The yatra mantra

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As LK Advani’s juggernaut rolls through Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa, Rana Ayyub gets a sense of the hopes and strategies keeping the BJP’s wheels in motion

Sermon time: LK Advani seems to be on top of things as the eternal rath yatri
Sermon time: LK Advani seems to be on top of things as the eternal rath yatri, Photos: Deepak Salvi

AS HE bites into the last morsel of his roti-dal meal at a local eatery in the interiors of Maharashtra, he looks at me and says he misses his wife’s Sindhi curry. Then he adds, glint in his eye, “Benazir Bhutto used to love it too.” The reference to the other Sindhi who became prime minister is perhaps pregnant with meaning, but our man is already on to other things. “That’s not to say I’m complaining about the local food I eat on the yatra,” he says, calling for a glass of buttermilk. Perhaps mindful of another PM-in-waiting, who savours the fare in Dalit households.

Mass contact: People come for ‘darshan’ amidst tight security
Mass contact: People come for ‘darshan’ amidst tight security

An aide reminds him he had stopped at the very eatery on his previous yatra. He nods: “That is why it all looks so familiar.” Then he trails off again, “This is what yatras give us: contact with people on the ground, I have been able to reach out to people …” He should know. The patriarch of the fragmented BJP parivar is on his sixth yatra in 20 years, still searching for that elusive goal.

It is the 26th day of Lal Krishna Advani’s Jan Chetna Yatra, a journey monitored more closely and more critically by his party colleagues than by the rival Congress. Yet for all the disdain with which the 84-year-old Advani’s unquenched prime ministerial ambitions are treated, there is a degree of admiration. Even his detractors concede that traversing the country and being on the road for 44 days requires stamina. “Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj had to leave the yatra right after day one,” says a senior party functionary, “as they complained of nausea and exhaustion.”

Mass mobilisation: There was no dearth of enthusiasm for the rath as it rolled on
Mass mobilisation: There was no dearth of enthusiasm for the rath as it rolled on

TEHELKA began tracking Advani from the coast of Mangalore, Karnataka, travelling with him to Goa and Maharashtra, and leaving the trail in Gujarat. There were many interactions with Advani, many questions, many thoughtful pauses — reminiscent of a former prime minister — as he reflected on the years gone by, and the fate of his party.

To his adherents and close associates, Advani remains as charismatic as when he began his first (Ram Rath) yatra on 25 September 1990. To others, it is a different story. To Advani himself, there is recognition that he will never be able to fill the void left by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nevertheless he remains a crowd-puller. Thousands come out to hear him speak, undeterred by heavy rains or the scorching sun. “You keep asking me about this being my attempt to repackage myself as the prime minister of the country,” he says, “but I will still tell you this is what matters, what these people have shown me time and again, whenever I have gone on a yatra, be it on Ayodhya or on corruption. Why then do I need to clarify? Why should I make statements?”

Air-conditioned cocoon: Ringside view of the real world rolling past outside
Air-conditioned cocoon: Ringside view of the real world rolling past outside

His tone changes every time a journalist asks him about his prime ministerial ambitions or his troubled relationship with BS Yeddyurappa, former chief minister of Karnataka. He ignores these questions at media conferences, choosing to answer them instead from the dais: “They ask me if this is an attempt to repackage myself, so I have stopped giving them the answer. This rally is not about me or about the BJP. It’s about you. It’s about the crores stashed away in foreign accounts.” Predictably, the crowd rises in applause.

So is he blaming the media for what seems to be the obvious? He laughs it off, “No, no… I understand their compulsions.” It’s a much toned down response compared to the one he had given TEHELKA just a day earlier, as his cavalcade left Goa and he sipped coffee with his daughter Pratibha and protégé M Venkaiah Naidu, former BJP president. “I have been a journalist myself,” he had said then, “and am appalled to see the media reducing everything in the BJP to just a fight for power. Whereas the Congress is being treated as a holy cow… Why not question the dynastic rule in that party?”

As if on cue, his yatra aide-de-camp, a man he refers to as the “Little Master”, Ravi Shankar Prasad, comes to his defence. “There is a lot more to LK Advani,” he argues, “than what has been projected. Why not talk of other things? Why not talk of the 2G scam?”

AS ADVANI drives from one state to the next, his message is the same. He gives gathered crowds facts on the stash of black money lying in overseas accounts. These are facts he claims to have got from a Washington, DC, based think-tank. He urges the throng to take a vow to eschew black money and bring home that is lying abroad.

Ananth Kumar, Yeddy’s arch rival in Karnataka, denies there was any question of skipping Bengaluru

The template messaging is not without its surprises. As he enters Goa, a Congress-ruled state, where a former BJP man is chief minister, and faces charges of corruption and of facilitating illegal iron-ore mining, he resorts to copybook cricket. In a move that surprises the BJP unit in Goa, Advani does not take on the Congress government there. He reads out earnest statistics on black money, but chooses to call mining a larger malaise. “We were expecting him to take on the Congress government in Goa head-on,” mutters a BJP functionary in Goa, but all one gets to hear is a statement that goes, ‘Legal mining too is suffering from illegal mining’.” Prasad calls it deliberate action, so as not to pre-empt the report on illegal mining in Goa, which is yet to be submitted.

The logic is difficult to fathom. The BJP had to remove one of its strongest regional chieftains, Yeddyurappa, following a mining scandal. Why then would it want the Congress to get away in just such a context in Goa? That is not the only Yeddyurappa- related controversy Advani has got into. Just a day before entering Goa, he had to admit at a public meeting in Bengaluru that the party had to set an example in the fight against corruption by removing one of its own ministers. Indeed, the entire visit to Karnataka seemed to be in jeopardy at one point.

Ananth Kumar, also accompanying Advani on the yatra and Yeddyurappa’s archrival in Karnataka, denies there was ever any question of skipping Bengaluru. “We were surprised when the media said Advaniji had called off his yatra in Bengaluru because of Yeddyurappa,” he insists, “he was determined to halt in Karnataka. And the reception he got showed the support people had for him. When it rained, they stood there with plastic chairs shielding themselves. So where was the question of shying away from the Karnataka BJP?” “We set an example in Karnataka with Yeddyurappa, that we can remove people if there is a case against them,” signs off Advani.

Yet the Yeddyurappa episode is an important indicator. After all, the yatra is at once a test of the BJP’s popularity as of Advani’s acceptability in the party as it is today. In Karnataka, the Yeddyurappa camp showed open defiance. In Maharashtra, BJP President Nitin Gadkari was clearly uncomfortable with the yatra and was surprised when Advani decided upon it. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi wasn’t keen on the yatra starting from his turf. Given this, is Advani feeling unloved and unwanted? “Most of it is a figment of a fertile imagination based on conjecture…” he says. But as we travel across these states, the fissures are too obvious to be ignored.

In Goa and Maharashtra, it is Gadkari’s bête noire Gopinath Munde who pushes himself to the frontline and almost anoints Advani as prime ministerial candidate. The slogans Munde raises from the dais are telling: “Advaniji aage badho, hum tumhaare saath hain (Advani, move ahead. We are with you).” This could be an indirect dig at Gadkari, now believed to harbour prime ministerial ambitions.

‘The Ram rath yatra brought back faith. Today, there is concern about development,’ intones Advani

As Advani’s rath enters Pune from Goa, Gadkari joins him for a token presence. He is conspicuous by his absence at other public meetings in Maharashtra and specifically from the show of strength in Mumbai. At TEHELKA’s ‘Think’ conclave in Goa, Gadkari said that in the time of the Internet and new forms of communication, there are alternatives to the yatra model. Politicians know how to convey their message.

HAS ADVANI changed from the Ram Rath Yatra to the Jan Chetna Yatra? The man turns the question on its head: “People have changed. They have been a lot more receptive to the Jan Chetna Yatra. Ram was a religious issue and my yatra then did what it had to, it brought back faith. But today the common man is more concerned about development, about the deception he has to face from the government.”

The route Advani’s yatra takes across Maharashtra is replete with hoardings. Most have Advani standing next to Munde, and if pictures narrate a story, it is quite telling. He crosses the Maharashtra- Gujarat border, but not before addressing the 5,000 Adivasis who have gathered. He gives them his trademark statistics — if Rs 25 lakh crore of black money is brought back into the country, how much will each village get? There is applause. He rests for a while, as if preparing for his next port of call — Gujarat.

Will the yatra in Gujarat be significant? Will he call it an insinuation if Narendra Modi is mentioned? He ponders my question, sips his buttermilk and tries to frame a response. “It’s very important,” he says, “a lot more important. It’s where my constituency is. It’s a state that matters a lot to me, a state that holds promise…”

“Like Karnataka?”

The response again is a stoic gaze. There is a timely interruption by Advani’s aide and confidant of decades, Deepak Chopra, who senses his boss’ discomfort and enquires about lunch. TEHELKA persists. Wouldn’t it be only right if the BJP asks for the same treatment to Goa as was asked of its government in Karnataka? He nods and mumbles a yes, very much, and then steers the conversation to the Rs 25 lakh crore the government should apparently be answerable for.

As usual, the guns are trained less on Manmohan Singh — whom Advani calls a good economist, a great human being but a failed prime minister — and more on Sonia Gandhi. “I wonder if you in the media will ever do some tough questioning of her?” he says.

As the yatra enters Gujarat, the media watches with bated breath. Will the two men break the ice? Will Modi bury the hatchet with Advani? While Modi praises Advani and Advani does his bit by praising Gujarat’s socio-economic development, the cold vibes don’t go unnoticed. Advani sits on a central throne, Modi is two seats away — looking distant and out of place. Party functionaries from Gujarat tell TEHELKA there was no whip issued to attend Advani’s event.

That things are not what they seem becomes amply clear when Advani uses meeting after meeting to shower praise on Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s in-house opponent. Advani calls her the party leader to have inherited the power of oratory from Vajpayee, and a woman who amazes him with her performance as the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. It’s not who he praises. It’s who he doesn’t.

As Advani moves on with the close-knit team of party juniors he had himself handpicked and nurtured, it appears he is reconciled to differences between him and many of the others. His decisions are influenced by a couple of those leaders who have not left his side through the yatra. Be it Ananth Kumar, who harboured the desire to be chief minister of Karnataka, but had to settle for the ouster of his longstanding rival Yeddyurappa; or Ravi Shankar Prasad, who takes most of the decisions on the yatra. Venkaiah Naidu and Rajiv Pratap Rudy turn up religiously

His personal secretary Deepak Chopra, however, remains the man in whom Advani places implicit trust. Chopra has come out from the shadows to being manager of the yatra. He is the man who shields Advani through the arduous journey, advising him when to talk and when to avoid the media, barricading him from his own party to ensure that afternoon nap. “I have to do it,” Chopra says, “at this age the man needs it.” Clearly, he’s the man who can read Advani’s pauses.

Advani uses meeting after meeting to shower praise on Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s in-house opponent

SO HAS Advani’s yatra been a success? “Ask the people,” shrugs the eternal yatri, “see it for yourself.” What of those who say he jumped into the battle against corruption a bit too late, much after Anna Hazare had grabbed the issue? Advani is suddenly aggressive: “No doubt, Anna Hazare has done a good job and we are not taking it away from him. But we have also been a part of the sustained campaign against corruption. When whistle-blowers were being killed and Sonia Gandhi decided to maintain a shocking silence on black money, in spite of reports that were brought to her notice, it was we who raised the issue. This yatra will lead up to Parliament… Black money will be our main issue in the winter session. The government will have to give us answers.”

Prasad says the difference between Hazare’s movement and the Jan Chetna Yatra is the personal touch that Advani brings to his yatras and that makes them successful. But if one were to assess Advani’s success rate with yatras in terms of galvanising the BJP and bringing it (closer) to power — the record has been dismal. In this decade, he has had two failures, and the third is still in the making.

As such, though Advani has taken on board youngsters like the 24-year-old grandson of Morarji Desai — he ghostwrites Advani’s blogs and tweets — or is using Murlidhar Rao, known to have handled the economic affairs wing in the RSS, some old verities remain. The Ram temple issue is brought in subtly. For instance, Prasad is introduced as the “lawyer who brought the Ram Mandir back for you and who is working hard to see the Supreme Court too upholds the judgment”.

In all this, what does Advani’s Jan Chetna Yatra amount to? A villager from Talasari district in Maharashtra, where Advani is addressing a meeting, tells TEHELKA: “Woh BJP hai na, dhanush-baanwala… uske bare mein suna tha, iske liye aaye.” (That’s the BJP, the party of bows and arrows. I had heard about it, so I came to see for myself ).

Clearly, for Advani the more things change, the more the original image endures…

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
rana@tehelka.com

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