Tuesday, July 22, 2008
There was an inevitability to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s official embrace of Lal Krishna Advani as its prime ministerial candidate that only superficial and politically blind-sided analysis could have missed. Hindutva strongman and ideologue, charioteer of the motorised rath yatra, five-term-party-president, and Deputy Prime Minister under the redoubtable Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr. Advani unexpectedly stepped off the beaten track in mid-2005 and set Mohammed Ali Jin nah, and his indisputably ‘secular vision’ of August 1947, among the parivar. When the resultant furore gave him no choice but to resign his party presidentship in December 2005, pundits were quick to proclaim the end of the Vajpayee-Advani (‘Ram-Lakshman’) era. The reading could not have been more off-target. In 2006 Mr. Advani, facing political adversity, dug in his heels. The man who joined the RSS in Karachi 65 years ago not only stood by what he had said about the Quaid-e-Azam in Pakistan but also sent out this interesting message to the RSS: “Lately things have happened which give the impression that the BJP cannot take a decision unless it is endorsed by the RSS...this perception…will do no good either to the party or to the RSS.” The pundits missed a vital subtext, which he put out, more or less simultaneously, in a magazine interview: yes, he was Prime-Minister-in-waiting by virtue of his position as Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Advani was already looking beyond the contradictions and tensions within the parivar to the 15th general election.
2007 has been the year of caution and political correctness for the Prime-Minister-in-waiting. He might be all of 80 years old — five years older than the Congress incumbent — but he is a fit octogenarian with plenty of fight in him. Scenting a 2008 general election and much of disaffection and confusion in the polity, Mr. Advani has taken charge of strategy and tactics, incrementally raising the Hindutva pitch as the fissures in the UPA-Left relationship have widened on the nuclear deal and the strategic partnership with the United States. Fifty-six-year-old Rajnath Singh as challenger? The question can only be taken as a joke. Nor will Mr. Advani be losing any sleep over breathless journalistic chatter about the prospect of Narendra Modi stepping on to the national stage as some kind of rival — if he were to triumph in Gujarat again. But what lies ahead for the BJP? After all, as Prakash Karat, now the CPI(M)’s general secretary, pointed out in a 1992 journal article, the BJP’s journey from an amorphous right of Centre platform, constructed during the Vajpayee presidency of 1980-86, to the aggressive platform of Hindutva — ‘Hindu nationalism’ targeting an internal enemy, India’s 150-million-plus Muslims, and all key issues revolving round this theme — was accomplished between 1986 and 1989, during the first Advani presidency. It will be costly, if not fatal, for the BJP’s political opponents to underestimate the strategy, tactics, and mobilisational capabilities of the shadow Prime Minister.