Advani’s innings set to end, as BJP fields Amit Shah from Gandhinagar
The Lal Krishna Advani era seems to have formally come to an end in the BJP, with the party announcing that its president Amit Shah will be contesting the coming Lok Sabha polls from Gandhinagar, a seat Advani had held six times.
The first list of 184 candidates for the coming polls that the party has released begins with the names of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Varanasi – scotching all speculation that he may shift to another seat – and Shah from Gandhinagar.
Union ministers Rajnath Singh from Lucknow, Nitin Gadkari from Nagpur, Smriti Irani from Amethi, General VK Singh from Ghaziabad, Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore from Jaipur (rural) and Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal (west) are other prominent names on the list.
But Advani’s absence has become the key point of discussion, more so because only one candidate has been announced from Gujarat in the first list, in a clear signal that Advani should formally retire now.
On record, party leaders hesitate to say it in so many words. “I won’t be able to say anything about this right now,” said a party spokesperson. However, the writing on the wall seems to be clear.
The career of Advani is also in many ways the BJP’s history as a party.
Alongside Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the party’s moderate face, Advani was instrumental in building the party from scratch.
Advani’s trademark style
In his speeches – which were a regular fixture of his political life up to five years back – Advani would dive deep into the history of the Jana Sangh and the BJP. Each such sentence would begin with “mujhe smaran hai” (I remember). He would recall the death of Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee in a Jammu and Kashmir prison for violating the ban to enter the state without a permit. Vajpayee had accompanied Mookerjee there and they were arrested as soon as they crossed over from Pathankot in Punjab to Jammu. Advani would tell journalists how he was in Rajasthan at that time and a journalist broke the news to him.
Advani would also recall the first Lok Sabha election, when the Jana Sangh won three seats in all, the victories coming from Bengal and Rajasthan.
A dyed-in-the-wool RSS man, Advani would pronounce Hindustan (India) as Hindu-sthan in his speeches, using a Sanskrit concoction of the name to drive Persian and Urdu influences out.
This was the Advani of the last decade, when he tried to occupy the place left vacant by Vajpayee, who had retired from public life by 2007 due to illness. But his rise came about much earlier.
The rise of the “Hindu Hriday Samrat”
Advani’s amiable ways – he would answer in detail questions of even young reporters in long conversations in his chamber in Parliament – concealed the meteoric rise of the veteran in the late 1980s. This was also the rise of the BJP from a marginal political party to the country’s prime opposition party.
However, he remained a gentleman in speech. Three years back, he told a group of journalists in Parliament: “My earning in true terms is the fact that the entire staff in Parliament wishes me and I respond to them all. This is enough for me.”
His chamber in Parliament will wear a different look after May 2019.
Unlike Vajpayee, Advani did not begin as a mass leader.
Vajpayee won the Lok Sabha polls 10 times, the first time in 1957 from Balrampur. He had also contested from Mathura that year, but had lost that election to freedom fighter Raja Mahendra Pratap, who fought as an independent. Vajpayee won many elections when the Jana Sangh was a marginal force.
Advani, however, took the Rajya Sabha route from 1970. He was an organisation man but by no means a mass leader. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha four times and Leader of the Opposition in the House from January to April, 1980.
The period from 1970 to 1989 was one of political churn. It saw the rise of Indira Gandhi, the JP movement of 1974, the Emergency (1975 to 1977), the merger of opposition parties to form the Janata Party and the victory of the Janata Party in 1977.
Advani, who was in jail during the Emergency, became Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting.
The Janata Party split due to its ideological contradictions and the Jana Sangh component of it became the BJP in 1980, with Vajpayee at the helm.
Vajpayee sought to take forward the legacy of “Gandhian socialism” and Jaya Prakash Narayan, trying alliances and seeking to make the BJP a more acceptable party.
However, the BJP could win just two seats in the 1984 elections, which saw the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi storm to power after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
This was followed by a political churn within the BJP. The party appointed the Krishna Lal Sharma Committee in 1985 to look into the causes of the debacle and the committee called for retaining the distinctive ideological colour of the BJP.
Advani became party president in 1986 and the party gradually turned towards Hindutva. In his presidential speech, Advani condemned cow slaughter in many states and the “destruction of temples” in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Shah Bano controversy – where the Rajiv government overturned a ruling by the Supreme Court that the 62-year-old Shah Bano be given maintenance after divorce -- provided the BJP an ideological boost and the Bofors scam made the popularity of Rajiv dip.
Making electoral adjustments with VP Singh’s Janata Dal, the BJP won 86 seats in 1989. VP Singh became Prime Minister, supported by the BJP and the left parties.
It was now that Advani metamorphosed into the Hindutva hardliner. He took out a Rath Yatra on September 20, 1990, from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP for the construction of a Ram temple there. Narendra Modi, then a junior Hindutva activist, made arrangements for the Yatra in Gujarat.
There was a sudden shift of upper castes and some sections of OBCs in north India towards the BJP -- and massive Hindu-Muslim polarisation -- as the Yatra made its way, attracting large crowds wherever it went.
VP Singh had announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations and many felt that the Yatra was aimed at preventing a splintering of Hindu votes on grounds of caste.
The BJP withdrew support to the VP Singh government when Lalu Prasad as Chief Minister of Bihar got Advani arrested at Samastipur in Bihar. The VP Singh government fell.
On October 30, 1990, there was police firing on Kar Sevaks to prevent them from storming the Babri mosque, leading to the deaths of six people. Polarisation deepened and Mulayam Singh Yadav acquired the pejorative title ‘Mulla Mulayam”.
On December 6, 1992, the Babri mosque was indeed razed to the grounds by a crowd of Kar Sevaks. BJP state governments were dismissed and cases filed against BJP leaders like Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti.
The next few years saw a leadership contest within the BJP, with Advani and Vajpayee vying for pole position. The party was on the rise in each election till 1998, but attracting allies at the peak of Hindutva polarisation was a tough task.
Advani had become more high-profile, while Vajpayee had become the “right man in a wrong party”, still mesmerising MPs by his incisive Lok Sabha speeches.
It was at this time that Advani sprung a surprise. In the presence of Vajpayee in a public meeting at Shivaji Park in Mumbai just before the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, he announced that Vajpayee would lead the party in elections.
And this came at a time when the two were identified as leading two rival camps in the party.
However, as Vajpayee could come to power for 13 months in 1998 – and then for five years in 1999 – he became the party’s top leader, with Advani a close second.
The Gujarat riot (2002)
After the Gujarat riot and bad press across the world, Vajpayee wanted Modi removed as Chief Minister. The riot had occurred in the aftermath of the Godhra train tragedy, in which a compartment carrying Ram Sevaks was gutted. More than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
Matters came to a head in Goa. As the party’s top brass met in a hotel in Goa, Arun Shourie took Vajpayee’s line but party members began to back Modi, with Advani choosing not to back Vajpayee despite having been reportedly told by the latter that he wanted Modi out.
Many in the party have since said that it was Advani who helped Modi survive as Chief Minister.
The decline of Advani
Once Vajpayee bowed out after losing the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Advani tried to step into his shoes.
This phase also saw a major controversy, when Advani on a visit to Pakistan called Pakistan founder MA Jinnah “secular”. He attracted harsh criticism for this, with many suspecting this was a ploy to cultivate a “moderate image” that backfired.
Be that as it may, Advani did lead the party as its PM-candidate in 2009, but as a shadow of his former self. The BJP was humbled with 116 seats and the Congress returned to power with 206 seats.
The churn in the coming years saw Nitin Gadkari being parachuted from Maharashtra as the BJP chief in 2010. There were murmurs that the RSS was wary of the fact that the D-4 – or four Delhi-based party leaders – Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar were becoming influential.
So, the RSS sent its own man, purportedly after its attempt to send Manohar Parrikar as party chief proved abortive after the latter ruffled feathers by calling Advani “rancid pickle”.
Advani’s displeasure with Gadkari getting a second term after the Purti group allegations ensured that the Nagpur leader could not stay at the helm for another term. He was hurriedly replaced by Rajnath Singh in 2013.
After this, the road was paved for the rise of Modi, who was named the party’s election campaign committee chief at Goa. A miffed Advani resigned from party positions but was persuaded to stay on.
Soon, Modi was declared the BJP’s PM-candidate. The 2014 Lok Sabha victory was historic. It also marked the eclipse of Advani.
Advani and Joshi lost their place in the party’s Parliamentary Board, its most influential body. As a sweetener to the bitter pill thus administered, it was announced that they would be members of a newly formed mentors’ group (Margdarshak Mandal).
However, the mentors have never met, making observers conclude that the assignment was a way of bringing Advani’s retirement closer.
Advani – who has been very regular in Parliament – has intervened very little in the last four years. He has stopped blogging and giving interviews.
Some believed that Modi may pay tribute to his mentor by making him President of India, but these hopes of some Advani sympathisers were also dashed when Ram Nath Kovind was fielded for the post of President of India.
The present announcement of Shah as the party’s Gandhinagar candidate is being seen as the clearest signal yet that the Advani era has ended.
All eyes will now be on Murli Manohar Joshi, another veteran at the end of his political career. Joshi is another mentor to Modi, apart from Advani. Joshi had contested as the BJP candidate from Varanasi before Modi decided to contest from there in 2014.