[For an expanded version, with insider details of Advani-Vajpayee and Advani-Jaswant relations, see my column Coffee Break in Sunday Pioneer.]
These are not happy times for L K Advani. Colleagues in the BJP who were in total awe of Advani and owe their rise in the party as well as in politics to him have turned bitter critics. Fawning journalists who would call Advani’s office incessantly for an ‘exclusive’ interview or felt privileged to be invited for a cup of tea with him are now busy writing his obituary or ridiculing him pitilessly. The South Delhi commentariat, which has arrogated to itself the task of thinking for the masses, would want us to believe that five decades of public life can be summed up in 33 minutes and 47 seconds of discussion as was witnessed last Monday on NDTV.
When I met him on Tuesday morning, he looked his usual affable self. But his eyes reflected a sense of pain and despair. For a while we talked about books. Advani is a voracious reader although, unlike many of his critics, he does not flaunt intellectual pretensions.
The conversation meandered to what’s happening in the BJP and Advani sounded both upset and pained. “This is not the party I knew… it has changed so much,” he said wistfully. It has changed in many ways.
Thirteen years ago, when Advani was party president, the BJP projected itself as an ‘alternative’ to the Congress not merely in terms of political ideology but also policy and programme. Few people would know about it, and fewer in today’s BJP would care to recall, that he and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were constantly thinking in terms of ideas to craft an alternative agenda of governance. Vajpayee was the big picture man – “We should change the system, otherwise governance cannot change” – while Advani would think in terms of nuts and bolts, the small details, of how to change the system.
Today those who aspire to take charge of the party have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in ideational thinking. Rhetoric has come to replace crafting of agenda. Any serious effort to engage them in discussing alternative policy ideas fails because they find it boring. It’s easier to outsource that task to lobbies and pressure groups: They come up with ‘alternative policies’ and these are then adopted as party objectives.
Advani was deeply pained about Jaswant Singh’s vituperative personal attacks against him. “He was in the party for 30 years, during which time for nearly 28 years he was an MP. He has held every possible post except that of party president and Prime Minister. Yet he now brushes aside his association with the party as if it does not amount to anything.”
On Kandahar, he sounded distraught that media was making a mountain out of a molehill. “I have merely said I don’t recall, I can’t recall a decision being taken on Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists.”
Actually, the Cabinet Committee on Security, as I have written in The Pioneer, did not discuss or decide the issue of Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists. What was discussed was his going to Kandahar and doubts were expressed whether it was the right thing to do as he could have ended up a hostage too and then the demands would have been spectacular. Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorists was the result of last minute changes in travel plans. Pakistan gave over-flight permission for an Indian Airlines aircraft and not the Aviation Research Centre (a R&AW-linked agency) plane in which Jaswant Singh was supposed to travel. This resulted in his travelling on the same plane as the terrorists. Given the tight schedule, the CCS could not have possibly discussed this aspect all over again. In any event, a decade later, Kandahar is a bit of a non-issue.
Advani is equally pained by Yashwant Sinha’s criticism of him: “I have gone out of my way to help him… I have done so much for him... He owes a lot to me.” Sudheendra Kulkarni’s departure has not distressed him as much as his declaration that he was disassociating himself from the BJP due to “ideological differences”. Advani is not amused that it took 13 years for Kulkarni to discover these ‘differences’.
Contrary to popular perception, Advani said he would be more than happy to step aside and retire from active politics. “I could do so many things… read books, write. But there is always this issue of who will take over… There are enough young leaders. After all they have to take charge at some time.”
Each one of us has a fatal flaw. Advani’s fatal flaw, to my mind and reaffirmed after my chat with him, is that he could never assert himself. He admitted as much. Good men often suffer from the inability to force their way; or else Advani would not have succumbed to pressure to stay on, as he did after this summer’s election. Those in the party who persuaded him not to step down were concerned about themselves – not about Advani or the BJP. Advani could have stuck to his instinctive decision, but he did not.
Just as he failed to take a stand on the hasty and ill-considered decision to summarily expel Jaswant Singh from the party. Had he stood firm, the parliamentary board could not have gone ahead and done what it did. Nor could Gujarat have banned Jinnah - India, Partition, Independence. The ban is bound to be set aside by the courts, causing nothing but further embarrassment to the party all because Ananth Kumar clamoured the loudest for "immediate action" at the fateful parliamentary board meeting in Shimla and others thought it expedient to second his demand.
[Although, in all fairness, it must be said that Advani is not alone 'guilty' of letting down and abandoning Jaswant Singh. I have been witness to how Vajpayee was made to drop his name from the list of Ministers the night before the NDA team took oath of office in 1998. The then Sarsanghachalak, K S Sudarshan, did not want him included as he had "just lost the election". I carried the letter to Gopal Gandhi, then secretary to the President of India, an hour before the swearing-in ceremony. Jaswant Singh forgets that episode, just as he forgets that Advani did not forget to include him as Finance Minister in the 13-day Government, although he need not have done so.]
If only Advani had… But then, life is really about a whole lot of ‘if onlys’.
Which brings me to the issue of leadership change. The recent intervention by the RSS and elaborate consultations which took place in Delhi, apart from the comments by the Sarsanghachalak, Mohanrao Bhagwat, have helped bring about clarity on what needs to be done. These are:
. The old guard must step down and step aside. This cannot be delayed any further.
. The choice of future leaders cannot be restricted to those stationed in Delhi.
. The RSS will not interfere by way of micro-managing the party’s affairs.
. The BJP will have to decide for itself what is best for the party.
. The Sangh will provide any assistance that is sought.
. The RSS will play the role of moral compass: The BJP sorely needs this.
It has been decided, according to one of the senior leaders who was involved with the consultation process this past weekend, that the new president will be “young and energetic” with a high integrity quotient. Mohanrao Bhagwat has provided enough hint by saying there are “75 to 80” potential leaders in the BJP. This also broadens the choice for the party.
There will be two major changes in the coming days. Advani will step down as Leader of Opposition and become a party mentor, perhaps chairman of NDA or even chairman of the parliamentary party. Whether Sushma Swaraj will be elevated to the post of Leader of Opposition is anybody’s guess, although she would like to believe it so. I don’t think it’s a settled issue.
[Although not linked, I am curious about what qualifies Sushma Swaraj to head the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. It would be in order to mention that this committee was once headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The job requires an instinctive feel for foreign affairs, foreign relations and diplomacy, apart from more than passing knowledge of countries and continents. Political officers at foreign missions in Delhi are amused, although what they have to say is not funny.]
I have no confirmed information. But the new president of the BJP could be a proverbial ‘dark horse’. Two names have been mentioned in various discussions – Nitin Gadkari and Manohar Parrikar.
My vote would go to Parrikar. By making him party president, the BJP would signal a tectonic shift. Parrikar can come across as a soft-spoken man, but those who know him will vouch that he cannot be bullied nor will he allow anybody to ride rough-shod over him. He has organisational experience and a clean image; he is ideologically sound and enjoys high credibility with the Sangh; and his youth appeal could prove to be a huge asset for the party among both urban and rural voters.
A new president will also mean a new team of central leaders, a new National Executive and a new set of decision-makers, including organisational general secretary and secretaries.
What needs to be remembered is that the new president’s term will come to an end in the winter of 2012. That is also the time when Assembly election will be held in Gujarat. The result of this poll will be a big factor in deciding Narendra Modi’s future role in the party. The next general election is due in 2014. So, irrespective of whoever holds whichever post today, whether in party or in Parliament, what will matter is the line-up that will emerge in end-2012/early-2013.
During the interregnum, the BJP needs to stabilise and regain the initiative it has lost in the past month. The rest can follow.