If the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014 general election marked the end of an era for the party, it spelled the end of the active career of 85-year-old L.K. Advani, who had presided over the rise in the party’s fortunes over the last two decades.
Twenty-three years ago when, defying the V.P. Singh-led National Front government that his party supported from outside, Mr. Advani set off from Somnath for Ayodhya on his Ramrath Yatra, it was a watershed moment for the BJP. He was arrested in Bihar before he could reach Ayodhya but, by then, his journey had left a trail of death and destruction in its wake, communalising the polity and winning the BJP — and the Hindutva cause — new supporters. He was the darling of the RSS and its affiliates.
That yatra catapulted Mr. Advani to centre stage and changed the fortunes of his party. If till then, the Ram campaign had been in the hands of the overtly religious Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), it was now the instrument of a political party: Ram was transformed into a symbol of national unity, with strong Hindu nationalist overtones.
The BJP then launched a national debate on secularism, with Mr. Advani coining the word “pseudo-secularism” to describe the Congress’s version. If that was the “intellectual” part of the propaganda, the BJP under Mr. Advani’s leadership, was quick to grasp the significance of the social changes, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and start the process of accommodating powerful emerging social groups in what came to be known as “social engineering,” an expression first used by his lieutenant at the time, K Govindacharya.
It was during this period that Mr. Advani began to groom a second line of leaders that included Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ananthakumar, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh, Uma Bharti and, of course, Narendra Modi.
By then, the BJP knew that if it wished to come to power at the Centre, it would have to make tactical alliances with a disparate group of parties whose politics differed from its own brand of exclusive nationalism. Indeed, it was Mr. Advani at the height of his powers, who announced — much to everyone’s surprise — Mr. Vajpayee’s name as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at a party’s national executive in Mumbai. Even though it was he who had created the impetus for the BJP’s growth, Mr. Advani felt, ironically enough, that he was — as many feel Mr. Modi is now — too polarising a figure to be able to attract other political parties to a BJP-led alliance.
Linked by common allegiance
After one failed attempt in 1996, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power in 1998, staying in office till 2004. Mr. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, and Mr. Advani the Home Minister, later moving up to the Deputy Prime Minister’s job. The two men’s personalities and skills complemented each other, even though they are more closely linked through a common allegiance to the RSS faith than is generally believed. If Mr. Advani had created a political framework for the VHP’s campaign for a Ram temple, helping link it in public perception with the RSS ideology of Hindutva, drawing in new supporters, Mr. Vajpayee was the obvious choice for governance with his deceptively liberal demeanour, impeccable sense of political timing and his Brahmin origins.
At the party’s national executive in Goa in end 2002, when Mr. Vajpayee was all ready to drop Mr. Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister for his inability to exercise his rajdharma in the communal riots that had devastated the State earlier that year, it was Mr. Advani who came to Mr. Modi’s rescue.
Indeed, as recently as January 2009, writing in his blog, Mr. Advani had extolled Mr. Modi’s virtues: “A lady correspondent had posed me the question. ‘Don’t you think Narendra Bhai is now becoming larger than the party?’ My reply to her query was: ‘It often happens in a family that a younger member records an achievement which no one else has made earlier. This only makes the whole family proud. The family never feels diminished on that account.” At that time, Mr. Advani was all set to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate — till 2004, it had been Mr. Vajpayee.
But on Friday, when the BJP parliamentary board — nudged along by the RSS — named Mr. Modi its PM candidate, despite Mr. Advani’s reservations, the party’s original iron man must have felt diminished.
PS. It was not just a victory for Mr. Modi, but also for the RSS that has seen a diminution of its importance in the Sangh family, with its top leadership over the last two decades getting younger and, therefore, junior to Mr. Advani, who was their senior in the RSS. By showing Mr. Advani his place, RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat has installed a leader of his own generation in the BJP.