The Advani roadshow

Print edition : April 09, 2004

L.K. Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra, which started off from Kanyakumari on March 10, is essentially designed to advertise a tactical shift from Hindutva in the BJP's strategy, for electoral purposes.

in Kanyakumari

POLITICIANS embarking on a campaign from Land's End always dwell on Vivekananda. But Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani spoke eulogistically about another man as well - Eknath Ranade, one-time general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), who was the moving force behind the building of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial on the sea, at Kanyakumari.

L.K. Advani addressing a rally in Bagalkot in Karnataka during the Bharat Uday Yatra on March 15.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

It was an unlikely subject for a leader to talk about at some length, minutes before embarking on a 7,872-km, 33-day grand journey across the country. In a significant departure from the routine political invocations at Kanyakumari, Advani reminded the small audience about the hardship Ranade and his men had to undergo to mobilise support from all over India for the building of the memorial in the early 1960s.

Significantly, Advani also ended his reference to Ranade abruptly: "There was much opposition to the building of the memorial because some people thought the beauty of the spot would be spoiled." But, with a number of minority leaders waiting in the queue to greet him, Advani perhaps found it prudent not to elaborate that the opposition to the building of the memorial had been less a question of ravaging the beauty of the spot than of assuaging the communal tension that the proposal led to in the region. The idea distressed the local Christian community to such an extent that a cross, visible from the shore, was installed on the rock. The eventual removal of the cross and the building, at Ranade's initiative, of the Vivekananda Memorial with government approval was despite the communal flare-up that ensued.

India is certain to look back repeatedly at Advani's third grand yatra, named the Bharat Uday Yatra, across the country in 14 years with much more attention to such details than it did on earlier occasions. There were signs that the BJP, which hitch-hiked to power on Advani's controversial 1990 rath yatra, was advertising an inevitable poll-eve shift in political strategy to coincide with his latest journey. "This is not a rath yatra like the one I undertook last time. This is only a yatra in a bus," Advani announced, before party president M. Venkaiah Naidu flagged off the refurbished Swaraj Mazda bus with the Deputy Prime Minister, his wife Kamala and daughter Pratibha on the roof waving to an uninspiring saffron-green collective at Kanyakumari. "There was no mobilisation of people by the party for this flagging off ceremony because it is Advaniji who is going to meet the people," Venkaiah Naidu said. The yatra was to traverse 122 Lok Sabha constituencies from Kanyakumari to Amritsar in the first phase and then from Porbander to Puri, after a short gap during which Advani would file his nomination papers from Gandhinagar in Gujarat.

There was no mistake that Advani was driving into moderation a la Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. From the southern tip, all through the central Kerala minority heartland and beyond, Advani was at pains to explain the innocence of his 1990 rath yatra, the "victim of vicious Opposition propaganda", which in reality was meant to generate a debate in the country about "pseudo-secularism" and "true secularism". `Hindutva' was nothing but `Indianness' or `Bharatiyata' and "there was nothing communal about it", he claimed. And, he added, a solution to the mandir issue should be found through a court verdict or through dialogue. He was "sure that the groundwork done by so many people would lead to an agreement between the two communities after the elections". But he was certainly "not keen to see it as an issue in the elections".

The Bharat Uday Yatra, named so symbolically to suggest "the limitless capacity of our ancient nation to renew itself", as Advani explained it, was "blessed" at its launch by the presence of Zain-ul Abedin, the dewan of Ajmeersharif, and two Christian priests from the Church of South India in Kerala. Also present were the BJP's own high-profile Muslim leaders Syed Shanawaz Hussein, Mukthar Abbas Naqvi and Arif Mohammed Khan; actress Vijayasanthi and cricketer Krishnamachari Srikkanth; top party leaders Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley; and leaders from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, two States where the party's influence is limited. During the initial phase of his journey in the two States, Advani seemed to keep reassuring himself about the "enthusiasm of the crowds", which was but a mirage caused by the din of the nearly 200 vehicles that fast-drove with him from Kanyakumari to Thiruvananthapuram. The flicker of genuine support was visible only at a few places such as Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu and in RSS pockets, especially in rural south and central Kerala. Advani's first major public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, the one constituency where the BJP was pinning all its hopes on to make a breakthrough in Kerala, was perhaps the biggest disappointment. In the Christian belt around Kottayam in central Kerala, moderate crowds welcomed Advani. The yatra did not touch the five northern districts where the majority of Kerala's Muslims live.

No doubt, Advani's choicest abuse against the Congress(I) and the Left parties was delivered in Kerala. He alleged that the people of Kerala had become "prisoners of political ideology" and were missing opportunities because they were staying away from the national mainstream. They were being hampered by the "culture of negativism" being perpetrated by the Left parties and the Congress(I) in the State. He said that the political system has become cramped and the Left- and Congress(I)-led formations that alternate between themselves in power are unequal to the task of undertaking development and providing good governance.

As Advani rode into Palakkad, his last stop in Kerala, it appeared that the minority recruits that his party could garner were still only a few, a veneer that had to be spread thin. "What is important is that the BJP has been able to overcome the fear psychosis that was created among the minorities by our political enemies. The impression that the BJP is an anti-minority party has started to change," he claimed. Advani said that many leaders from the Muslim and Christian communities had approached him to express their happiness that "no injustice was being done to them by the NDA government while earlier governments had considered them as mere vote banks". He reminded the Christian audience at Muvattupuzha that when their representative in Parliament, P.C. Thomas, "approached the NDA, he was not only admitted into the alliance but made a Minister. Thomas was also sent to the Vatican as the NDA government's representative for the beatification of Mother Teresa".

FOR the first time since the 1998 bomb blasts, which were actually targeted at him, Advani made an overnight stay at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu's industrial city, where the unease at the BJP roadshow was palpable days before his visit. Security was more relaxed than during Advani's subsequent twin visits in 1999 for election campaigns. The yatra route was altered to avoid Muslim-dominated areas of the city. Unlike in 1999, most shops and commercial establishments remained open until afternoon. Advani arrived an hour late to say that the city had an important place in his heart because of the 1998 incidents. Later, at a media conference, he referred to the tragedy again and said that he "mourned" the victims even today. He added: "It is heartening to note that Coimbatore has overcome the crisis quickly to register record exports in knitware and also progress in other sectors of industry."

There was no harassment this time in the name of security checks, the president of the Coimbatore United Jamaat, M. Ameer Althaf, said. "But the concentration of too many policemen in uniform around Muslim-dominated areas seeks to give an impression that they are all terrorist dens. This should be avoided, especially when the relations between communities are becoming normal. The police pickets tend to sustain a stigma that hurts, though there is no harassment," he said. Police Commissioner Sanjay Arora, however, said that the pickets gave a sense of security to Muslims and that the police carried out security checks in the city "without any discrimination".

In fact, a few days down the road, at Kunigal in Karnataka, a local politician from neighbouring Sira, Mohammed Rafiullah, was waiting for Advani's roadshow to roll in. He claimed that 500 Muslims had come from his hometown to attend Advani's meeting. Karnataka's towns and semi-urban areas must have heartened Advani after four days of deadpan responses in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In places like Shimoga (the base of former Chief Minister and Congress-I leader S.M. Bangarappa, who recently joined the BJP), Bhadravathi, Shikaripura, Soraba, Hubli, Shiggaon, Bagalkot and Bijapur, Advani and his entourage were greeted by crowds in the region of 10,000 to 15,000 with a fervour that should gladden the hearts of BJP campaign leaders. However, Advani's first major public engagement in the State, where elections to both the Assembly and the Lok Sabha will be held on April 20 and 26, was before a small crowd in Bangalore.

Crowds lined Advani's route into Hubli, the communally volatile town in north Karnataka. In his address to a 10,000-strong crowd at the Nehru Maidan, Advani chose not to depart from the deliberately non-provocative note that had characterised his speeches during the course of his yatra in the State. Not only did he avoid any reference to the Idgah Maidan, an issue the BJP had used in the past to fan communal violence in the town, but he also made a direct appeal to Hindus and Muslims to come together. Significantly, he said it was Congress(I) propaganda that had pitted the BJP against the minorities and that the five years of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule had seen peace for minorities, peace with Pakistan and peace in Jammu and Kashmir. At a media conference in the town, in response to questions, Advani acknowledged that Gujarat constituted a blot on NDA rule.

One question that haunted Advani at media conferences during the yatra was his relationship with Vajpayee. At every other venue, Advani claimed that he undertook the yatra to gather support for Vajpayee and his cause for nation-building. In Kottayam and later in Bangalore, Advani referred to strikingly similar newspaper photographs taken in the 1950s and in 2003 of Vajpayee, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Sekhawat and himself to point out he had all along been standing behind the two leaders, though they had grown together in stature. In Hubli, Advani denied that his yatra was a "desperate act to come back into the limelight" and asked: "What is wrong in being Number Two? Is it such a small thing?"

Wherever he stopped for more than a few minutes, Advani compared the 50 years of Congress rule with the six years of Vajpayee's "golden" rule and told people how the country, which saw seven Prime Ministers in a decade since 1988 and was on the verge of instability, was now `shining' under Vajpayee's stable leadership. He said that while the Congress(I) had failed miserably to convert "self-governance" to "good governance" and had destroyed India because of its hunger for power, under Vajpayee the NDA had offered the people the two main components of good governance, "development and security". He said: "I have one simple message to all my countrymen through this yatra - `India's time has come.' Our journey towards prosperity for all, towards all-round development and towards India as a great power has begun. The 21st century will become India's century. Let us walk together in this journey."

In Palakkad, Advani had utilised a fairly impressive turnout at the Fort Maidan to launch a tirade against the Congress(I) and its president Sonia Gandhi, accusing the party of trying to bring back dynastic rule in the country. "They are trying to teach the people that the country obtained its freedom because of one family, that it is the right of the Nehru family to rule the country." Later, at Solapur in Maharashtra, home town of Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Advani responded sharply to Sonia Gandhi's statement that "coalitions were a temporary phenomenon" and said that it was the party's ego that made it believe that it alone could rule the country and had made it topple the governments led by Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. Later, at a media conference at Yavatmal, Advani said that the "foreign origin" of the Congress(I) president was indeed a "political issue" and that political parties were justified in raising it during election campaigns. Right from Nagercoil, Advani had put this poser before crowds that lined his route: "Today the people of India find that they have to choose between a great Prime Minister who has earned respect all over the country and a prospective Prime Minister who does not belong to India, who does not understand India but would like to project herself as the prospective Prime Minister of the Opposition. Whom would you like to see as your next Prime Minister?"

It was not a smooth ride for Advani in every State. His own people ambushed him in Nagpur, the RSS heartland in eastern Maharashtra, where the yatra found the largest public rally in the State. Advani addressed the rally along with Uddhav Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena, the BJP's ally in the State. But a raffle of youngsters, belonging to the Bajrang Dal and demanding the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, had come with a banner that read "Ram mandir NDA ka agenda nahi to agenda kya hai?" (If the Ram temple is not NDA's agenda, then what is its agenda?). Advani tried to pacify them by saying that a solution to the Ram temple issue would be reached a few months after the elections. "An enduring solution will be found only through a negotiated settlement," he said. Advani asked the Bajrang Dal activists not to do anything that would turn away Muslim voters from the BJP and that there was growing realisation among Muslims that they had been taken for a ride and used as a vote bank by Congress(I) and other parties for several years.

The yatra travelled only through the Vidarbha region, a traditional Congress(I) stronghold neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, and one of the poorest regions in Maharashtra neglected by successive State governments that have pampered western Maharashtra's sugarcane belt. Over the past seven years, an alarming number of cotton farmers have committed suicide in the Vidarbha region. For decades, local politicians have used this discontent to demand a separate State of Vidharbha, just as in the neighbouring, impoverished Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh, where there are similar demands. At both places Advani said that though the BJP was in favour of the demand, it was constrained by the NDA agenda. "The NDA government will consider them only in the event of a political consensus and the respective State Assemblies adopting resolutions to that effect. We had adopted a similar policy in the case of Uttaranchal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand," he said.

Earlier, Advani got a lukewarm response in the Naxalite-infested Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, through which his yatra was routed in a bid to counter the growing influence of the fledgling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and its alliance partner, the Congress(I). Advani's statement on the issue of separate statehood was in sharp contrast to the stand of Sonia Gandhi, who during her public rally at Karimnagar merely stated that she was aware of the sentiments of the Telangana people and that the Congress(I), if returned to power, would strive to "fulfil their aspirations".

Ironically, it was the BJP which brought the issue of a separate Telangana to the fore in Andhra Pradesh through the slogan `One Vote, Two States' during the 1998 elections. But, subsequently, it made a somersault in the wake of its alliance with the ruling TDP on the ground that Telangana was not part of the NDA agenda, though the BJP was in favour of smaller States.

At a press conference in Hyderabad, Advani did dangle a bait for the TDP, asking it to join the NDA government. But, reports indicate that the response from Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was still only about extending "outside support".

On the last day of his tour in Andhra Pradesh, before his yatra crossed over to Maharashtra, Advani also called for building consensus among all parties on the need to enforce the two-child norm for every family in order to ensure the country's economic development. He said that "even the minorities were in favour of small families" and added that anybody who violated the norm should automatically be debarred from holding government jobs or public office.

On March 20, by the time the roadshow wound its way into Maharashtra after a gruelling, sun-baked journey across Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Advani had revealed his party's new game plan: it would push back, for the time being, its mandir programme and take over the development (bijli-sadak-paani) agenda from the Opposition; it would refurbish the Hindutva theme with a new universal appeal; it would reach out to the minorities, claiming to include and not exclude them from its scheme of things; it would project a moderate Vajpayee and target an `alien' Sonia Gandhi; it would showcase its "achievements" and hold out an enticing promise for a grand future.

With K.V. Prasad in Coimbatore, Ravi Sharma in Shimoga, Parvathi Menon in Hubli, Y. Mallikarjun in Hyderabad and Dionne Bunsha in Mumbai.

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