Mr Acceptable, At Last
Friday, 18 April 2008 | Swapan Dasgupta Tehelka Magazine

LK Advani’s transformation from the foremost symbol of political untouchability to the kindly elder unafraid of defying party orthodoxy appears complete

It is rare for a public figure to embark on a fresh and daunting journey of conquest at the age of 80. No less audacious is his ability to invoke a personal statement of a fulfilling life spanning the history of India since World War II to lay claim on the national ethos — what might be loosely described as the Indian Creed.

"The halo of respectability that Advani has acquired is of very recent origin. But it was his audacity that made the BJP the alternative political pole"

But then, LK Advani is not your run-of-the-mill politician. An intrepid traveller, the tirelesscharioteer who revels in innovative political explorations, he was once described by someone as the “best prime minister India never had”, if not India’s most misunderstood man. Last month, amid a media blitz that left the world of politics and letters gawking with envy, he beganthe quest to make himself better understood and claim the prize that has eluded him for long — the post of Prime Minister of India.

There are two ways in which LK Advani’s autobiography My Country, My Life can be read. The first is to approach it as a primary source of contemporary history by a person who was either an important decision- maker or had a ringside view of political developments from the early-1970s. The second is to read the 942-page tome as a road map to the mind of a man who has played a seminal role in reshaping the political contours of India. Those who approached the autobiography as a titillating tell-all account of Indian politics have understandably been disappointed.

A practising politician who has to lead his army to battle in less than a year cannot realistically be expected to be entirely forthcoming ofevents in which he was a participant. In an article in Hindustan Times, journalist Karan Thapar, who played a role in facilitating the back-channel dialogue with Pakistan prior to the Agra summit and also in Advani’s controversial Pakistan visit in 2005, has, for example, divulged some crucial details missing from the autobiography. Others could no doubt add to the missing wealth of details on issues as diverse as the BJP’s internal tussles, the Ayodhya agitation and coalition management during the six years of the NDA government. Advani has been remarkably careful in not plunging into the heart of earlier controversies. Even the kerfuffle over the IC-814 hijack to Kandahar was occasioned by a stray comment in a promotional interview of the book and not by what Advani actually wrote.

IF ADVANI’S autobiography hasn’t come up to the drooling expectations of the sensationalist, nor ruffled consequential feathers inside a prickly Sangh Parivar, why has it been targeted single-mindedly by the Congress leadership and the Congress-friendly media? Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi, for example, deviated from routine sparring with the BJP to undertake a book review. The autobiography of the “putative leader”, he said, “follows a simple principle: whatever good happened is attributable to me and whatever wrong happened is attributable to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.” At a Congress rally in rural Dungarpur in Rajasthan, Sonia Gandhi mocked Advani for not enjoying the confidence of Vajpayee during the Kandahar crisis. An insolent tabloid columnist suggested that there were people willing to pay Rs 100 for every page of the book that was free of errors, lies and evasions.

IF ADVANI’S autobiography hasn’t come up to the drooling expectations of the sensationalist, nor ruffled consequential feathers inside a prickly Sangh Parivar, why has it been targeted single-mindedly by the Congress leadership and the Congress-friendly media? Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi, for example, deviated from routine sparring with the BJP to undertake a book review. The autobiography of the “putative leader”, he said, “follows a simple principle: whatever good happened is attributable to me and whatever wrong happened is attributable to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.” At a Congress rally in rural Dungarpur in Rajasthan, Sonia Gandhi mocked Advani for not enjoying the confidence of Vajpayee during the Kandahar crisis. An insolent tabloid columnist suggested that there were people willing to pay Rs 100 for every page of the book that was free of errors, lies and evasions. Image

Man of Many parts - Advani has morphed from a Hindutva hardliner to the benign party elder

An SMS campaign, targeting BJP members and supporters, has also sought to project Advani as a self-obsessed man, itching to betray Hindu interests.

"Advani has often said in interviews hat he has not tried to mould his image to suit political exigencies. He is both right and wrong"

For the Congress, the sustained focus on Advani and the attempt to draw him into unsavoury controversies follows a plan. First, it is aimed at diverting attention from the Opposition’s ready-made plank of the UPA government’s economic mismanagement, particularly its inability to control inflation. More important is the bid to rekindle pre-existing fissures within the BJP and the wider Sangh Parivar over past events, notably the embarrassment over the release of terrorists in Kandahar and the disorientation that followed Advani’s invocation of Jinnah during his Pakistan visit in 2005.

The Congress has rightly calculated that if Advani is demolished in the eyes of the faithful in the BJP, it will weaken the NDA’S bid to project him as the worthy successor to Vajpayee. It has specifically targeted one facet of Advani which commands the respect of the entire political class: his personal integrity. It is a different matter that in trying to be excessively loyal to Advani, a section of the BJP has fallen headlong into the trap. That the Congress and, for that matter, the Communist parties regard Advani as an adversary who has to be diminished in stature before the real battle for the 15th Lok Sabha commences is revealing. If Advani was indeed a liability for the NDA, the Congress would have kept its powder dry till a time nearer the general election and then plunged the knife in forcefully. After the 1999 election, for example, the Vajpayee government handled Sonia with kid gloves — not because it was enamoured of her but because it calculated (erroneously as it turned out) that her inept control of the Congress would be beneficial to the BJP.

A smug and over-confident BJP seriously under-estimated its foremost adversary in 2004; the Congress is wary of repeating that mistake. The Congress’ fear of Advani is legitimate. Private opinion polls (which tend to be more honest than many of the ones that find their way into the media) suggest that following Vajpayee’s retirement in December 2007, Advani has more or less inherited the personal support for the Bhishmapitamah. As opposed to the two and three percent support for him as a possible prime minister during the time Vajpayee was the BJP’s leader, Advani now has almost as many people endorsing his candidature as does Sonia Gandhi. By contrast, other BJP stalwarts, including Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, are yet to gain any significant measure of all- India support. Advani’s greatest asset is that he is a pre-sold and reasonably acceptable face to the electorate.

It is interesting that the halo of respectability that Advani has acquired is of very recent origin. In the immediate aftermath of the Ram rathyatra in 1990, Advani was transformed from an organisation man known only to the political class and the wider Sangh Parivar to a mass leader. It was, after all, the euphoria behind what he threatened would be the “greatest mass movement” that brought down the VP Singh government, reduced the Congress to a rump in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and established the new faultlines of politics. It was Advani’s political audacity which elevated the BJP to the alternative pole of Indian politics.

WHILE THE identification with aggressive Hindutva secured a wider social constituency for the BJP and raisedAdvani to the level of Vajpayee within the party, it brought about an image problem of which he was deeply conscious. Like his transformation in RK Laxman’s cartoons from a clone of the common man to a sinister figure with horn-like eyebrows, Advani became a middle class darling and a pariah for the intelligentsia. He was portrayed as a “hardliner”, a “fanatic” and even a “Hindu Jinnah” willing to exploit religious feelings for narrow advantage. It is important to remember that in the period 1990-1998, Advani’s reputation was broadly comparable to that enjoyed by Modi today: he was the darling of the committed but an object of both fear and revulsion to those who differed from the BJP.

ImageThe journey from being the dreaded hardliner of the 1990s to being seen as the acceptable, liberal and almost Vajpayee-like face of the BJP, has been a fascinating one. For Advani, it has involved the exhilaration of electoral victories, the bewilderment of unexpected defeat, the trauma of rejection and isolation and a very honourable rehabilitation. For the BJP too, it has been a choppy ride. Till 1996, there were certitudes that defined the party and the movement. The party genuinely believed it was going to reshape India in its image and bring about a nationalist resurgence. The coalition experience proved a reality check but at least there were the allurements of political power to offset the loss of romantic idealism.The defeat of 2004 disturbed this shaky equilibrium and brought the BJP face to face with its existential dilemma.

"Unlike Vajpayee, Advani evoked polarised responses: the BJP voter worshipped him, but the non-BJP selection loathed him intensely"

The party was confronted with the choice of either reverting to the heady ’90s or persisting with the new course undertaken in 1998. The situation demanded a thorough and structured political debate which unfortunately never happened. The leadership of the party confabulated at length with the RSS but came to few meaningful conclusions. Wiser after its stint in government at both the Centre and the states, the political leadership found it hard to relate to the faddish preoccupations of an essentially non-political RSS. Yet, protocol demanded that the RSS be accommodated with exaggerated generosity in the organisational set-up of the party.

It was this inability to both address and determine the future direction of the BJP that led to an epidemic of unilateralism after 2005. Advani travelled to Pakistan and tried to use the success of his visit to press for an enlargement of the BJP vision. He was roundly rebuffed. In Gujarat, Modi used the 2004 setback as a signal to make governance more purposeful and less prone to petty political interference. The RSS used Advani’s “heresy” as the occasion to impose many more full-timers into organisational positions at all levels. Between the summer of 2005 and the anointment of Advani as the prime ministerial candidate in December 2007, the BJP lurched aimlessly.

IRONICALLY, IT was electoral politics that gave the BJP a way out. In Bihar, Punjab and Uttarakhand, the BJP and its allies ousted the Congress and its allies from power on the strength of efficient election management, anti-incumbency and a single-minded thrust on development. In Gujarat, Modi had to fight both the enemy within and the Congress. He too prevailed on the strength of personal charisma, invocation of regional pride and a strong commitment to economic modernisation. Compared to the post-riot shrillness of his 2002 election, the 2007 election was won essentially on the strength of Modi’s record of governance. The Sohrabuddin and “merchant of death” exchange were heady asides that helped lift the spirit of electioneering.

For the BJP, there was, of course, a monumental debacle in Uttar Pradesh. Although BJP president Rajnath Singh refused to permit a debate on the party’s pathetic performance, it was well known that the real responsibility lay with the RSS which managed the expensive campaign and decided the political approach. The Uttar Pradesh verdict forced the rehabilitation of Advani and willy-nilly settled the broad thrust for the future.

Sniper attacks from within the party and the Parivar on Advani are certain to persist but barring the unexpected, the BJP is going to face the 2009 election on a liberal, mildly right-of-centre, good governance- plank and with a reinvented Advani as its mascot. Advani’s transformation from the foremost symbol of political untouchability to the benign and kindly elder who is not afraid of defying party orthodoxy now appears complete. At one time, Advani found it prudent to don the mantle of a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the “iron man” who served as a corrective to Jawaharlal Nehru’s infantile wooliness. That symbolism hasn’t been abandoned entirely but it has been subsumed by Advani’s emphasis on consensual and non-divisive politics — he calls it the politics of aggregation.

IN THE high noon of Nehruvian India, Hindu nationalists had to undergo constant political and intellectual derision. In the eyes of the Indian Establishment — which, in turn, took the cue from Jawaharlal Nehru — pro-Hindu tendencies were considered “backward- looking”, “socially reactionary” and completely unacceptable in polite society. As Advani has stressed in his autobiography, his political mentor Deendayal Upadhyaya tried to wipe out this political stigma with outwardlooking political flexibility. Deendayal even endorsed a slightly incongruous electoral understanding with the CPI for a municipal poll in Delhi in the late-1950s. He subsequently joined hands with Ram Manohar Lohia and C. Rajagopalachari to build an anti-Congress front.

Later, Vajpayee took this process further. When Advani stressed the BJP’s “distinctive identity” and wallowed in the party’s “majestic isolation” after the debacle of 1984, he was not laying down a non-negotiable principle. In Advani’s mind, the turn to ideology between 1985 and 1995 wasn’t an articulation of faith; it was dictated by political exigency. To him, as with many “political Hindus” who found a home in the BJP, the Ram Janmabhoomi issue was onlypartially a religious issue. It was primarily an instrument to expose the flawed nature of the prevailing secular consensus. Advani was always anxious to expand the political orbit of the BJP but he was also aware that the BJP would end its political untouchability only when others were convinced that Hindu nationalism possessed a significant electoral clout. After the BJP demonstrated its independent political clout in 1991 and 1996, there was no way it could be treated as a political pariah.

Between 1996 and 2004, the BJP was in alliance with most of those who had earlier attached themselves to the Janata Dal of VP Singh, not to mention the Dravidian parties which conveniently shelved their long-standing opposition to Hinduised ideology. Vajpayee and Advani’s openness merely firmed up a trend that was rooted in electoral arithmetic. In the end, the commitment to Hindutva and coalition building proved complementary. To many BJP loyalists brought up on a strict diet of anti-Congressism, Advani’s decision to visit Sonia Gandhi on Holi and present her a copy of his autobiography seemed completely inexplicable. Sonia, in their eyes, was the “Italian” interloper who was visceral in her hatred of the BJP.

However, regardless of what the loyalists thought, Advani’s dramatic gesture, coupled with his repeated assertion that political adversaries should not regard themselves as enemies, earned him many brownie points from that section whose voting preferences shift seamlessly between the Congress and BJP. There is a huge overlap in the social profile of the two main national parties which extends to decision-makers who are naturally comfortable with either of the two parties at the helm. By observing elementary civil courtesies with Sonia — a gesture that is unlikely to be reciprocated — Advani tried to drive home the importance of not viewing him exclusively through the prism of a political party. Of course he belonged to the BJP but he also had an identity that was above politics.

UNLIKE MOST politicians who are fanatically obsessed with their life in politics, Advani not only maintains outside interests but is not afraid to flaunt them. Films and books are, of course, his passion. It could well havebeen stamp collecting or photography. The point is that as he gets more and more into the limelight, it is these

varied interests outside politics that will add to his appeal. Spin doctors will find it incredibly easy to package Advani as a “normal” Indian who values his family, his hobbies and his friends — a man who has a life. It is this picture of a wholesome middle-class Indian which will go a long way in offsetting the whisper campaign the Congress is expected to launch about his age.

Advani has often maintained in interviews that he has been faithful to himself and not tried to mould his image to suit political exigencies. He is both right and wrong. In fundamental terms, the Advani of 2008 isnot any different from the Advani of 1990 undertaking the Ram rathyatra. The man who was completely distraught in a candle-lit room at dusk in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 was the same man who agonised over the “misunderstanding” with the party over his Jinnah remarks in 2005. What has changed is not Advani but the political context in which he is perceived. Except for a brief period in the mid-1960s when a section of the business classes and the feudal elite rallied behind the Swatantra Party, the Right was relatively inconsequential during the period of Congress dominance.

Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi regulated the growth and natural expansion of the private sector to such an extent that the social base of Right-wing politics remained extremely narrow. The appeal of the erstwhile Jana Sangh was, for example, confined to either the Bania community in the bazaars or clusters of disaffected Hindus such as refugees from Pakistan and downwardly mobile Brahmins in Maharashtra. Except during riots when sectarian fears were aroused, Hindu nationalism failedto capture the popular imagination. The media and the cosmopolitan elites were either socially unfamiliar with the vernacular intellectuals who occupied leadership positions in the Jana Sangh or contemptuous of them. The fear of the Hindu outlander in fact increased after the voluble pro-Hindi and anti-cow slaughter agitations of the mid-1960s. In the dominant discourse of socialist and Congress India, the RSS and its associates were dismissed as antediluvian.

WITH HIS vigorous and well-focussed articulation of the Ayodhya movement, Advani was able to break the Nehruvian stranglehold significantly but not entirely. Unlike Vajpayee towards whom the opinion-makers were kindly disposed — he was forever being called the “right man in the wrong party” — Advani evoked very polarised responses: the BJP voter worshipped him, sometimes even more than Vajpayee, but the non-BJP section loathed him with passionate intensity. Matters changed significantly after the NDA came to power, but the importance of robust Hindu nationalism began to be appreciated only after the growth of Islamist radicalism following 9/11. In the past seven years, and notwithstanding the NDA’s defeat in 2004, there has been a greater willingness on the part of Hindu India to accept some of the basic premises on which the BJP rests.

Much of what was dismissed as “communal” in the 1990s has been elevated into common sense in the first decade of this century. In many ways, yesterday’s Right has become today’s Centre. Mainstream India has come to terms with the peaceful coexistence of a secular state and an increasingly Hinduised civil society. There are important temperamental differences between the Congress and the BJP but the gap is no longer unbridgeable. On his part, Advani took special care toblunt some of the raw edges of Hindutva politics. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s confrontation with the NDA over Ayodhya in 2003 may have disturbed the tranquillity of the Sangh Parivar but it helped distinguish the BJP and its top leadership from the loony fringe of Hindu politics. The more inflammatory of Praveen Togadia’s denunciation of his Pakistan visit did Advani’s reputation absolutely no harm. Ironically, even Modi benefited from RSS and VHP opposition during last year’s Gujarat election.

THERE IS absolutely nothing yet to suggest that Advani has managed to secure any measure of Muslim support for the BJP. Muslim voters are still likely to vote tactically for any party that is best placed to defeat the BJP at the constituency level. However, by tempering its militancy quotient and making the odd placatory noises, Advani has allayed (the wildly exaggerated) secularist Hindu fears of a BJP triumph being accompanied by a wave of communal riots. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam can happily release Advani’s book without being drawn into controversy and Sanjay Dutt can afford to be photographed with Modi at the same function. In social terms, the BJP has formalised its stature as the alternative to the Congress and there is no opprobrium attached to treating Advani as a Prime Minister-in-waiting.

The Left could have provided the voices of indignation. However, after its prolonged extra-marital relationship with the Congress, the ignominy of Nandigram and the subterfuge of Taslima Nasreen, the comrades have lost their moral halo. No wonder the labour pains of the Third Front are unending. In the 1990s, many secularists proffered a case for treating the BJP as an abnormal phenomenon which had to be resisted by all means, including the denial of civil liberties. A section of the English-language media followed this approach somewhat over-zealously. Today, the BJP is being increasingly viewed more and more as a “normal” political party, with its share of pluses and minuses.

The BJP run state governments are judged for what they actually are; they are not perceived as threats to constitutional values. If the BJP and its NDA partners win a majority in the general election, it will prompt a change of government at the Centre; no one expects it to lead to a change of regime. Of course, the widespread acceptability of a leader is no guarantee of electoral success. There is always a presidential facet to the parliamentary election but its contribution is overshadowed by regional and local considerations. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP appears to be devoting its initial energies in packaging Advani as a leader who has the ability to steer India out of its vacillating course.

The emphasis has been on establishing Advani’s ability to rise above mundane political pressures and articulate the national interest—something he did very effectively in opposing Raj Thackeray’s Marathi chauvinism in Mumbai. Yet, in enhancing the stature of Advani, precious little attention has been paid on the nitty-gritty of alternative policy or on strengthening the BJP’s presence in areas such as Uttar Pradesh. The internal tussles that disfigured the party’s reputation for disciplined conduct have also been left unresolved. Those who were disappointed by the RSS decision to repose their trust in Advani are doing their utmost to ensure that the BJP’s comeback is delayed by one more election.

Most ominously, there appears to be a Great Wall separating the party organisation and an Advani organisation. Both appear to be working autonomously and, sometimes, at cross-purposes. None of these will matter remotely if the general election becomes a verdict on the UPA government’s five years in power. The present economic downturn, which is likely to persist for more than a year, may gift the election to Advani and the NDA. However, in case the concerns of the electorate turn out to be more fragmented — as happened in 2004 — and the general election is reduced to a series of state elections, the importance of leadership will be secondary. It helps to have a leader who can contribute to a party’s incremental vote. But if the election becomes a series of bitter constituency-by-constituency battles with no common thread binding the war, what will matter is the health of the party at the grassroots. On this count, the BJP seems grossly under-prepared. Advani has attained “touchability”; now he has to ensure the BJP’s winnability.