Back to the Ram rath

Print edition : November 19, 2004

It will be an uphill task for L.K. Advani to take the Bharatiya Janata Party back to primacy in national politics if he builds his political agenda once again around the Hindutva ideology.

in New Delhi

L.K. Advani addressing the BJP National Council.-RAJEEV BHATT

ONE of the first debates at the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi after Lal Krishna Advani's return as the party's president for his fifth term, was not directly related to political issues. It was about the suggestions from vaastu consultants considered close to Advani that the entrance to the party office should once again be shifted to the western gate. The entrance has been on the eastern side for the past five years - the period after the 1999 Lok Sabha elections which witnessed the return of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power. Vaastu consultants are reportedly of the view that this is not good for Advani in his new term as party president.

Changing the entrance of the party office will be comparatively an easy task for Advani. All other political and organisational initiatives that he has announced - and is reportedly planning - with the objective of bringing the BJP back to primacy in national politics, suffer from limitations in conception and practicability.

In fact, the putting together of the core team - one of the first concrete steps taken by Advani - raised such a great deal of commotion and confusion that doubts were being expressed whether the "Iron Man's great return" would end up with a boomerang effect.

Central to these doubts was the manner in which former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati failed to make the list of office-bearers. Uma Bharati was tipped to become one of the general secretaries in Advani's team. In fact, BJP insiders were presenting this as a certainty throughout the run-up to the final announcement of the list. But the list, as it finally came out on October 30, did not have Uma Bharati's name. Though the BJP gave no official reason, the stories that did the rounds in the Sangh Parivar pointed towards a continuation of the discreditable power struggle in the second-generation leadership.

The insiders' stories said that Uma Bharati had refused to accept the position of the general secretary because her bete noire Pramod Mahajan was also in the same position. She wanted Mahajan out of the powerful position and if that was not possible, wanted a "quasi-constitutional" position in Madhya Pradesh, through which she could actively participate in the affairs of the State government. Several Sangh Parivar leaders tried to placate Uma Bharati and get her to withdraw from this "impractical and unrealistic position" but she would have none of it. Advani was finally forced to keep the position of a general secretary and a vice-president unfilled.

But what has taken the party by surprise is the fact that somebody as junior as Uma Bharati has dared to defy a "five-time" party president. This is significant when one considers that Advani replaced M. Venkaiah Naidu even before the latter's term was over.

There was widespread agreement in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that Venkaiah Naidu was not able to manage the affairs of the party effectively, particularly with regard to controlling second-generation leaders such as Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati, who were constantly fighting one another. One of the principal objectives of Advani's return was to check this and bring the party back to order.

It was widely perceived that Advani's word would carry more weight with the second-generation leaders than that of Venkaiah Naidu and that this would ultimately lead to the streamlining of the organisational machinery. It was further argued that Advani's stature in national politics would help lift the morale of party workers. However, the fracas on account of the announcement of office-bearers has cast a pall of scepticism over these projections.

But the formulation of the list of office-bearers is not the only issue that has raised queries about Advani's capabilities. The very first meeting of the BJP National Council after Advani's takeover - held in New Delhi on October 27 - and the developments that followed show that political and organisational factors could become long-lasting constraints and the party's efforts to envision a substantive political line remain as unsuccessful as they have been since the shock defeat in the Lok Sabha elections six months ago.

The developments have also made it clear that Advani's leadership has in no way minimised the extremely complicated power play within the organisational structure of the BJP and its ideological associates in the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The net effect of the National Council meet was that it reaffirmed the BJP's confusion in identifying and pursuing an effective agenda and action plan in its present role as the principal Opposition party.

As expected, the meeting witnessed a delineation of Advani's political and organisational guidelines to party leaders and workers. Advani started off by urging them to realise and accept that there was a setback to the party and concluded by giving a call to reclaim lost support and fulfil the responsibility that the BJP had towards the country. The merit of this exhortation was widely accepted by the delegates, but they, and even partners of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), felt that Advani did not really succeed in presenting a concrete analysis of the "tough times" being faced by the party. More importantly, he did not advance any new schemes to "reclaim lost support".

Advani's analysis pointed to three main reasons for the reverses suffered in the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly elections, the first being a "disconnect between good governance and electoral victories". His arguments suggested, although not explicitly, that the people had made a mistake in not recognising the "good governance" of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Advani also listed the "failure of BJP Members of Parliament to keep in touch with the people" and the "over-confidence of the BJP leadership and rank and file" as the other reasons for the reverses.

His recipe for "reclaiming lost support" involved correcting the two latter aberrations and once again asserting that the BJP was indeed a "party with a difference". He emphasised the "Bharatiyata [nationalist] values and principles of the BJP". He also indicated that the BJP, under his presidency, would continue to make efforts to build a "grand temple befitting the greatness of Lord Ram at Ayodhya". Clearly, in spite of the twist in phraseology (to Bharatiyata), the formula put forward by Advani to "reclaim lost support" is not very different from the Hindutva agenda that was aggressively advanced during his earlier tenures as party president in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

The more important question in relation to this political plan is whether it will help the BJP and its associates in the NDA to go forward as an effective Opposition force with an agenda that the people would rate as original and convincing. The party's allies do not seem to think so. Former Railway Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar castigated Advani's analysis of the election reverses as well as his new formula to underscore the BJP's status as a "party with a difference".

The most important flaw in Advani's analysis, he told Frontline over telephone, was his propensity to camouflage or gloss over the crimes of Hindutva fundamentalists in Gujarat. "There can be no doubt," Nitish Kumar said, "that the carnage of minorities that took place in Gujarat under BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi's regime was a very important factor that took the people away from us." He said "no analysis on the reverses suffered by the NDA would be complete without accepting this and no effort to reclaim support would be effective without apologising to the country for the genocide in Gujarat".

Nitish Kumar added that the BJP's claim about being the "only nationalist party" is an insult to all other political parties, including the Janata Dal (U). The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the BJP's ally in Andhra Pradesh, has also raised queries about Advani's attempt to pursue a neo-Hindutva agenda through the Bharatiyata slogan.

THE reactions from the Janata Dal (U) and the TDP make it evident that Advani's early efforts have only decreased the potency of the BJP and its NDA allies as an Opposition force. Ironically, one of the considerations in the hurried inner-party confabulations that preceded the virtual ouster of Venkaiah Naidu as BJP president and the appointment of Advani to the position was that the septuagenarian former Deputy Prime Minister as party president would help buttress the relationship between the BJP and its allies.

This assessment had come up in the context of a move by sections of the top leadership of the RSS to anoint Murli Manohar Joshi, former Human Resource Development Minister, as party president. These RSS leaders, including H.V. Seshadri, were all set to push Joshi's name as a replacement for Venkaiah Naidu, after the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarni (RSS National Council meeting) scheduled to be held at Hardwar in the first week of November.

After the defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, the RSS has been demanding a return to the Hindutva agenda and leaders, including Seshadri, are of the view that Joshi is best suited to take the BJP back to its "ideological roots". Joshi's track record during his stint as a Central Minister, when he went about aggressively altering the syllabi and textbooks for schools and colleges on Hindutva lines as per the wishes of the RSS, also worked in his favour.

Fearing that this move would virtually ruin the BJP's efforts at building a potential ruling coalition at least by the time of the next Lok Sabha polls, Arun Jaitley, and Sanjay Joshi convinced Vajpayee as well as Advani that it had to be stopped. They also argued that Advani is the right man for the post as he is perceived as a "committed Hindutva soldier" by large sections of the Sangh Parivar and also as a follower of coalition principles by a sizable section of the NDA.

But, as the events at the National Council and the responses to them have shown, the journey towards one of the principal objectives of Advani's return has started on a bumpy note. By all indications, Advani's rephrased promotion of the Hindutva line was principally motivated by his first visit outside Delhi as BJP president on Vijayadasami day to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, where he had long interactions with the Sangh top brass. Parivar insiders say that Advani did try to convince the RSS leaders about the need to make moves that would help sustain the NDA as a political entity, but this did not meet with much success. According to one RSS activist based in Lucknow, at one point during the discussions Seshadri even asked Advani not to keep an NDA element in his future plans.

However, sections of the BJP close to Advani are of the view that the former Deputy Prime Minister will still find ways and means to rebuild good relations with NDA partners. One of these leaders pointed out that a beginning had already been made through the political resolution passed at the National Council meeting. The resolution has no reference to Hindutva-related issues. "Advaniji's speech can always be explained as something to boost the morale of the cadres," he added. "But what is crucial to NDA allies is our official position as reflected in the party documents."

The fact that the BJP is not in an advantageous position in the States that are going to witness Assembly polls in the short and medium term - Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, Kerala and West Bengal - will also make the efforts to bring back the BJP to primacy in national politics longer and harder. However, his stature and the authority he wields in the BJP have had a salutary effect in lifting the morale of party workers. The fact that his word will carry more weight than Venkaiah Naidu's with the second-generation leaders will also help in streamlining the organisational machinery.

According to sections of the BJP, Advani's real test will come in three years' time, during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In the last round of Assembly byelections to 11 seats, its candidates lost their deposit in as many as eight and polled fewer votes than the Congress in six. But even to make a turnaround in Uttar Pradesh three years hence, Advani will have to set an action plan in motion right now from his own second line of leaders. But if the responses of party workers and allies are anything to go by, the tightrope walk in organisational matters and a camouflaged pursuit of the Hindutva agenda will be of no help to the veteran "rath yatri" in reaching his objective.

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