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Advani's battles

Print edition : Jul 15, 2005 T+T-

The timing of RSS supremo K.S. Sudarshan's praise for Indira Gandhi and Yashwant Sinha's attacks on the Arjun Munda government in Jharkhand point to the opening of new fronts against L.K. Advani within the Sangh Parivar.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

TIME was when debates within the upper echelons of the Sangh Parivar related to the possibilities of the Hindutva combine acquiring unqualified socio-political supremacy in the country on the strength of a fully developed pan-Hindu identity. But in the context of the seemingly unending controversies sparked by Bharatiya Janata Party president Lal Krishna Advani's visit to Pakistan and the remarks he made during the trip, the debates no longer revolve around such issues. They have been replaced by more mundane, almost cynical, questions. Far from the visions of a unified Hindu identity, the debates now relate to the internal struggles, focussed on differing political perceptions and individual aspirations for power, within the Sangh Parivar. And the questions are not whether these struggles would reach the level of the end game, but when it would happen. Queries about its repercussions on national politics in general and Hindutva politics in particular are also raised from time to time in the debates.

The dramatic changes in the character and quality of the debates have, by themselves, become an admission of the deep organisational crisis in the Sangh Parivar. The effusive claims of former Union Minister and BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj on the evening of June 10 - when Advani withdrew his resignation as party president - that the organisational crisis was over is perceived as mere hyperbole now.

Sushma Swaraj's comments were interpreted by supporters of Advani to mean that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) would treat the period at least as one of reprieve. On their part, the Advani supporters decided that they would treat the June 10 "settlement" as a concrete political exercise favouring Advani and would not "give heed to the noises" made by outfits such as the VHP against their leader. BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said that the party would not join issue with other Sangh Parivar outfits publicly, whatever the provocation.

However, this position changed as the RSS top brass - including sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan and ideologue K.L. Vaidya - itself attacked Advani in almost insulting terms. The shift became evident when the BJP president held a book release function at his residence on June 15 and used the occasion to announce that he would not run away from the battle, but continue to fight for his convictions. The symbolic value of the book, Bhagvad Gita: Timelessly Pertinent, as well as it author, retired Lieutenant-General. Surrinder Kochar, was exploited well by Advani. He likened himself to Arjuna, who imbibed strength from the Gita, and said that like the Lieutenant-General who absorbed the Gita and used it in his everyday battles, he too would soldier on to protect and advance his principles.

THE days that followed witnessed more tumult within the Sangh Parivar. It took many forms - the controversy over BJP national secretary and Advani's political secretary Sudheendra Kulkarni's advocacy paper that etched visions of a revised "secular" Hindutva, former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha's criticism of the BJP government in Jharkhand, and Sudarshan's description of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a "great" leader. Whatever the qualitative aspect of the issue, all underlined one point - that the much-touted organisational and ideological discipline of the Sangh Parivar no longer existed. As this realisation gains ground, the non-Hindutva associates of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have started openly airing their apprehensions about the Sangh Parivar's inner struggle. George Fernandes, the convener of the NDA and leader of the Janata Dal (United), admitted that he was worried about the very future of the alliance. He made no effort to hide his exasperation at the developments within the Parivar. He said that he did not know whom to speak to in the BJP to resolve the crisis. "Issues are developing within the largest party of the NDA and everybody is attacking Advani," he said.

Fernandes' remark that "everybody is attacking Advani" has been interpreted as a politically loaded statement within both the Sangh Parivar and the NDA. According to a former BJP Member of Parliament closely associated with the VHP, the allusion is to Yashwant Sinha, who has used the present context to criticise Advani's leadership directly and indirectly.

Sinha, who is a BJP spokesperson, embarked on the ostensibly self-appointed mission even when the controversy on Advani's remarks on Jinnah raged within the Sangh Parivar in early June. He was one of the few senior BJP leaders who termed Advani's remarks as unwarranted and doubted whether he would be effective as the Opposition Leader in the Lok Sabha after his resignation as party president. Those who thought that this was an off-the-cuff remark were in for a surprise when Sinha took up, in less than a fortnight's time, the "issue of governance and corruption" in the BJP government in Jharkhand, led by Advani confidant Arjun Munda.

Sinha went hammer and tongs at the Arjun Munda government. He called it a corrupt and inefficient Ministry that did not have the interests of the people at heart. Stung by the attack, fellow BJP leaders tried to rein in Sinha. Senior leaders Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh spoke separately to the former Union Minister. Jaitley went public with the details of the conversation and said it had been made clear to Sinha that he should raise his differences of opinion at party forums and not air them publicly. But Sinha insisted on raising the issue in public as he felt it was his duty to protect and highlight the interests of the poor people of Jharkhand. He said his intention was to improve the performance of the party government in Jharkhand.

Sinha's assertions, however, do not find many takers in the BJP, especially among supporters of Advani and Munda. As far as they are concerned, there is more to Sinha's statement than meets the eye. The dominant perception among large sections of the Sangh Parivar about Sinha's outbursts is that they are the "opening of a second front" by Sudarshan.

Apparently, such a perception impelled Fernandes to refer to Sinha through the "everybody is attacking Advani" statement. Fernandes, who himself has been close to the RSS for decades, has taken a steadfast public position of standing by "Lalji" throughout the period of conflict. Informed sources close to Fernandes told Frontline that the Janata Dal (United) leader had high regard for the RSS and its "contributions" to Indian society, but was pained by the kind of politicking that its present leadership had started within the Sangh Parivar.

Importantly, Fernandes' view is gaining ground both within and outside the Sangh Parivar. A number of Sangh Parivar insiders said that there were indications about the opening of several other fronts against Advani. Sudarshan's speech at an RSS function in Lucknow, in which he showered praise on late Indira Gandhi as an "iron-willed leader" "who carved out Bangladesh from Pakistan" and said she "stood by her words and deeds" is cited as a case in point.

According to a former BJP MP, there were indications that Advani was planning to launch a campaign on the 30th anniversary of the Emergency - June 25 - highlighting the atrocities committed during that period by the Congress regime led by Indira Gandhi. He said: "The campaign was conceived as a political tool that would help get over the embarrassment Advani and his associates suffered during the Jinnah controversy and lift the morale of the rank and file, who had been downcast because of the inner struggle."

Advani, apparently, planned to use the campaign to drive a wedge between the Congress and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, and the supporting Left parties because a large segment of the leadership of these parties were victims of the Emergency. But these plans lost much of their efficacy as the supreme leader of the Sangh Parivar itself showered praise on Indira Gandhi barely few days before the anniversary of the Emergency.

The former MP said: "In one stroke Sudarshan blunted the punch of this proposed campaign. How can the BJP run an effective campaign highlighting Emergency excesses when the party's own ideological fountainhead states that Indira Gandhi was a great Prime Minister despite small weaknesses and aberrations?" He had little doubt that the RSS supremo had once again played a "realpolitik" game to upstage Advani's plans.

Whether this hypothesis holds good or not on closer scrutiny, there can be no argument that Sudarshan's praise for Indira Gandhi caused political inconvenience to the BJP and sections of the NDA. The dismayed reactions to Sudarshan's statement from leaders of the BJP and the rest of the NDA, including those from Advani and Fernandes, underlined this. Fernandes asked: "How can the RSS even dream of admiring Indira Gandhi, overlooking her regime's Emergency track record, especially when the Sangh itself had fought so valiantly in those dark days?"

The RSS, on its part, came up with an official reaction asserting that Sudarshan's statement referred only to certain leadership qualities of Indira Gandhi and should not be construed as a justification of the excesses of the Emergency. The statement returned Fernandes' compliment and made a special mention of the NDA convener's struggle during the Emergency.

There is a stream of opinion among a section of Advani loyalists that even this praise for Fernandes could be part of moves to open a new front against Advani. "First it was the aggressive reaction to Advaniji's statements in Pakistan, and later, when the controversy over that seemed to end, Sudarshan and K.L. [Vaidya] made caustic comments slighting Advaniji. And now they are singling out Fernandes for praise. This is all part of the new RSS realpolitik games," said a supporter of Advani from Uttar Pradesh.

As these projections and apprehensions gain ground, speculations on the timing of the end game also continue apace. Sangh Parivar insiders owing allegiance to the RSS supremo and the BJP president are not clear as to when this will happen. The perception within the Sangh Parivar when the RSS, particularly Sudarshan, decided in March to effect a change of order in the BJP was that it would take place by September. But on June 10, when Advani withdrew his four-day-old resignation, sections of the party believed that he had successfully thwarted the September deadline. This perception changed again when there was a renewed attack by the RSS top brass on Advani immediately after June 10. Now Advani himself has thrown a direct challenge through his speech at the book release function.

According to a Sangh Parivar insider considered close to both former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sudarshan, the most important question is whether Advani's bold posture and his openly expressed readiness to fight would generate a rethinking at least among a section of the RSS. He said: "If that happens, Sudarshanji's deadline will not be met." The fact that sources close to the RSS supremo are now talking about a "more realistic" deadline of December-January shows that Advani's "Gita" speech has had some effect. Will he be able to consolidate it? Or will Sudarshan and his RSS associates come up with a more effective strategy that will have an immediate impact? Perhaps the first indications on which way the pendulum is swinging will be available after the RSS chintan shivir, scheduled to be held in Surat in Gujarat in early July.

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