The BJP's second mascot

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

L.K. Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra is an attempt to legitimise him as Vajpayee's `natural' successor and mobilise RSS support for the BJP's election campaign. Those who vote for the BJP's `moderate' Vajpayee version could end up putting Advani in the top seat.

ON March 2, Lal Krishna Advani sprang a surprise - not just upon the public and his National Democratic Alliance partners, but upon most Bharatiya Janata Party leaders themselves, by announcing his plans for a rath yatra to be routed through 121 Lok Sabha constituencies and covering 7,871 kilometres. This might appear somewhat odd, considering that the leading party of the coalition government is splurging some Rs.400 crores of public money to tom-tom its "achievements". It has brazenly solicited electoral support by using every conceivable media outlet in all of the country's 545 constituencies.

However, the paradox is easily resolved if the basic purpose of the yatra is seen in the context of the BJP's keenness to speed up the process of succession to the NDA's leadership from Vajpayee to Advani and in the light of the party's internal power dynamics. Put simply, the yatra's principal strategic objective is threefold. First, it is to project Advani not just as the BJP's number two campaigner, but as a leader of great stature in his own right, independently of Vajpayee.

Second, it is to stress the continuity between Advani's present venture and the original yatra of 1990 and remind the party that it is he who built up the BJP's strength from a pathetic two seats in the Lok Sabha first to 86 and then on to three-digit numbers. The key to this was Advani's strategy of mobilisation around the Ayodhya temple issue and the Ram rath.

And third, it is to launch Advani - not as the BJP's organisational boss (which he already is), but as someone who could quickly take over from Vajpayee as the leader of its parliamentary wing.

There is a huge deception involved here. The BJP has so far run its election campaign on an exclusively Vajpayee-centric basis to fully exploit his (largely deceptive) image as a "moderate", "soft", "reasonable" and widely acceptable leader. But with the new turn given by the yatra, the pro-Vajpayee voter could unwittingly end up putting Advani in the country's top job if the NDA returns to power!

The BJP is acutely aware that for all his importance in the party and the Sangh Parivar, Advani has an embarrassingly poor public image. According to a recent ORG-MARG opinion poll (published in India Today, February 9), Advani's acceptance rating as a potential Prime Minister is an abysmal two per cent, even lower than that of Mulayam Singh Yadav (three per cent), leave alone Sonia Gandhi's (23 per cent) and Vajpayee's (47 per cent). (According to an Outlook poll, the two per cent score puts Advani on par with Mayawati.) The BJP is now trying to convert Vajpayee's 47 per cent "advantage factor" to install a two per cent-rating leader in power - if not today, then very, very soon. This assessment is admittedly speculative. But the speculation is not undisciplined or unrelated to power equations and strategy-making in the BJP.

Let us be warned: should the BJP exceed, say, the score of 200 seats in the Lok Sabha (which seems unlikely), that would help it further reduce its dependence on its already weakened and pusillanimous NDA allies. In that post-election situation, it could well name Advani as its prime ministerial candidate.

Neither the Vajpayee-Advani (planned) succession, nor the building-up of Advani's image is new or surprising. The most obvious landmark in Advani's recent ascendancy was the creation of a new office for him (Deputy Prime Minister) in June 2002 - without constitutional sanction. Advani by then had already consolidated his hold on the party apparatus. Most of the "bright sparks" in the BJP's second-rank leadership, from M. Venkaiah Naidu and Pramod Mahajan to Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh, indeed even Kalyan Singh, were his "finds" or proteges.

After Jana Krishnamurthy's replacement as party president by Venkaiah Naidu, Advani has held undiluted hegemony over the party apparatus. His acolytes did their utmost to bolster his image - most famously in June last year, when Venkaiah Naidu declared that the BJP has two great leaders: vikas-purush Vajpayee and loh-purush Advani.

This produced a sharp, if peevish, rebuke from Vajpayee who said he neither was "tired" nor had "retired", and that the BJP could march to victory under Advani's leadership, if it so chose. His threat not to campaign for the party had an electrifying effect. Venkaiah Naidu apologised at once - abjectly.

The two most recent indices of Advani's attempt to reposition himself are his nomination as the top interlocutor with the All Parties Huriyat Conference in Kashmir and his bid to get the Election Commission to allow him the use of state aircraft during the current election campaign. During his first meeting with the Hurriyat, Advani put on his most genial visage, and appeared eminently reasonable and "soft" and "polite". The attempt at achieving parity with the Prime Minister in the use of state aircraft failed, but Advani must have noted with some satisfaction that there was no great hullabaloo over the embarrassing disclosure that the request came not from the Prime Minister's Office but from his own Home Ministry!

Increasingly over the past two years, the BJP has consciously tried to lower the threshold of resistance to an equation between Vajpayee and Advani. Even while denying that the party seeks such parity, its spin doctors have usually managed to alter the tone of the debate over the issue so that it is no longer thought all that odd that one of the prime architects of the hysterical Ram Janmabhoomi campaign - and the party's leading hawk, with his combative, abrasive style - is put on a par with the man who has a far softer exterior (despite his ideological devotion to hardline Hindutva and his refusal to take a stand on as major an issue as bringing the culprits of Independent India's bloodiest state-sponsored pogrom to book).

Of late, Advani has taken to cultivating a "soft", "moderate" image and making grandiloquent statements - for example, that he wants Vajpayee and himself to be remembered as Independent India's "new architects and visionaries". (The Sunday Times, March 7) As part of the image-building, Advani has courted maverick Muslim leaders looking for greener pastures - in the saffron party. A day after his yatra announcement, he conspicuously entertained a delegation of a particular Muslim caste group. He has also taken care to be seen in the company of Najma Heptullah, a likely defector to the BJP.

It is another matter that like Vajpayee, Advani too has tried to woo Indian Muslims by citing the peace process with Pakistan and the resumption of cricketing ties with it as proof of the BJP's friendly and inclusive attitude towards them. The assumption here is that Indian Muslims have a special affinity for Pakistan.

This is not merely tendentious; it is dangerously wrong. Indian Muslims identify with India, not Pakistan. This only shows that neither Vajpayee nor Advani has shed an iota of their deep-seated prejudice against Indian Muslims as Pakistan's Fifth Column. Nor have they modified their presumed equation of Islam with "extra-territorial loyalty" - a trademark Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh accusation.

Besides repositioning Advani within the BJP, the new yatra serves other purposes too. It has been characteristically organised around Hindu religious motifs. When the Swaraj-Mazda bus was flagged off from Delhi on the way to Kanyakumari, there were loud chants of "Jai Sri Ram". Worse, Dilip Singh Judev, of cash-on-camera fame, who had used the same vehicle earlier to Hindutva's nefarious ends, ensured auspicious luck for it by smashing 101 coconuts and also by sacrificing a goat!

The symbolism can hardly be lost. Hindutva does not have to be expressed or articulated through vocalising or emphasising the BJP's "distinctive" (read, sectarian) agendas like the Ayodhya temple or Article 370. It is concentrated in the very personas of leaders like Advani, Narendra Modi and Uma Bharati. It speaks loudly even when they are silent.

THE yatra is clearly meant to galvanise BJP and especially RSS cadres in areas where the BJP is weak. According to media reports, of the 121 constituencies it will cover, the BJP plans to contest about 100 (of a national total of about 350). Most of these are not its strong seats. It will need all the support it can get there - no matter what the cost, including greater dependence on RSS cadres. The inevitability of this dependence was formally accepted on March 5 at a special meeting of BJP and RSS leaders at Vajpayee's residence. So much for the BJP moving towards moderation and "secularisation"!

Contrary to propaganda, the BJP and the NDA are electorally far more vulnerable than they might appear. The BJP enjoyed an exceptionally high success rate in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, winning 182 out of the 339 seats it contested - a ratio nearly twice the average for the national parties. Assuming that the same, very high, success rate holds - despite the depleted number of its allies and their eroded strength in many States (another favourable assumption, this) - the party will not be able to win more than 188 seats if it contests a total of 350.

To win 200 seats, at the same success rate, it would have to contest 373 seats. This will necessarily entail alienating some NDA allies. To notch up a more convincing total of 220-230, it would more or less have to break up the NDA!

The NDA itself seems to have peaked in a number of States in 1999. For instance, it won all the seats in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Goa. It bagged 41 out of the 54 seats in Bihar, 19 out of 21 in Orissa, 36 out of 42 in Andhra Pradesh, 26 out of 39 in Tamil Nadu, 20 out of 26 in Gujarat, 16 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 28 out of 48 in Maharashtra, etc.

As many as 170 NDA wins came from nine States that account for 223 seats - an extraordinarily high 76 per cent success rate, which it will be hard put to repeat. In all probability, the NDA will win fewer seats in most of these States. Despite some favourable recent opinion polls, it is difficult to see how and where it can make up the loss, when the number of its own constituents has decreased by a third.

As far as the NDA's leader, the BJP, goes, any further potential gains can only come from a handful of States: the biggest being Uttar Pradesh, besides a couple of smaller ones like Assam and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh is the sole possible source of "bulk" gains. Even Pramod Mahajan admits (on NDTV 24x7) that "it will be difficult" for the BJP to reach their 200-seat mark nationally without an extra 20 to 25 seats in U.P.

However, despite Kalyan Singh's entry, the BJP faces an uphill task in U.P., where votes are likely to be divided four ways. In the 2002 Assembly elections, there was a similar division; the BJP came third. Short of a "wave", it will be hard for the BJP to reach, leave alone exceed, its tally of 25 seats corresponding to the State's current total of 80 seats.

The secular parties must do their utmost to deconstruct and dismantle the BJP's elite-centred "feel-good" propaganda campaign and raise issues of gut-level concern to the mass of the population. They cannot be content with ideologically fighting the Sangh Parivar. They must focus on the actual politics of the BJP as it is integrally connected to Hindutva through communalism and a certain belligerent form of nationalism, which find a distilled expression in the Advani rath campaign and the profound deception that lies at its core.

Above all, secularists must recognise that the BJP's appeal is not limited to crude Hindutva. It is Hindutva plus neo-liberalism. The first reassures and consolidates its committed core constituency of savarna Hindus, which is small. The second appeals to the upper middle class, perhaps under 10 per cent of the population, which never had it so good.

The mass vote or the plebeian vote is not part of either constituency. It is this that the Opposition must draw in - through imaginative programmes, policies and slogans centred on issues like unemployment, guaranteed and affordable access to food, healthcare and education, productive public investment, and a commitment to reviving and rebuilding public services, and so on.

The Centre-Left parties face a historic challenge of huge proportions. They must rise to it by consolidating their votes as far as possible through alliances and seat-sharing and by adopting a common programme which projects a radical new vision.

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