Advani, moment, nation
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What is the best way to understand the Advani-Modi controversy? Can the matter be reduced entirely to a clash of personalities, or to political ambition?
One ought to begin with the note that ironies and paradoxes have repeatedly marked Lal Krishna Advani's political life. There has always been a mismatch between the contribution he has made to his organisation and the rewards he has received. Such discrepancy is often a source of his enigmatic conduct.
For four decades after Independence, the BJP and its predecessor, the Jan Sangh, were marginal players in Indian politics. With the exception of the 1967 elections, when the Jan Sangh got 9.4 per cent of the national vote, the Hindu nationalist vote share rarely went above 7.5 per cent. The Hindu nationalists were — substantially, not wholly — an organisation of urban traders, some Maharashtrian Brahmin communities and Hindu migrants from Pakistan.
The Ayodhya movement, led by Advani, changed all that. It brought the BJP to India's centrestage. In 1989, the BJP got 11.5 per cent of the national vote; in 1991, 20.1 per cent; in 1996, 20.3 per cent; and in 1998, garnering 25.6 per cent of the national vote, it nearly equalled the vote share of the Congress party, something entirely inconceivable even in the late 1980s. After Ayodhya, the BJP developed a fairly broad social base, moving downward and outward, attracting a substantial OBC vote and also penetrating rural India.
No non-Congress political leader of independent India achieved such a national broadening in his lifetime: not Ambedkar, not Narendra Dev, not Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, not Lohia, not Namboodiripad. All great expansions of social base have been regional: led by the DMK, AIADMK, TDP, CPM, Akalis and National Conference before Ayodhya; and by the SP, BSP, JD(U), TMC, Shiv Sena and BJD after that. None of these was national in scope.
Advani's achievement, thus, was unique. Yet, he could not become India's prime minister, even when the BJP-led alliance came to power in 1998. The Ayodhya movement made the BJP individually powerful, but the anti-Muslim hysteria it generated and the anti-Muslim riots it triggered also rendered it collectively weak. It was unacceptable to all but a few parties. The BJP could be embraced only if its leadership was taken away from Advani and handed over to someone resolutely moderate. Vajpayee filled precisely that role. Vajpayee had disagreed with the Ayodhya movement. His ideological moderation was not in doubt. Advani could be India's deputy prime minister, not its prime minister, which was possible only if the BJP could win a national election entirely on its own, not if it needed an alliance of parties. By the late 1990s, it was clear that an alliance had become a requirement for power. Unless he can find a way to put the 2002 riots behind him, the very same political logic may also haunt Narendra Modi in the coming years. The departure of the JD(U) from the NDA is yet another reminder of this reality of India's political life.
Advani's celebration of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 2005 provided the second great ironical moment. Jinnah's argument for Pakistan was that Muslims and Hindus were two separate nations, not just members of two different religious communities. At the peak of the Ayodhya movement, Advani had argued exactly the opposite, and in a manner deeply threatening to India's Muslims. Consistent with the RSS ideology, he had contended that the term Hindu described the Indian nation, not a religious community, and Muslims should call themselves Muslim Hindus.
In January 2005, his speeches in Pakistan demonstrated a radical shift. Jinnah, the great communal leader, had become secular in Advani's view. Right through the 20th century, Indian politics viewed secular and communal politics as constituting a binary. One could not simultaneously be both, only one or the other.
Why Advani turned around on Jinnah remains a mystery. Perhaps he wanted to be the new Vajpayee. Perhaps he wished to reach out to India's Muslims by seeking a better relationship with Pakistan. Be that as it may, the change was an organisational catastrophe for him. He had to resign as the head of the party. For ideological reasons, the RSS, the mother organisation of Hindu nationalism, would not let even a man of his stature go unpunished.
We now have yet another ironical moment. Advani has opposed the organisational elevation of Modi, his protégé until not too far back, someone whose job was saved by him after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Yet again, the RSS has forced him to step back. Advani has always argued that the RSS has been the single largest influence in his life and he is a loyal foot soldier, but the RSS does not spare him if he, even slightly, departs from its core script.
What could be the reasons for Advani's opposition to Modi? His argument is far too cryptically embedded in a claim about "personal agendas" to be transparent. Perhaps Advani finds Modi too authoritarian; perhaps, learning from Vajpayee's success, he believes that only ideological moderation can keep the NDA together and bring Hindu nationalists back to power; perhaps he still has prime ministerial ambitions. Whatever the reason, yet again, he has been publicly embarrassed, if not humiliated.
The break-up between the BJP and JD(U) partially strengthens Advani's hand. But the fundamental issue is not conjunctural. What are Advani's deeper options, moving forward?
Modi is, undoubtedly, a polarising figure but he has also enthused substantial segments of India's urban middle class. He excites them, he unleashes their energy; to them, he holds the promise of a new India. For many urban Indians, Hindu-Muslim relations are a sideshow. Economic development is key to India's future, and Modi's Gujarat promises more than any other currently existing model.
Much of this could be wrong, even illusory. It is entirely unclear how rural India, still forming over two-thirds of India's population, will react to Modi. Despite this uncertainty, it seems to me that a considerably enhanced role for Modi within the BJP, given his electoral success and connection with the urban middle class, simply cannot be denied. He is bringing new social groups to the BJP. The only solution could be teaming him up with someone who can dull his polarising edges.
Urban India is rising and in another 10 years, it will be close to half of India's population. The new urban middle class has a right to make its own mistakes, if its passion for Modi is indeed a mistake. Does Advani, at this point in his life, have a better, and unerring, political or economic blueprint for them? For all its problems and uncertainties, a generational turnover in the BJP may be necessary, even inevitable.
Kuchch reet jagat ki aisi hai, har ek subah ki shaam hui (After every morning comes an evening; that is the way of the world). One should enjoy the sunset, and then quietly walk into the night.
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'
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