How do you solve a problem like Lal Krishna Advani?
As the Modi government completes a year in office, the Advani question just refuses to go away. It was recently reported that while former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited to an event in Mathura on May 25, where prime minister Narendra Modi was also to be present, Advani was not sent an invite. There might have been good reasons for this but the way it was played out in the media was the absence of the BJP patriarch once again from a major function to mark Modi government’s one year in office.
Advani had reportedly declined Amit Shah’s request to address the national executive meeting in Bengaluru in April, a tradition which the party had faithfully followed for the last 35 years. And then it were the BJP’s foundation day celebrations where the BJP stalwart was apparently not officially invited though of course the party claimed otherwise.
Advani, at the ripe old age of 87, has been in the news for the past year or so only for his sulks. He sulked and decided to stay away from the BJP’s 2013 national executive on Lok Sabha in Goa in protest against Modi’s appointment as the party’s campaign committee chief. He even resigned from all party posts a day after the conclave ended, only to take them back later. He sulked again when he failed to persuade his party against nominating Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, even sending an open letter to Rajnath Singh expressing his dissatisfaction over the process of Modi’s selection. He then went into a sulk over the manner in which his seat was chosen in the Lok Sabha elections.
As a founding member of the BJP, marginalisation must clearly hurt. Advani founded the present-day BJP along with Vajpayee in 1980. He laid the groundwork for the rise of the BJP and was the most prominent face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1990s. Today, he is merely a margdarshak despite being described as one of the “guiding lights” by the party’s website. Advani has been kept out of the BJP’s top decision-making body, parliamentary board of the party and relegated to the sidelines by the new leadership.
The Congress party had been quick to take pot shots at the state of affairs within the BJP with the party general secretary, Digvijaya Singh, remarking: “Modi has used a tactic in life. Removing the ladder which has helped him to climb up.” A bit rich for a party that only prays at the altar of the Dynasty, conveniently forgetting all its other illustrious leaders!
But there is also a newfound concern for Advani even amongst a section of the media and intelligentsia. A Hindutva ideologue is now finding favour with the same liberal elites who saw him as the real agenda setter during the Vajpayee regime. Those who see in the Modi regime everything they detest now see Advani as a victim of Modi vendetta. This may suit their ideological convenience though why Advani should have any role at all in the Modi dispensation is a question that’s not really that difficult to answer.
Advani did everything possible to scuttle Modi’s rise to the top. He first suggested that Modi’s elevation would not really have much of an impact on the BJP’s electoral fortunes. Instead, he seemed to argue it might turn out counterproductive. He then tried to block the timing of the announcement of Modi’s nomination as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, even at times using the card of other leaders such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan. In the process, he alienated a large section of the party’s rank and file.
More damagingly, he turned out to be wrong. The announcement of Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was a masterstroke for the party and he led the BJP to its stupendous victory. It was in the end Modi’s victory and his detractors, including Advani, failed to recognise his electoral power. Even after the victory, Advani’s first comments were rather beguiling. Stating that the BJP won the election on the issues of corruption, bad governance and dynastic rule, Advani said the role of Modi in the party’s victory has “to be assessed”.
Despite the Hindu philosophy enshrining sanyasa as the final life stage of renunciation, Indians—and Indian men in particular—are not predisposed to retiring gracefully. Jaded Indian actors continue their on-screen romancing with heroines half their age. Ineffectual intellectuals continue peddling tired old clichés way past their expiry dates. Instead of writing their memoirs to help future researchers, retired Indian bureaucrats continue to provide unasked-for advice to the government by writing meaningless op-eds as if their time in the government was not long enough for imparting this wisdom. Corporate honchos try to keep their grip on boardrooms for as long as they possibly can.
But Indian politicians are the worst in this regard. They have such an inflated sense of their own worth that even if they lose elections and have little worth to contribute, they never deem it fit to say sayonara of their own accord. India may be the only major democracy where a politician’s longevity has very little to do with his/her success at the hustings or contribution to public policy.
The Congress’s internal struggle today is a function of the party’s old guard trying to assert its hold over the party apparatus against the seeming assault from Rahul Gandhi’s young turks. But the emergence of the new leadership in the BJP is more organic. 2009 was Advani’s last stab at the nation’s prime ministership. He failed and he should have taken a backseat since then. It was natural that a new order would emerge which would reshape the party. The Modi-Shah combo is a product of that churning. It is time Advani recognises that retiring gracefully is still a possibility. A few more sulks would end that possibility as well.
Pant is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College,London. Email: email@example.com