WILL LK ADVANI EVER RETIRE?
His first rath yatra led to Babri masjid demolition -- the blackest day in the history of India -- followed by riots all over. After that, all his yatras have failed. Now at 83 he is threatening yet another yatra. Will LK Advani ever retire?
Akash Bisht Delhi
Advani should not complain of his image. It flatters him. The reality is far worse. No one, since Independence, has injected communal poison in the body politic to the degree he has. The bloodshed he has caused... does not affect him one bit. Corruption, he readily condones, if it helps his politics. He has lowered the level of political discourse and shown a capacity for low intrigue even against colleagues in the party, the cabinet and the leaders of both. Add to these a reckless disregard and profound contempt for the truth and there emerges the real persona of Sri Lal Krishna Advani. -AG Noorani, Frontline, May, 2008
Scene 1: At a recent press conference on corruption and black money hosted by Sharad Yadav at his residence in New Delhi, BJP veteran LK Advani, all of 84, took over the microphone and started a relentless tirade against the Congress-led UPA government. Much to the discomfort of other speakers, he kept endlessly rambling in a speech which never looked like coming to an end. Initially, Yadav patiently waited for his turn, but when Advani just refused to stop, the former seemed visibly at unease. He gave Advani the kind of looks that could kill. But the unfazed Hindutva leader chose to completely ignore the restlessness around, desperate as he was to hog the media gaze.
Scene 2: At another recent luncheon press conference called by Advani at his residence in New Delhi, the senior BJP leader stood solitary in a corner of his palatial house while most mediapersons hovered around leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Clearly, the power paradigm has shifted. Standing alone, bereft of even the company of his party leaders, Advani seemed lost and isolated. He wasn't a shade of his old self where he was the one who garnered most attention. A few journalists present recalled how lonely the grand old man has become. "In his own house, in his own press conference, he was being ignored not only by the media, but also by the younger generation of leaders and his protégés. This suggests that his time is up and he should gracefully retire," said a scribe.
Rocked by scams that run into unimaginable sums, the UPA regime is on a sticky wicket. Cynics believe that the monster of 2G spectrum has acquired a life of its own, and its vicious linkages might one day catch even the most powerful in the government. Several political pundits have been predicting a mid-term-poll-like situation, in case the government collapses. In such a hypothetical scenario, a chest-thumping BJP is bound to gain.
However, the irony is, it's not all hunky-dory for the faction-ridden BJP. The Hindutva party has its own lingering ghosts to exorcise.
Undoubtedly, the power struggle within the BJP, along with the insatiable ambitions of its die-hard veterans, including LK Advani, who, amazingly, still harbours the dream of becoming the prime minister, is decisively harming the party's interests. Advani is doing everything in his capacity to stay relevant and pursue his quest. Many younger leaders, however, believe that Advani at the helm of affairs can bring no gains to the party.
The fact is, Advani built and organised the party. Most of the second rung (including Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar, Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Modi) have been hand-picked by a hardliner Advani, committed to the RSS brand of Hindutva. In an inverse sense, it also reflects the ideological content, quality and calibre of these leaders. Despite that, on the Jinnah issue, they all 'opportunistically' ganged up against Advani - clearly following the hostile signals from the RSS. Many of them are now hoping against hope that enough is enough - Advani should retire.
The 'Advani-should-retire camp' in the BJP is consolidating, mending differences, making bridges, growing in confidence, mapping an eclectic consensus. (Witness arch-rivals Swaraj and Jaitley working in tandem.) They feel embarrassed at the manner in which Advani makes unilateral statements on miscellaneous events/issues, as if from a pulpit, and thereby makes a mockery of the party's official stance or nuanced/strategic silence. But, pray, how to stop Advani?
"After Atal Behari Vajpayee's stint, the party campaigned in the name of Advani, but you can't have the same name and logo to win elections. Second-generation leaders believe that he should quit and if that happens, the front-runners for the top job are Swaraj, Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, et al," says a senior political observer close to Advani.
Others feel that the spectacular defeat of the BJP in 2009, with Advani positioned as the next PM, is a signal the party just can't ignore. Besides, even at his peak, Advani's popularity ratings were always abysmally low. And in the current circumstances, with the majority of voters in India young, when age, credibility and charisma are against him, if he leads, the party will inevitably be doomed.
Despite the saffron writing on the wall, the veteran leader is in no mood to quit or resign from the day-to-day affairs of the BJP. Despite the tentative unanimity in the ambitious second rung on the issue, the nagging dilemma is: Who will bell the cat and ask the old man to call it a day? This is the uncanny reality and a painful problem for the BJP. "These instances prove that different lobbies are working within the party against party policies and there is a struggle for power. There is a lot of confusion, a lot of cross-connections. It is a free-for-all sort of a situation," says KN Govindacharya, former Sangh Parivar ideologue, expelled, among other reasons, for calling Vajpayee a 'mask'.
"He is writing blogs every sunday because he believes it will keep him relevant till 2014. He doesn't want to be superfluous," says a columnist. A peek into the comments section indicates that his blogs are being read by BJP workers and others with Hindutva leanings. However, even the readers are flummoxed with his recent gaffes. Reacting to one of his blogs on how the issue of corruption can be a catalyst for change, a reader writes: "It is better that you make clarifications on your letter to Sonia and let the public know the real meaning of the letter. Being silent will damage us more and more. Leader of your stature must be above all ambiguities. Please lead us for a better tomorrow."
The recent controversy, whereby he sent a personal apology letter to Sonia Gandhi on the black money report which claimed that she and her late husband Rajiv Gandhi had accounts in Swiss banks, caused major embarrassment to the BJP. "Congress president Sonia Gandhi had close association with Quattrochhi, who was a regular at her house. Though I am not making an allegation against any person, but people should know the details as our image has been internationally tarnished (due to Bofors pay-off scam)," Advani told an NDA rally at the BJP national executive meet in Guwahati in January 2011.
"His apology to Sonia Gandhi on the black money issue was a disaster. After all, why should he apologise? Why should he attack when he doesn't have the basis for it? He is being tolerated because they want someone to consistently attack the opposition, even if it is frivolous," says DR Goyal, former RSS insider and author of the authoritative Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.
Even an insecure Nitin Gadkari, an RSS appointee with no mass base or political imagination, is peeved at the letter, which was apparently drafted and distributed without even consulting party leaders. Senior leaders of BJP have distanced themselves from the apology. At their wit's end, they have been on a fire-fighting mode, trying to salvage the harm the apology has done to the party's image. Says an insider, "Advani released the report drafted by S Gurumurthy and the BJP task force. He made the charges publicly. So how come he withdraws and apologises when the campaign on black money and corruption had put Congress on the dock?" "The cadre on the ground is demoralised by this episode," says Govindacharya.
Ironically, it is the power struggle in the faction-ridden 'Advani-should-retire camp' that seems to be protecting him. There is no consensus in the camp on who would be the future face of the BJP. Most of the second rung who want him out are his protégées who have been accommodated in the party by Advani himself. "He has become like that old man who is respected by all but no one listens to," says a cynical Govindacharya.
Advani, many believe, is aware of this vulnerability in the younger leadership and knows that Sushma and Jaitley are no mass leaders. Advani also backs Modi obsessively. Modi has governance skills, but his xenophobic 'brand image' has no appeal outside Gujarat. Can he become the BJP's PM candidate in the next phase, or the next party president?
Says a political observer in Delhi: "Modi has been trapped in the bloody carnage he and his men unleashed along with the VHP/Bajrang Dal in Gujarat, 2002. Every evidence and case points to that. He can't wash the blood from his hands. Plus, all the fake encounters are coming back to haunt him. He still can't get a US visa. Nitish Kumar refuses him entry in Bihar. His campaigns in UP and elsewhere have failed the party. In fact, it can be counterproductive. His sectarian audience don't want to listen to his development eulogies. They want high-pitched Muslim bashing - which he can't do always if he wants a national image. He has no pan-Indian base. Besides, he operates like a totalitarian megalomaniac. He destroys all the power centres within the Sangh which can threaten him - the way he destroyed Praveen Togadia and Gordan Zadaphia, his home minister during the Gujarat carnage. No BJP leader is secure with him. Surely, not Sushma. Even Jaitley is repositioning himself, detaching his public image from hardline Hindutva. Modi as the next leader will be a disaster for the party. And, of course, for the nation."
History has it that all anti-Congress movements were led by charismatic mass leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan and VP Singh. Advani neither has the charisma nor the pan-India appeal. And the Ayodhya issue is all but dead. "He is too old and discredited. A great leader is someone who accepts his mistakes and does not shift it on someone else," says a BJP watcher.
Critics of Advani gleefully recall Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's unprecedented attack against him when Sonia Gandhi declared him Congress party's prime ministerial candidate in March 2009. Singh launched a scathing attack on 'BJP's PM candidate' LK Advani, calling him an "opportunist". Shown live on national TV, when asked at a press conference about Advani's remark that he was a "weak PM", Singh said: "Whether I am a weak or strong prime minister, actions of our government speak volumes. I don't understand Advani making this charge. I look at his record. I can discuss the prominent role he played in the destruction of the Babri Masjid. What else has he done to the contribution of national welfare?...
..."When he was the home minister, the attack on Parliament took place... (he added that this led to massive mobilisation of troops on the Pakistan border). ...Without getting any results, we rolled them back. Parliament was attacked, Lal Qila (Red Fort) was attacked, an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and terrorists were rewarded. This is the record of Advani. He was the home minister who presided over the massacre in Gujarat. This country must reflect if he is fit to hold the post of prime minister... ..."He was opportunist enough when he went to Pakistan. There, he suddenly discovered new virtues in Mohammed Ali Jinnah. When he came back, his party disowned him, his masters in the RSS and many of his colleagues (disowned him). Is he a strong man or a weak man, let the records speak for themselves..."
The ghost of Jinnah keeps haunting Advani. Apparently, the man who branded all secularists "pseudo-secular", consulted no one before praising Jinnah to restore his secular credentials. The tension remains. "There has been no consolation on the trust factor between the two and it is mutual. If Sangh feels that way, Advani also feels hurt and harbours the grievance that Sangh couldn't comprehend what he wanted to say. This is his grouse," says Govindacharya.
Advani, at the national executive meeting in Chennai in September 2005, had expressed his displeasure when he said, "Lately, an impression has gained ground that no political or organisational decision (of the BJP) can be taken without the consent of the RSS... this perception will do no good either to the party or to the RSS." He also said, "RSS, too, must be concerned that such perception will dwarf its greater mission of man-making and nation-building."
It is perceived that despite its best efforts, RSS failed to dislodge Advani from party affairs. So, to counter him, they brought in Gadkari, considered an outsider in Delhi. "They (Sangh) are tolerating Advani as long as Gadkari has not found a place equal to him. Gadkari is playing his game. Gadkari's game is not to offend Advani but to raise his own stature in the party," analyses Goyal.
Insiders believe that a bumbling Gadkari, with not an iota of mass appeal, is a transparent failure, and RSS might look for someone else to replace him. An observer close to Advani told Hardnews that the relation between the two isn't as bad as projected in the media. "The problem with RSS is who to choose? Gadkari is for RSS, what Prakash Karat is for CPM - a stick in the mud. RSS isn't a homogeneous entity. There are many layers to it and all aren't working in tandem," he says.
In a review of his autobiography, My Country My Life, columnist AG Noorani wrote in Frontline, "Advani pleads for a 'consensus on national issues'. The Congress must not think that 'the BJP is evil' (page 873). At the same time, he revives Hindutva, the temple issue and praises Narendra Modi. A polity rests on national consensus. How is it possible to forge a consensus with such a party? Or trust a man who denounces sin and exonerates sinners?"
Says a senior journalist, the veteran leader's problem is like that of Caesar who didn't know when to stop. "Politicians should know what others are saying about them and they want Advani to go. But it seems he's in no mood to quit."
Accused of injecting an unprecedented, vicious dose of communal poison in the secular and pluralist Indian social fabric, built by secularists like Nehru, Advani is credited for bringing BJP to the level where it is today. "He was the one who did all the hard work, so it isn't easy for him to wash his hands off completely. He is emotionally attached to the party," says a senior BJP leader.
Wrote Noorani in Frontline: "Advani is obscenely ambitious and power-driven. He will act ruthlessly and deviously. Do not believe a word of his claims that he wanted to retire. He is a divisive figure both nationally and within the BJP."
People close to him assert that Advani is basically a very different man compared to his hardcore Hindutva image. He is gracious, polite, humble and concerned. He is a believer, but is not compulsively hooked to pujas or rituals. A film critic when he was young, he loves Bollywood movies and is an admirer of Aamir Khan. He goes for special screenings. A frugal eater, Advani hasn't had any major illness except for a cataract operation that he went through recently. A vegetarian, he doesn't go to sleep without a glass of milk and sometimes adds turmeric to it. He loves reading and is currently immersed in IK Gujral's autobiography, Matters of Discretion, and ex-top cop Ved Marwah's book on terrorism.
The question remains: So when will LK Advani retire? The answer is: Only LK Advani knows when he will retire.