For close to a month, India watched as stalwarts of the Bharatiya Janata Party waged their power struggle in public. Last week it watched the bloodied lot beating a track to Jhandewalan to pay obeisance to presiding supremo Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat. Then, as if by a miracle, the warring heads posed in convivial togetherness and announced that their quarrels had ceased. The fiction of the BJP’s independence remains. At a press conference, Mr. Bhagwat insisted that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was not a busybody even as he harked back to an earlier interview in which he handed the BJP the following prescription: effect a generational change; end your quarrels; choose leaders compatible with the RSS way of life. So what are the final terms of agreement between the Sangh and its wayward offspring? Reports suggest an advisory position for Lal Krishna Advani and the exit of Rajnath Singh as soon as he completes a thoroughly undistinguished presidential tenure.
What is clear is that whatever Mr. Advani’s future role turns out to be, it will have been fashioned by the Sangh. He had presided over the party’s spectacular rise from two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to the status of the single largest party in 1996. It was on this foundation that Atal Bihari Vajpayee built the superstructure of a match-winning National Democratic Alliance. The NDA lost in 2004 essentially because the BJP was unable to change its exclusivist, anti-minorities character. Mr. Advani’s contribution to shaping this world view — who can forget his fiery rath yatra? — cannot possibly be overstated. It helps explain the resistance to his 2005 ideological intervention. The BJP strongman’s unalloyed praise for Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s August 1947 secular vision combined with some nuanced revisionism on the party-Sangh relationship, was a major, if short-lived, attempt to shock the BJP out of its old mindset. Had Mr. Vajpayee come up with such thoughts, he could have got away with it but Mr. Advani’s hardline image worked decisively against him. His subsequent restoration to honour notwithstanding, his relationship with the Sangh remained uneasy and he never regained acceptability in the BJP. Today as he stands at the centre of an unprecedented storm, a question suggests itself: why did he not opt for graceful retirement earlier, perhaps immediately after the 2004 electoral defeat? As an elder statesman he might have gone out on his terms — and exercised moral influence on a party whose future lay, according to him, in broadbasing its constituency and its appeal. Instead, by seeming to have a hand in the inner-party bloodletting and taking directions from the Sangh, the BJP’s most formidable leader has legitimised the latter’s right to rule the party.