Among the most overused clichés in political analysis is the observation made by Karl Marx that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, and then as farce. Over the years, this famous quote has been used and overused and done to death. Even so, it is difficult to resist invoking it yet again when looking back at LK Advani’s little revolt in the BJP this past week.
The revolt ended in an anti-climax. Having resigned from all party positions in protest against Narendra Modi being named the party’s election mascot for 2014, Advani found himself facing ferocious hostility from within his party. In 24 hours, he quietly withdrew his resignation. It was his Last Great Sulk, and it ended up establishing just how irrelevant he is to the BJP today.
To understand the diminution of the Advani phenomenon and the distance he has travelled from the cult status he had within the Sangh Parivar till as late as the beginning of this century, it is necessary to go back to his First Great Sulk: in the aftermath of the Jinnah episode of 2005. The contrast between what happened in 2005 and what happened in 2013 is telling and captures incremental and important shifts in the politics and power matrix of the BJP.
In 2005, Advani visited Pakistan much against the advice of at least two senior diplomats in the Ministry of External Affairs and egged on by a small coterie surrounding him. In Pakistan, he resorted to issuing certificates to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and using his praise of Jinnah as a clumsy device with which to rewrite his own profile, appear liberal and appeal to Indian Muslims. Not only was this insulting to Indian Muslims, it was quite patently a hare-brained idea.
The reaction in the BJP was intense. When an aide faxed Advani’s Jinnah statement from Pakistan and asked the BJP media cell to release it, the spokesperson on duty that day sent copies of the fax to Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan, all protégés of the senior man. All three rejected the statement and said it could not be officially released by the BJP as a view authorised by the party. A storm followed. The party rank-and-file and the RSS were just not on Advani’s side.
In a huff, Advani quit as party president. For members of the BJP’s second generation, it was a trying period. They were being forced into disagreement with their mentor, the man who tutored them in politics. Indeed, they were defending many of the postulates he had instilled in them. For a variety of reasons — largely extreme reverence for Advani — the second generation was unwilling to take a defining step against their guru. He was cajoled into agreeing to some sort of a compromise. The RSS was persuaded to let him stay as president for the time being. Every denouncement of the Jinnah assessment was couched in polite words about Advani’s broader role, and the episode was sought to be explained as a one-off.
Advani was fortunate in finding support from sections of the media, which decided in its wisdom that praising Jinnah reflected a genuine change of heart on the part of the BJP patriarch and indicated he was ready to battle the RSS. Page-one editorials lauded him for allegedly giving a new direction to the Indian Right. India Today magazine labelled him “News-maker of the Year” and hailed him as “the Hindu nationalist who dared to humanise the enemy”.
In the end, Advani lost his influence and his political positioning but the unwillingness of the second generation in the BJP to decisively wound him left him with enough ammunition to fight another day. He clawed his way back, even negotiated a deal with the RSS. He encashed every possible IOU to become the party’s prime ministerial nominee in 2009. Serious functionaries of the BJP knew it was not an optimal choice and he was past his prime. Nevertheless, the election of 2009 was not one of rational choices for the BJP — it was a guru dakshina.
So what happened this past week? Essentially, Advani sought to repeat the strategy of 2005. He tried to package his antipathy to Modi’s ascension as a principled objection to RSS micro-management. Detecting that sections of the media were his auxiliaries, Advani and his guidance counsellors carefully reached out to select journalists and media outlets. As the Sangh family’s longest-standing English-speaking representative, Advani has a deep and abiding relationship with the media in New Delhi. In a sense this is now his largest constituency, since he has ceased to matter within the BJP or electorally.
In resigning, Advani anticipated there would a media frenzy that would put the BJP and the RSS on the defensive. He felt he could once more use his tried and tested “emotional atyachar” to harass and blackmail his former protégés, the 55-65-year-olds in the BJP. This is where he miscalculated.
Media support for Advani was loud but empty. Few could deny that Modi was a more compelling electoral candidate and a logical choice for the BJP. That aside, the second generation was now tired of Advani and his drama queen politics.
On the morning after the resignation, BJP chief Rajnath Singh went off to a party event in Rajasthan. Narendra Modi didn’t rush to the capital but tweeted about and spent a day at a livestock and dairy conference in Gandhinagar. Arun Jaitley left for a family visit abroad. In 2005, he had cut short a holiday and rushed home to help resolve the post-Jinnah crisis. In truth, after Advani and some of his close associates boycotted the Goa national executive, much of the party had run out of patience. Unlike 2005, Advani had no IOUs left to encash.
It didn’t help when some of the Prithviraj Road spin doctors went overboard. Rajnath, who had been treating Advani with great politeness, was said to be extremely upset when one of Advani’s aides allegedly told a journalist that the BJP president was bringing “Uttar Pradesh’s Thakur politics into the BJP”. This made Rajnath and several others all the more determined that there would be no budging on Modi and no second or parallel election committee would be set up to neutralise the impact of the decision taken in Goa.
Cornered and worried about their future in case Advani’s isolation became permanent, the small clique that surrounds the man undertook a course-correction. A call was made to Mohan Bhagwat from Advani’s residence and the sulking patriarch was asked to talk to the RSS chief. It gave him the cover to announce a truce.
However, the media management continued. First, stories were leaked out about how Bhagwat had assured Advani he would have a veto in selecting the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. When this was denied, there was talk of how Advani was going to be instrumental in keeping the JD(U) within the NDA and urging it not to break away.
As it happens, Advani has hardly been part of coalition management in recent years. In fact, if Advani had had his way, Nitish Kumar would not have been running Bihar at all. In 2005, his choice for the NDA candidate for chief minister was Shatrughan Sinha. It took much persuasion from the party for Advani to reluctantly agree that a grassroots Kurmi/OBC leader like Nitish was a more pragmatic option than a Kayasth belonging to a numerically tiny community.
That Advani raised the white flag after speaking to Bhagwat raises a piquant and troubling question: does this attest to the RSS’ day-to- day control of the BJP? The issue is more complicated than a straightforward “yes” or “no”. The relationship between the RSS and the BJP is complex and layered and not easily understandable.
At various points, Sangh functionaries have over-intervened in political matters; paradoxically, for substantial periods and in substantial spheres, the politicians in the BJP have enjoyed considerable autonomy. The graph is not linear; it goes up and down, like a zigzag.
To be fair to Advani, he has been contending from the early 2000s — even before the Jinnah affair — that as a broad-spectrum political party, the BJP has far outgrown its RSS incubation and needs to focus on governance and winning new voters beyond just traditional loyalists. Many agree with him, but unfortunately he has persistently married this wisdom with his personal ambition and revisionist individualism. As such, after 2005, few know when to take him seriously.
It is worth recalling that one of those who argued against the sudden removal of Advani as party president in 2005 was Modi. He was worried that such a dramatic action would create a vacuum that would be filled by the RSS and severely weaken the so-called “politicals” in the BJP. This happened anyway. Rajnath’s first term as president (2006-09) and Nitin Gadkari’s stewardship of the party for the next three years found the RSS influence growing and sometimes turning oppressive.
However, the past few months have seen the pendulum move a bit in the other direction. The strengthening of Modi after the Gujarat victory of December 2012 and Bhagwat’s inability to have his way in giving Gadkari a second term have had their consequences, even if Rajnath too was an RSS choice. No doubt this thrust and parry will continue and the historical evolution of the RSS from the veto wielder in the BJP to merely one of its key stakeholders remains a longer-term process.
However, where Advani went wrong was in trying to link the RSS and its on-off jockeying for authority within the BJP to Modi’s emergence. For his group to make the case that Modi was somehow imposed on the BJP was unrealistic and even foolish. Irrespective of where the RSS stood on Modi — and that again is a tale of contradictions, pulls and counter-pulls — the Gujarat chief minister is clearly the most favoured candidate and leader of the BJP’s workers and state units. In that he is a popular political choice, and the RSS view almost doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t affect Modi’s popularity in the BJP.
Advani attempted to obfuscate that verity and challenge that popularity. The result was his tragedy, his party’s farce.