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The Advani factor

Print edition : Sep 16, 2000 T+T-
SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

TOWARDS the end of 1995, Lal Krishna Advani seemed fairly secure in his control over the BJP's organisational apparatus. He had suffered a temporary eclipse during Murli Manohar Joshi's stewardship of the party, but been restored to a leadership role wit h results that were almost immediately apparent. A transition was being signalled from the hardline ideological agenda of the early 1990s to a more moderate course. The BJP was the party of governance in a number of significant States and needed to act t he role.

At a National Executive session in Panaji in April 1995, Advani had laid out a new political strategy for the party. Grown flabby and inept after years in authority, the Congress(I) was in the throes of self-destruction. Its final collapse would leave th e BJP as the only other claimant to the mantle of a national party. All it needed to do was keep itself aloof from any kind of divisive and emotive campaign and seek the image of a responsible party of governance. Advani spelt out the risks inherent in t his strategy with great clarity at Panaji: "The BJP is indeed growing. But it is worrisome that the pace at which the... Congress... is collapsing is greater than the pace at which we are growing." This left the door open, in Advani's estimation, for var ious kinds of "dangerous forces" to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Congress: specifically, the "forces of casteism, communalism and communism".

The reference of course was only to minority communalism and the kind of political mobilisations around caste that had consistently thwarted the BJP's pursuit of power. But to combat these forces it was deemed necessary to co-opt them. The BJP's courtshi p of electoral allies who would help it bridge the many glaring lacunae in its organisational structure, really begins in 1995.

Conflict with the hardline element still remained an incipient possibility. By the end of 1995, Advani was into his second consecutive term as party president and constitutionally forbidden from occupying the post beyond 1997. Anxious to consolidate his position and to broaden the constituency for moderation within the BJP, Advani then played his master-stroke - plucking his old friend Atal Behari Vajpayee from the fringes to which he had sullenly withdrawn during the Ayodhya campaign, and nominating hi m as the party's prime ministerial candidate for the general elections due by mid-1996.

Between Advani's 1990 rath yatra and the Assembly elections in five northern States in 1993, the BJP had reaped all the possible rewards of raising its pitch of political extremism. It had also suffered all the attendant risks. Advani's own pragmatic ext remism had given way in this period to Joshi's deeply ideological and programmatic extremism. Despite evident misgivings on the part of Advani and his close associates, Joshi launched his final assault to capture the holy grail of Ayodhya during his term as BJP president. For Advani, Ayodhya was symbolic of a larger struggle for the conquest of power in Delhi. For the strategically obtuse and rigid Joshi, Ayodhya was a goal in itself.

By mid-1993, the BJP seemed already to be uneasily aware that its stridency on Ayodhya had recoiled. Advani came in as party president again, vowing to move the Ayodhya issue down in his priorities list. Rather, a more "holistic" programme was promised, with the BJP confining itself to an auxiliary role on Ayodhya itself.

The rebuff that was administered by the electorate in 1993 was unmistakable. The BJP could hope to benefit from the waves of anti-incumbency sentiment that were buffeting the Congress(I) in virtually every State that it ruled. It could use the symbolism of mythology to propagate its cause and to build up a following. But there was a figurative boundary which could not be crossed. Once past this threshold, the party would tend to repel potential adherents in larger numbers than it could attract them.

Though Advani as party president had to bear the burden of responsibility for the 1993 election debacles, most of the party faithful were willing to ascribe the blame to Joshi's preceding term in office. Vajpayee, at the same time, was an isolated figure within the party. His three terms as BJP president in the first half of the 1980s were a scarcely remembered prehistory in the career of the party. And his committed following within the party cadre was limited. He was considered by most people as an at tractive frontman for the party who could not do much of substance in organisational or strategic terms.

Vajpayee had regained a momentary lease of relevance as the only senior leader of the party to evade arrest after the demolition at Ayodhya. His role in preserving a semblance of public respectability for the BJP in the aftermath of that dark deed was si gnificant. Despite his professed sense of agony over the demolition, he was still willing to take his place on the streets to protest the supposed suppression of the BJP's legitimate political rights.

Advani too went through a spasm of contrition after the demolition, describing it as the saddest event of his life and professing his continuing faith in secularism. But for him the discourse of Hindu victimhood was still relevant.

Though propelled into the leadership role in the 1996 campaign, Vajpayee remained dependent entirely on the muscle that Advani's control of the organisation lent him. Since assuming office as Prime Minister with a reasonable assurance of political longev ity in 1998, he has sought to break out of this situation of dependence. A part of the need to do so has arisen from the need for Vajpayee as Prime Minister to adopt a policy course that sets him at divergence with powerful sections within his party. And though Advani himself may share many of the basic premises of Vajpayee's economic policy, several of his acolytes within the organisation have completely antithetical views. And the Prime Minister has dealt with this situation either by winning over tra ditional Advani loyalists to his side or by isolating those that were proving recalcitrant to his overtures.

The potential for a conflict between the two old associates in the cause of Hindutva has been inherent on matters involving policy, politics and personnel. But on most issues, Advani has shown a tendency to defer to the wishes of his senior in party coun cils. Ram Jethmalani was ejected from his post as Union Minister for Law following a public tiff with the Chief Justice of India, despite Advani's expressed preference to retain him in the Cabinet in an alternative post. M. Venkaiah Naidu and Sushma Swar aj, two of Advani's closest confidant(e)s, have been left out of the Cabinet despite what they imagine are compelling claims to being accommodated. And in Uttar Pradesh, the State which represents the vanishing point of political ideology, Kalyan Singh, despite all his proximity to Advani, was ruthlessly cut out of the reckoning by a coterie acting with Vajpayee's explicit blessings.

There have also been areas of conflict in policy, particularly on Kashmir. Advani is believed to have had serious reservations about the release of three Islamic militants from imprisonment after the Kandahar hijacking last year. He was more sceptical ab out initiating a political dialogue in Kashmir than were Vajpayee and his advisers.

Personal warmth has long since ebbed in relations between the two old associates, to be replaced by a certain formal correctness. Despite his strongly held beliefs, this is perhaps testimony to the strength of the pragmatic streak in Advani's political m akeup. And it is also understood to be his implicit tribute to the consensual style of politics that Vajpayee has been practising within the ruling coalition.

Advani perhaps believes that when he succeeds to the job that Vajpayee today holds - as he undoubtedly thinks it is his manifest destiny to - he would be able to keep the faith of the allies in the same manner, while regaining the commitment of those wit hin the party who may have been alienated. There is no reason to expect that serious turbulence will ensue with the coalition partners, since Advani more than Vajpayee was the key figure in working out all the alliances both in 1998 and 1999.

But within the diverse factions and coteries that today constitute the BJP, there is little question that Advani would be a more acceptable figure. His problems are likely to begin when the considerations of political pragmatism are outweighed by loyalti es of caste, language and religion.