After some signs of defiance, L.K. Advani gives in to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's pressure by announcing at the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive meeting in Chennai that he will vacate the party's presidentship in December.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Chennai
FORMER Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president M. Venkaiah Naidu had a rather bizarre message for mediapersons at the very first briefing on the party's National Executive meeting in Chennai, held from September 16 to 18. Addressing the media immediately after the inaugural session, he repeatedly referred to a well-known restaurant near the venue of the meeting and encouraged journalists to go there, partake of the Chettinad delicacies it had to offer, and enjoy themselves, instead of probing the internal dissensions in the BJP. His point, evidently, was that the media need not expect anything sensational from the National Executive vis-a-vis the internal struggles in the party, particularly in relation to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-motivated campaign to displace Lal Krishna Advani from the position of party president.
Venkaiah Naidu went on to add that discussions on organisational issues were not on the agenda of the Executive and that the deliberations would be essentially on the three major resolutions - on the political situation in the country, the economic situation and national security - to be passed at the session. Other spokespersons who briefed the press on the following days of the meeting, including senior leaders such as Sushma Swaraj and Vijay Kumar Malhotra, persisted with the "no debate on imaginary internal dissensions" line, until Advani dropped a bombshell on the concluding day, announcing that he would demit office at the 25th anniversary conference of the party, to be held in December in Mumbai. With that one statement, all the assertions that "organisation and leadership questions are not on the agenda" were exposed as mere filibustering tactics. It exposed the hollowness of all the tall claims, paraded throughout the three-day conference, about the revival of organisational unity and cohesiveness in the BJP.
The contents of Advani's "departure time-frame" announcement and the manner in which it was delivered pointed towards the deep malaise that has afflicted not only the party, but also the rest of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). Consequently, the announcement also raised doubts about the BJP's assertions during the meet that it had obtained a renewed vigour from the Chennai session to launch major political offensives against the "misrule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government".
In a strictly literal sense, Venkaiah Naidu and the other spokespersons were right about the deliberations at the National Executive because questions relating to the party president's leadership and organisational style were not formally discussed by the delegates. The truth is, it was not necessary because the denouement, including Advani's proclamation about demitting office, had been dictated much earlier outside the confines of the National Executive by the RSS top brass. The deliberations on organisational issues, or more specifically the lack of it at the National Executive, in no way affected the final result. While declaring that he would step down in December as party president, Advani made no secret as to who and what had led to his announcement.
According to the official note of the BJP, Advani announced his decision and immediately followed it up with comments about the RSS; the most telling comment of which was: "Lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organisational decision (of the BJP) can be taken without the consent of the RSS" and that " this perception will do no good either to the party or to the RSS". He went on to say that the "RSS too must be concerned that such perception will dwarf its greater mission of man-making and nation-building". These comments were preceded by the assertion that the "BJP leadership had no hesitation in consulting with RSS functionaries" from time to time, and depending on the issue at hand, but "after such consultations the party takes its own independent decisions". Advani also added that "some of the decisions may differ, and have indeed differed from the stated positions of the RSS and certain constituents of the Sangh Parivar".
All this made one thing absolutely clear - that though Advani and his associates and detractors in the BJP do not admit it openly, the veteran leader was virtually compelled to announce the "departure time-frame" by the RSS. It also showed that the RSS control over the BJP was so strong that even a leader of Advani's stature could not defy its diktats. At another level, Advani's remarks showed that the veteran leader was so anguished about the interference and interventions of the RSS that he made bold to express his feelings publicly. A large number of his supporters within the BJP and outside rate this open criticism from the BJP president as a development that can alter the balance of power within the Sangh Parivar.
But the history of the Sangh Parivar and its political arms do not justify such hopes. In the late 1960s, the Jan Sangh, the then political arm of the Sangh Parivar, witnessed similar convulsions when Bal Raj Madhok, one of the founders of the party, questioned the political line dictated by the RSS. The RSS had then chosen to accept the concept of `integral humanism' formulated by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya as the socio-political line for its political arm and Madhok castigated it as a "leftward shift." But the RSS put its lot with Upadhyaya, which led to Madhok's expulsion from the Jan Sangh, which ultimately pushed him away from mainstream national politics.
The contention of Advani's supporters is that times have changed and that the RSS can be challenged. But it is belied by the developments that led to the Chennai Executive and Advani's announcement at the end of it. As pointed out by a senior BJP functionary from Uttar Pradesh, considered close to the commanders of the RSS and the VHP, the RSS top brass had ordained as early as July that the central declaration of the Chennai meet should be the one about Advani's removal from the topmost party position. "It was for this very reason," he told Frontline, "that the Chennai National Executive was postponed from July to September." The Chennai meeting was originally scheduled be held between July 21 and 23. But on July 11, a special RSS delegation led by Mohan Bhagawat came to Delhi from Nagpur with the specific objective of discussing the BJP's organisational affairs, with particular reference to Advani's leadership and style of functioning.
What followed was a series of tempestuous discussions between this team and BJP leaders, including Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Throughout the discussions, the RSS steadfastly maintained that the time had come for a new chief to take over the running of the BJP, one who was really committed to the Sangh Parivar ideology. The July discussions apparently concluded with an agreement that Advani would step down with good grace at an appropriate time. The postponement of the National Executive meeting was made in accordance with this understanding. However, between the last week of July and the third week of September, there was within the Sangh Parivar some confusion about the time of Advani's departure. Supporters of the party president claimed that this had been left to him, while his detractors, belonging mainly to the VHP, contended that the time had been fixed for the September National Executive meeting. This confusion started immediately after the July negotiations and by all indications, the RSS top brass had sent a message across to Advani to end it by announcing a time-frame for his exit.
But there was no such announcement from Advani. Clearly, the BJP president shared his supporters' view that he could decide the timing. It was in this context that a new round of RSS-prompted manoeuvres unfolded in mid-August. These had such a major impact on the party structure that it led to friction between Advani and Vajpayee, who had steadfastly supported the BJP president through the seven-month-long campaign against him in the Parivar by the RSS. The series started in the third week of August with an open letter to Advani from former Delhi Chief Minister and Rajasthan Governor Madan Lal Khurana, seeking an apology for the 2002 communal genocide in Gujarat and demanding Chief Minister Nadrendra Modi's removal.
Khurana's letter was perceived as an act of indiscipline by Advani and the Delhi strongman was first suspended and then expelled from the BJP for six years. Vajpayee got into the act when the dismissal happened on September 6, with the comment that Khurana, "who had served the party for long with dedication, should have been given one more opportunity to explain his point of view" before being thrown out unceremoniously. By all indications, Vajpayee's basic grouse was that he was not consulted by Advani before the decision to dismiss Khurana was taken, though Advani supporters claim that former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, a close associate of Advani, had discussed the idea with the former Prime Minister.
Vajpayee's reaction set off a new crisis in the BJP. For four days between September 7 and 11, the two seniormost leaders of the BJP refused to budge from their positions. Finally, at the end of fervent consultations carried out by their supporters and demonstrations of Vajpayee's distinctive style of making rapprochements, Khurana offered an apology of sorts to Advani and was taken back into the party. As the BJP leadership got into the final stages of the run-up to the National Executive with this rapprochement, the claim from supporters of Advani was that the `big two' had once again decided to forge a formidable alliance to take on the RSS leadership.
The RSS leadership also came up with a "final assault". Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan himself fired the first salvo while addressing a Sangh meeting at Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, just five days prior to the National Executive. He raked up the controversy over Advani's commendation of Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah's secular vision and said that whoever viewed Jinnah as secular needed to get his thinking right. After the meeting, Sudarshan travelled to Chennai, along with former Human Resource Development Minister Murli Mnaohar Joshi, a long-standing detractor of Advani and Vajpayee, professedly for eye treatment. Sudarshan was at a famous eye hospital in Chennai during the early parts of the National Executive.
Sections of Advani's supporters, however, still believed that their leader would continue to uphold his vision of a pragmatic political approach aimed at recapturing power at the Centre and would not succumb to the RSS line of aggressive Hindutva. In fact, some of them even interpreted Venkaiah Naidu's "enjoy yourself" remark to mediapersons as a message to the RSS leadership that the party president would take his own time to quit office. Certain comments in Advani's inaugural address also strengthened this view. In an indirect message to the RSS, he said: "It needs reminding that economic goals must be achieved in consonance with the values deeply ingrained in our culture and civilisation of more than 5,000 years" and hence "modernity must not be at the expense of tradition". But Advani also added that "tradition cannot stay frozen in the past but must be vibrant enough to adjust to the challenges of modernity". He went on to say: "Only the BJP has the vision and the wherewithal to modulate the gigantic socio-economic transition that India is currently undergoing, thanks largely to the dynamic initiatives undertaken by the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee."
This juxtaposition of thoughts on modernity, tradition and economic development, and finally the praise accorded to the NDA government were all seen as messages to the RSS leadership, which had overwhelmingly rated the NDA government as the most important factor in the corrupting of the traditional political and cultural values of the BJP. But all these assertions were brought to naught by Advani's final proclamation, which amounted to subjugation, albeit with some qualifying and challenging remarks, to the RSS diktats. In a way, it is ironic that Advani should criticise RSS intervention and meddling in day-to-day political and organisational affairs. He was one of the unapologetic champions of the RSS when the issues of its interference in governance and dual membership in the Janata Party upset the first non-Congress government of the country in 1979. Talking to Frontline, political commentator and former Janata Party leader Hariraj Singh Tyagi said that Advani's present anguish constituted a kind of poetic justice for the one-time die-hard RSS supporter.
Beyond Advani's personal plight, the denouement of the Chennai National Executive raises more important questions about the BJP's political line and its impact, both in the short and long terms. For nearly 10 years, the BJP had put its core Hindutva agenda - construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 and introduction of a uniform civil code - in the interests of building up a coalition with non-Congress and non-Communist secular parties. Despite the National Executive's repeated statements that it would continue with this approach and that the NDA it forged was the only national alternative, Advani's announcement raises questions as to whether the BJP can actually maintain its commitment to this political line.
The primary consideration that made the RSS ask for Advani's displacement was its own firm view that NDA politics had not done any good to the Sangh Parivar's political arm or its Hindutva politics. In this background, the RSS would obviously push for a more aggressive Hindutva line from the future leadership of the BJP. The secular parties associated with the NDA would also have to take into account this impending change. And their perceptions and reservations on this change could have a negative effect on the NDA even in the forthcoming Bihar Assembly elections, rated as the next big political battle of the country.
Will Advani and his supporters be able to devise strategies to overcome such a negative impact? The overall mood in the BJP and among Advani supporters as the National Executive came to a close gave no indications about a strategy or plan of action to counter this.