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LK Advani could've won the race by sitting out

October 11, 2011 18:41 IST
What has gone against Advani is the sense that he is desperate to become PM, says Neerja Chowdhury

When LK Advani first made the announcement about his anti-graft yatra, it was seen by his party colleagues as a fait accompli. But, by the time the yatra kicked off on Tuesday from Sitabdiara in Bihar, the Bharatiya Janata Party veteran had managed to get the backing of all sections.  This included the Gen X leaders in the party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,  with even Narendra Modi – who had initially not taken kindly to the move, refusing to flag it off  from Gujarat, which was Advani's original idea -- eulogising his "mentor".

Ironically, Advani has to thank none other than Modi for a greater acceptability of his initiative, and this is the paradox of Indian politics. Modi's 'anshan' had pressed panic buttons among second line leaders in the party.  Modi has a knack for turning a situation to his advantage politically, but with his fast and his decision to stay away from the party's national executive  in Delhi, the Gujarat CM over-reached this time. If there is one thing that is considered unforgiveable by the party and the RSS, it is defiance of the organisation and trying to acquire a profile larger than the party.   

Had it not been for Modi's fast and sadbhavna mission -- seen as an attempt to project himself as the party's PM candidate -- Advani might not have got the kind of support that he is now getting from Gen X leaders in the BJP. Most of them -- Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and, of course, Anant Kumar who is incharge of the yatra -- were present alongside Advani at Sitabdiara. For the Gen X leaders, Advani is, at the end of the day, a player in the short run, and therefore less of a threat, whereas Modi would be a long term runner.

They, and this included BJP president Nitin Gadkari, immediately gravitated towards Advani. The Gadkari-Advani truce was evident at the high profile release of the compilation of Gadkari's speeches, Vikas ke Path, at Delhi's Siri Fort last week. It was a virtual "relaunch" of Gadkari, with Advani presiding over the event and RSS sah karyavah Suresh Soni present.

Clearly, Advani and Gadkari have decided to support each other tactically, and the function pointed to the possibility of Gadkari getting a second term as party president, when his present term ends in the winter of 2012. There is no love lost between Modi and Gadkari, after the BJP president decided to rehabilitate Modi opponent Sanjay Joshi in the party, though this could not have been done without the blessings of the RSS brass

The party was also compelled to close ranks behind Advani as it did not want to come out as a house divided, just when the dipping graph of the Congress provided it a golden opportunity to go for the kill. A yatra against corruption was also an opportunity to regain the political space ceded to non-political actors like Anna Hazare, when the BJP had been raising issues of corruption around the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum since last year.

A yatra, at which Advani is a pro, is also a good mobilisational tool. It would enable Advani and others accompanying him to harp on the misdoings of the United Progressive Alliance on a day-to-day basis in different towns and cities in 21 states through which the yatra will pass through during the next 38 days. The BJP is awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling on whether Home Minister P Chidambaram should be probed in the 2G affair, which could further queer the pitch for the UPA.

The Sangh, though unhappy with Advani's action, could not oppose the yatra beyond a point, though RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly made it clear to Advani that he could not be the party's prime ministerial face.

The Sangh is believed to have ensured that Advani's jan chetna yatra only touches Uttar Pradesh, so to speak, though the state goes to the polls next year and in the normal course the yatra could have been utilised to create public opinion in favour of the BJP.

The party has planned two other yatras starting in UP from October 13, one from Mathura to be led by Rajnath Singh and the other from Varanasi to be headed by Kalraj Mishra, and they will criss-cross the state, and culminate in Ayodhya. Leaders like Uma Bharti and Vinay Katiyar, both associated with the Ayodhya movement, will also be associated with them. The choice of Kashi and Mathura as starting point of these yatras, and Ayodhya as their culmination, has obviously been done with care to underline their association with Hindutva and the movement for a temple. It is possible that the Sangh leadership did not want a yatra against corruption to mix the messages emanating from UP at the same time.

Spurned by Modi, Advani managed a coup of sorts by persuading Nitish Kumar to flag off the yatra from JP's birthplace and on his birthday. With this one deft move, both Advani and Nitish, who is a red rag for Modi, cocked a snook at the Gujarat chief minister.

But more important, Advani managed to get an important ally in the National Democratic Alliance on his side. The Janata Dal-United has been more unyielding on the communal issue than the BJP's other allies, Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena. While Nitish lent his full support to Advani on his anti-corruption mission, Advani singled out Nitish as a person with prime ministerial potential.  

Can Advani become prime minister? He is the tallest leader in the BJP today, is a man of integrity (in a climate where corruption is agitating people), he has made an unparalleled contribution in building up the BJP. The inhibiting factor cannot just be  his age (84), for after all Anna Hazare has enthused the young in India today. So had Jayaprakash Narayan when he led a movement against corruption which led to the ouster of Indira Gandhi in 1977 and Advani recalled at length in Sitabdiara the legacy of the JP movement and its association with him and the BJP.

The fact is that Advani did not click in 2009, when he was projected by his party as its prime ministerial candidate. It is also true that the announcement of Modi's upvas enthused the BJP cadres more than did Advani's yatra.

The only way Advani can become prime minister is if mid-term polls are held sooner than later. And if the BJP emerges in a position to lead a government. And if Advani emerges as the choice in the absence of consensus over any other name. There are many ifs and buts in this process. What has gone against him is the sense that he is desperate to become PM.

Sonia Gandhi's acceptance at the popular level and her moral authority increased when she gave up her claim to premiership in 2004. Had Advani declared clearly that he was not in the prime ministerial race, it is possible that he might have become more acceptable, and his chances might have improved. For ours is a strange country, which still respects renunciation.
Neerja Chowdhury in New Delhi