat will not be easy again.

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Image: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat

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Advani may still have some cards up his sleeve

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But then, he may be reconciled to this possibility. He may calculate that with the shadows lengthening -- he is 84 today and will be 87 by the time the next general election takes place -- he has to strike now, if at all he has to play a larger role.

If not, there is no reason why he, whose contribution to building up the BJP has been unparalleled, should be pushed around at this stage of his life.

Though Advani's yatra against graft did not evoke the response among the BJP cadre that Modi's upvas did, Advani may still have some cards up his sleeve, and Nitish is only one of them.

He is still in a position to decide the tickets for the next electoral round, being the chairperson of the BJP's parliamentary board, as also of its parliamentary party.

Knowing this, there will be many in the party who will want to stay on his right side. They can be expected to work hard to mobilise numbers for his yatra.

If the gap widens between Modi and Advani, will the BJP now see a battle royale, overt and covert? If this happens, it will put each BJP leader, big and small, in an unenviable position to decide whose side he or she is on. To stay neutral will become that much more difficult.


Image: A file photo showing Advani on his Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra in the late 1980s
Photographs: Rediff archives
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