A reprieve for Advani

Print edition : August 12, 2005

The RSS is keen to get L.K. Advani out of the leadership of the BJP, but it may have to wait until after the Bihar elections. The BJP cannot do without the Janata Dal (United) there, and Advani's exit will not go down well with it.


BJP president L..K. Advani (right), with party colleague Jaswant Singh, driving away after a meeting with RSS leaders at the Sangh office in New Delhi on July 17.-

AS the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got round to holding a full meeting of its office-bearers on July 23, there were repeated assertions from its spokespersons that it would be a "business" meeting "dedicated to the issues to be taken up in the monsoon session of Parliament". It was also emphasised that there would be no discussions on ideological or organisational matters relating to the BJP or the larger Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

The message was clear. The BJP leadership was trying hard to get back to the "business" of playing Opposition politics effectively. More important, it wanted to put, at least, a temporary stop to the ideological-organisational turbulence that it was passing through, in the background of the power struggle between party president Lal Krishna Advani and the RSS leadership led by sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan. The meeting stuck to its agenda and came up with an "action plan" to "expose" during the monsoon session the laxity with which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was handling threats to national security"; the "harm caused by the ruling coalition's vote bank politics"; and its "destructive economic policies".

Resolutions originally drafted for the national executive meeting, which had been scheduled for July 21 in Chennai but was postponed because of the internal turbulence in the Sangh Parivar, went into the shaping of the action plan. After the meeting, a BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh who had tried to broker peace between Advani and the leadership of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the professed ideological sword arm of the Sangh Parivar, expressed satisfaction that the party had been able to put up a more or less cohesive performance on the eve of the monsoon session. "It was difficult to imagine, even 10 days ago, that we would be able to hold such a meeting and pass resolutions unanimously," he said.

He had in mind, of course, the bitter war of attrition between the BJP president and the RSS leadership that dominated national politics throughout the second week of July. The intensity of the struggle and the non-conventional methods employed in the manoeuvres turned the confrontation into one of the most bizarre spectacles of contemporary Indian politics. There were no real issues in the struggle. But some of the manoeuvres bordered on the ludicrous. The issue that the RSS leadership highlighted was something it had been repeating over the past one year - that the BJP had deviated from the core Hindutva ideology at the cost of the Sangh Parivar's ultimate political goals and that as someone who condoned and promoted this deviation, L.K. Advani resign his presidency. There was nothing novel in Advani's response, either. Its gist was that the time was not ripe yet for an all-out pursuit of the Hindutva agenda, and that the BJP should continue to project itself as a potential ruling party in association with the secular parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) during the current term of Parliament.

In terms of practical politics, the RSS had taken the decision to remove Advani as party president as early as March 2005, after its all-India meeting in Mangalore (Frontline, July 1, 2005). And Advani had decided not to bow down right from that time. Given this background, the conflict in July was kicked off with a statement released in Delhi about the recent Surat conclave of RSS pranthpracharaks. The statement said that the pranthpracharaks "expressed serious concern over the ideological erosion, behavioural misdemeanour and violation of organisational discipline with impunity by some functionaries of a couple of like-minded organisations" and had decided to "convey the Sangh's reservations" to the "concerned people".

Two days after the release of the statement, on July 11, RSS leaders Mohan Bhagwat, Suresh Soni and Madan Dass Devi came to Delhi from the RSS headquarters in Nagpur and held a series of meetings with BJP leaders, including Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The message that the delegation brought to Delhi was that Advani should step down as party president as soon as possible. Sangh Parivar sources told Frontline that at the very first series of meetings, the RSS leaders made it clear that they did not want to give the impression that they had pushed Advani out in haste. It was also said that the former Deputy Prime Minister would be allowed to step down gracefully at a mutually agreed date, but that he must make a clear commitment to make way for a new leader who was more committed to the Hindutva cause. But Advani refused to give any such commitment.

Activists of the RSS allege that he even got party spokesperson Sushma Swaraj to make a statement that the Sangh Parivar leadership never demanded his resignation. This upset RSS leaders no end and some of them described the situation as the "gravest crisis" the organisation had faced since its inception eight decades ago. The RSS leadership was not going to take it lying down. Its next move was to prompt obviously motivated statements, which came from former Delhi Chief Minister Madan Lal Khurana and former BJP presidents Jana Krishnamurthy and Bangaru Laxman. While Khurana categorically called for Advani's resignation from the leadership of the party and even the parliamentary party, Krishnamurthy and Laxman said they would raise the issue of deviation from the Hindutva agenda at the Chennai National Executive. Veteran RSS pracharak and BJP Member of Parliament Pyarelal Khandewal also warned that he would raise issues of ideological deviation at the executive.

There were indications at this point that the RSS assault would become more open and vociferous. Advani, on his part, consulted Vajpayee - the master of compromises, according to a senior VHP leader - and the former Prime Minister's advice, perceptibly, was to make peace. On July 17, Advani chose to drive down to the RSS centre in New Delhi located at Keshavkunj and spoke to the team led by Bhagwat. Before that, he had also called up Sudarshan in Nagpur. Sources close to Advani said after these exercises that the party president had given a personal assurance of his commitment to the Sangh Parivar's ideology and of his willingness to follow the RSS leadership's advice on a variety of issues. But the fine print was indicated by a statement from Bhagwat himself. He made it clear that the RSS had asked for serious efforts to "address the sentiments expressed by us on issues like ideology, conduct, organisation, emergence of new generation" and so on. The reference to a "new generation" was considered significant because it was the most open suggestion from the RSS that Advani make way for a younger leader. However, Advani got a reprieve as Bhagwat added that swayamsewaks should "maintain organisational discipline and avoid negative publicity by restricting all their discussions on these matters to the four walls of the organisation".

According to sources close to Advani, he was not given any time-frame by the RSS to step down. It could be around the time of the National Executive rescheduled for September 16 to 18 in Chennai, or after the Bihar elections. Bihar is a State where the BJP plays second fiddle to its NDA partner Janata Dal (United). A middle-level BJP leader from Bihar said: "It is important that the party is led, at this juncture, by a leader who vibes well with the partners in the NDA and is acceptable to them. Only Advaniji has that kind of stature."

Sources close to the BJP president also say that sections of the RSS top brass, particularly men such as H.V. Seshadri, are not ready to reject completely Advani's contention in favour of retaining the NDA set-up as well as the BJP's leadership over it. Hence, the sources said, a consensus might emerge to allow Advani to remain party president until after the Bihar polls. However, Advani's bitterest critics in the Sangh Parivar, who include leaders of the VHP, are of the view that Bhagwat's team has set out a September deadline for Advani to step down.

"The RSS will nominate a successor by then and Advani will have to go out," a senior VHP leader told Frontline. He said that there were leaders within the BJP who were still advising Advani to hold on to his post and continue his battle against the RSS. "If those sections prevail, Advani might try to hold on past September, and there would be more internal problems in the Parivar," he said.

For the time being, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have put up a display of unity, thanks to the monsoon session of Parliament.

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