Advani once redefined India’s political contours. Time was when even his ‘unilateralism’ didn’t ruffle the Parivar’s feathers.
Few know that LK Advani was often accused by Sangh Parivar apparatchiks of exercising ‘unilateralism’. In the history of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its earlier incarnation, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), Advani’s influence on the organisation was not only overweening but also extended for decades, from the 1970s to 2013.
His numero uno status was frowned upon for the first time in 2004 when the NDA led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the general elections. Advani assumed the role of the leader of opposition in the new Lok Sabha by pushing an ageing and frail Vajpayee aside. But what got the Sangh Parivar leadership’s goat was his usurpation of the BJP president’s post, vacated by M Venkaiah Naidu on personal grounds. This monopolisation of the BJP’s top post and a crucial legislative post clearly defied the party’s principle of “one man one post”.
Of course, those were Advani’s finest hours and his writ ran within the party completely though he began facing hostility from different constituents of the Sangh Parivar. For instance, Dattopant Thengadi, one of the most respected leaders within the Parivar and founder of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a trade union wing of the RSS, refused to even interact with Advani in public. VHP chief Ashok Singhal too was so upset with him that he eschewed Advani’s presence in public functions.
Though the strain in his relations with the Sangh Parivar leadership came to a flashpoint in 2005, Advani – an otherwise astute leader and a sound political strategist – misread the signals. His confidence emanated from his firm grip on the party’s organisational structure. After all, the party’s younger leadership was groomed and nurtured by him. In June 2005 when Advani visited Pakistan and praised Mohammad Ali Jinnah, he clearly erred on the side of hubris and self-deception. His assumption that he would get support within the BJP’s organisational structure was soon belied. His close confidants like Sushma Swaraj refused to stand by him. The RSS leadership clearly pinned him down by orchestrating a chorus of protests from leaders like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
Quite upset over not getting support from his juniors, Advani on his return from Pakistan resigned as the BJP president and handed over his resignation letter to the party’s then general secretary (organisation) Sanjay Joshi. The RSS leadership, in tandem with the next-generation leadership of the BJP, was clearly wary of Advani’s stature. Yet they firmed up their mind to ease him out of the party post – till Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, intervened. Modi mobilised support in favour of the veteran and persuaded the top leadership to desist from forcing his exit as the party chief. Advani retained the post for a year till he handed over the baton to Rajnath Singh in 2006 at the party’s national executive in Mumbai.
There was no doubt that Advani’s downhill journey within the Sangh Parivar had begun. But it was excruciatingly slow. He did not let go an inch of his political space without resistance. Though he lost much of his sheen with ailing Vajpayee withdrawing from public life and his strained relationship with the RSS, Advani belied those predicting an end of his career. Political obituaries are often written in haste. In the general election 2009, the ‘Advani for PM’ slogan was coined by the Sangh Parivar to project a powerful prime ministerial candidate against Manmohan Singh of the Congress, who was seen as a weak prime minister. But in public perception, Advani clearly had lost his image of a strongman given the various flip-flops he was forced to make. The BJP performed badly in the polls, and he surrendered the post of the leader of opposition to Swaraj. Still, he got himself appointed as chairman of the BJP’s parliamentary party; much on the lines of a similar position created in the Congress for Sonia Gandhi in the Congress parliamentary party (CPP).
Though Advani did not hold any formal position within the party organisation, he still overshadowed his junior colleagues. In October 2011 he made a last ditch attempt to reclaim his past glory by launching a nationwide Rath Yatra from Chhapra in Bihar which was flagged off by chief minister Nitish Kumar. Once again Advani chose Bihar instead of Gujarat in order to play off the Nitish versus Modi theme and prove his own wider acceptability within the NDA fold. Despite his weakened position, Advani continued to dominate the BJP till 2013 when he made the monumental mistake of not attending the BJP’s national executive at Goa where Modi was named the chief of the 2014 election campaign. That was a veritable declaration of the beginning of the Modi age in the BJP. Advani continued his resistance to this generational shift even when Modi’s name was proposed as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The 2014 Lok Sabha election results practically brought the curtain down on the Advani age within the saffron fold.
In 2019, when Advani, who is 91 years of age, has been replaced by BJP president Amit Shah as the party candidate from the prestigious Gandhinagar constituency, it is nothing but a sequel to the gradual marginalisation of the leader who once redefined India’s political contours, introducing terms like ‘pseudo-secularism’ and ‘minorityism’ in the country’s political lexicon. He has the history of holding the party under his sway for the longest term and steering it in his own way. Just before the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, Advani declared Vajpayee as the party’s prime ministerial candidate at a rally at Shivaji Park in Mumbai without even consulting anyone in the party. “Yes, I did it as I thought that was an appropriate decision,” he once told me during the course of an interview.
Fortunately, Advani’s ‘unilateralism’ in the past rarely ruffled the feathers of the Sangh Parivar. It always aligned with the larger goal of the saffron fold, and hence only strengthened his position. Till the nineties, he was seen as a tough disciplinarian, a no-nonsense and self-effacing personality. This impression conformed to the Sangh Parivar’s credo of giving primacy to the organisation over an individual. In fact, Advani’s image of an organisation man was cemented in 1972 when he took over as president of BJS from Vajpayee after a great deal of persuasion. The most important task at hand then was to sack former president Balraj Madhok for indiscipline and working against the party interests. He consulted the then RSS chief MS Golwalkar, better known as ‘Guruji’, before taking action against the stalwart.
Groomed in the core values of the Sangh Parivar, Advani always emphasised the primacy of the organisation over the individual and commitment to the ideology. In his autobiography, My Nation My Life, he says, “I am also troubled by the fact that this spirit of camaraderie and mutual trust, idealistic and goal oriented approach to party work, is something that has got diluted over the years.” This formulation sounds quite akin to a passage in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon. Rubashov, who helped launch the Bolshevik revolution says, “The party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in the history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course, she leaves the mud which she carries and corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has no absolute faith in history does not belong in the party’s ranks.” Rubashov was eventually executed for treason in a regime which espoused the cause of dictatorship of the proletariat.
Unlike Marxism, the Sangh Parivar is not wedded to dictatorship in any form to ensure discipline in its cadre and commitment to its ideology. The saffron family has over the years evolved its own code of conduct which takes a lenient view of human fallibility. That is why Advani continues to be the party’s icon in line with his predecessors like Vajpayee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Syama Prasad Mukerjee despite his indiscretions that caused uneasiness within the BJP and the RSS. It would be wrong to assume that the denial of his candidature from Gandhinagar is tantamount to disowning his massive political legacy.
(This article appears in the April 15, 2019 edition)