Pitamah picks side, stands by Duryodhan

I feel odd writing this essay on a man one thought as being in antipodes with. L.K. Advani is not my favourite politician, but when he resigned from all his positions in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one’s heart went out to the man. At one level that surprised me and also made me discover the subtleties of Indian politics.
Advani is what one would call an organisational man. He was an institution-builder and yet understood the charismatic energy of movements. He used the rath yatra as journeys across the country to revitalise the party. One still remembers a quaint moment from that period. The rath was no longer a horse but a bumpy, misbehaving jeep. Advani had to travel standing in the jeep, waiving to the audience. The problem was when he felt thirsty. True to the Indian idea of jugaad, one of his aides found a baby’s feeding bottle and fixed it with a nipple. The great leader could now drive in peace and the rath yatra went on to create history.
I began with this quaint incident because Advani seems a formally correct man, a Bhishma without vices. The contrast with Atal Behari Vajpayee becomes obvious. The latter was a man who loved life and was more than happy to toast it. Vajpayee had, because of his very faults, a touch of the human. Because he had faults, he could be more human about the mistake of others. He was less alien and more popular while Advani had a puritanical, Jesuitical correctness to him. At that time, I thought that one thing that redeemed him was his fondness for Hindi movies and I was a sucker for the latter.
Advani was a vehicle of history and created history even if it sidestepped him. He had the magnanimity to accept that and the genius to exploit it. He had led the BJP to power and yet realised even in the moment of electoral victory that Vajpayee was the preferred leader. Vajpayee had the charisma that Advani as an organisational man lacked. Quick to accept the logic of politics, Advani became deputy prime minister guiding the BJP through some of its finest years.
Advani was a creature of the Partition and yet as a Sindhi he was less than myopic about Jinnah. He understood Jinnah and unlike many other jingoists never reduced him to a mere opponent.
The Emergency brought out the best in him. Those who watched him in jail respected his patience and courage. In fact, the BJP as a party earned a lot of respect from the way its leaders behaved in jail and especially through their ability to tactically acquire key posts in the under-life of a jail to protect their supporters. The Emergency created many friendships across parties and set the stage for some of the coalitions of the future.
My disappointments with Advani came later. I cannot forgive him for his dance of joy during the collapse of the Babri Masjid. I think at that moment he had lost sight of the diversities that knit our nation together. The other episode one needs to ask him about was the 2002 riots. After all, they started in Gandhinagar, his constituency, and one wishes one could quiz him personally about his role and emotions during that period. Babri and 2002 are question marks on the man.
As Vajpayee faded from the BJP and public life, it was Advani who became the Bhishma Pitamah, the grey eminence of the party. He was mentor, statesman and ideologue and must have watched with concern the rise of the pracharak named Narendra Modi to chief ministership. Advani is a chip of the old BJP block that smelt the RSS. Modi began as an RSS pracharak but socialised himself as a development hero, speaking technocratic dialects and being familiar with Davos and climate change. Advani smelt of ideology despite his ambition, but Modi smelt solely of power. The latter was a true fascist as modernist.
As Modi’s electoral fortunes blossomed, he became a national figure pushing Advani, Sushma Swaraj and others to the backstage. The old mode of consensus and inner party discipline made little sense to Modi who saw himself as a new kind of leader. Advani and Modi represented the old and the new respectively. And a clash was inevitable. Modi seemed to be the future while Advani appeared to be the custodian of a past that the cadres wanted to go beyond.
As an old style man, Advani would have preferred rituals of change, and graceful transitions. But Modi represented bullyboy BJP where power did not quite need table manners. Modi was like Ajax confronting a Nestor. The BJP, long out of power, felt desolate without it and sensed in Modi the alchemist who could restore it. It appointed Modi chairman of the BJP’s 2014 election campaign and Advani chose not to attend the BJP conclave. Modi’s supporters responded in a way that was quick and crass. They demonstrated in front of Advani’s house. One witnessed not just a conflict of generations but two styles of political behaviour. Suddenly Advani must have seemed too slow and hesitant to a Rajnath and a Modi. They must have sensed an old soldier, in fact a Field Marshall, refusing to fade away, reluctant to anoint the new aspirant. The situation was ugly and encouraged gracelessness. Sensing this Advani resigned from all positions within the party, bringing a grand career to a close, and reminding Modi that he had shot BJP in the foot and that he had still a long way to go. His act of exit as a mark of grace was one of his finer moments for people saw what Modi was — a ham-handed, egotistic, ambitious politician who had neither memory nor grace. In this act, Advani might have cautioned a party and a nation of the future to come. One day we might thank him for the warning shots he fired before and after the meeting at Goa. Advani may not have been Prime Minister but history will always talk of him as the archetypical politician. This is his claim to fame.
Advani was not present at the joint press conference on Tuesday when the BJP announced that Advani’s resignation had been rejected and that he had accepted the decisions of the committee. What is clear is that the RSS re-asserted itself and Mohan Bhagwat brokered an official peace. The BJP is returning to normal and its old norms of unity, discipline and solidarity have reasserted themselves officially. Yet, the smell of doubts still lingers quietly. Advani at one level sounded weaker, but at another he remained consistent with his own character. He was till the end a party man and a Sangh loyalist. The party stood above the individual even if it was an Advani.

The writer is a social science nomad

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