Perhaps for the first time since Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014, his political and ideological elder, Lal Krishna Advani, has been in the news for reasons other than his neglect in the BJP. Recently, he deposed via video conference before a special judge presiding over the Babri Masjid case, and answered, to be precise, 1,050 questions, to fully deny his role in the conspiracy to demolish the mosque. Instead, he told the judge that it was a political conspiracy to implicate him in the case. Besides this, Advani is also in the news because he may be one of the 200 guests attending the ‘ground-breaking’ ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5, precisely at the place where the mosque once stood.
The paradox and irony of the moment cannot be lost. The Ram temple issue has reached closure, but the Babri Masjid case remains open, while both are related to each other. If one had seen closure the other should have ended too, and the reverse should have been true as well, but that is not how it stands. In some ways, this paradox and irony reflects Advani’s own current political position. What he made his life’s mission saw sublime fruition but he could never personally pick the fruits. Campaigning for the temple, willy-nilly he became a conspirator for everybody else’s success in his party, except himself. One wonders which mythological character captures this complexity, and if this could be an inbuilt condition of that character or a transient curse.
It is also apparent that this paradoxical condition has haunted Advani’s entire life. During testing and troubling times for Narendra Modi, in the aftermath of the Godhra riots in 2002, Advani stood by him, while Vajpayee preached ‘rajdharma’. But Modi’s prime ministership chose to canonise Vajpayee over Advani. Similarly, Advani went to Karachi in 2005 and tried to imitate Vajpayee’s liberal ideal, but that hastened his decline rather than fan his unchallenged emergence. Until the Jinnah moment, Advani looked intact, a consistent and flawless ideologue who mapped the labyrinths of Hindutva, but the character or the curse began to unravel when he spoke of Jinnah as a ‘secular’ legend and an ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’.
He became suspect in the eyes of his own people. He had, in a way, signed the warrant of his own demolition. Ironically, it was Vajpayee who rescued Advani then by saying everything had been “misinterpreted”. Everybody thought Advani had fallen into the ‘Jinnah trap’ in Pakistan, but actually he had fallen into Vajpayee’s Nehruvian trap. He had come to believe after the colossal electoral loss of the BJP in 2004 that he had to indeed embrace a more liberal position to become prime minister in 2009. The ‘pseudo-liberal’ taunt that he had invented as a hardliner was not just meant for Nehruvian liberals but for Vajpayee too; however, with the Jinnah remark, it was slapped on his forehead. The x in paradox became a limitless variable here.
By 2010, Advani had handed over more ammunition to his own people like Arun Jaitley. He had developed favourites and factions inside the BJP’s elite. In July 2016, at a casual breakfast meeting in Bengaluru, Jaitley told me that there was a pre-Jinnah Advani who was a ‘perfect swayamsevak’ and a post-Jinnah Advani who tried to choke the party: “For everything he had come to say, ‘if you don’t do this, then I will not do this’. We had to take a call if we should yield to his pressure each time, and cry every day, or take a firm stand to ignore him. He threw up a dilemma during the black money yatra in 2011, but we did not yield. He still did the yatra. Similarly, he said I won’t come to the Goa meet in 2013 if Modi is announced as prime minister.
"We still went ahead. He then said, I will retire from politics as a Speaker of Lok Sabha. We did not accept it because it would cause instability. Finally, he said, make me chairman of ICCR, like Karan Singh. That too did not happen,” Jaitley had recounted.
However, the worst that hit Advani did not happen in Karachi, Delhi or Goa, it came from Bengaluru, when a little-known Karnataka MLC of Rajasthani origin, Lahar Singh Siroya, wrote a stinging 1,200-word open letter in May 2013. It questioned Advani’s delusions and moral dualities.
Though the letter had a Karnataka context, it was clearly intended for a national audience: “Sometimes Advaniji you end up thinking that you are the party and make mistakes that are inexplicable,” the letter read. It asked him not to pontificate and be self-righteous on corruption because he had never bothered to check how rallies were organised and electoral numbers were mustered to keep his prime ministerial ambition intact. Advani’s family too was dragged in, and it must have embarrassed him no end. He never reacted to it publicly though.
This letter appeared a few months before Modi became a consensus in the BJP for prime minister. In a party like the BJP, a letter like this would not have found wide circulation had a powerful group not promoted it. It was in fact splashed all over in the national media. The Jinnah remark had demolished Advani’s ideological self and this tackled the rest of his personality. One wonders if Modi would have found space had Advani remained a Hindutva hardliner? That’s another question for history’s What If?
Senior journalist and author