Lal Krishna Advani (Photo http://www.lkadvani.in/)
The Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister juggernaut has just hit a major pothole. Probably to Modi’s chagrin, the man digging the potholes is none other than the Bharatiya Janata Party’s current patriarch and his political mentor Lal Krishna Advani.
At a public rally in Gwalior, the 85-year-old Advani said this in Hindi about Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and his accomplishments in terms of ensuring the state’s economic growth.
“After the arrival of Shivraj Singh, Madhya Pradesh’s accomplishments are a source of wonder. It feels like a miracle. I tell Narendrabhai Modi that Gujarat was already a healthy state which you made healthier (better) and for that you deserve compliments. But Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh were sick* states…to turn them around and make them healthy to the extent that one roots for them to be number one (in India) but also that they are counted on the world stage..”
I am sorry that for my non-Indian readers this is too specific and too political but it can potentially alter who the country’s biggest opposition party might nominate as its prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 national election. The word on the street so far has been that Narendra Modi, the unputdownable chief minister of my home state of Gujarat, is the clear choice. However, Advani’s very public comments essentially toning down Gujarat as a brilliant economic success story may be interpreted as a sign of the jostling inside the BJP. The timing of Advani’s observation does not seem accidental. His party is currently debating who it would like to project as its prime minister.
In a sense, Advani’s observation also reinforces the narrative advanced by the Gujarat unit of the Congress Party, which is the main opposition to Modi in the state. The Congress has frequently pointed out that Gujarat has long been on a trajectory of high growth since the late 1970s and that Modi could not possibly claim credit for the inherent industriousness of its people.
Like all such claims and counterclaims fraught with politics, there is partial truth and partial hyperbole to be found on all sides. It is a fact that Gujarat has always been at the forefront of industrial growth over the last four decades or so. It is also a fact that most of its growth can be attributed to its people’s extraordinary entrepreneurial talents. Equally, it is also a fact that Modi has aggressively removed major bureaucratic hurdles in the path of a certain class of big industry investing in the state. The state has always enjoyed a strong economic foundation and to Modi’s credit, just as to the credit of those chief ministers before him, they have had the sense not to throw political and bureaucratic spanners in the entrepreneurial machine.
From this perspective it is hard to fault Advani for saying what he did. However, as I said it is the timing of his comments that makes it uncomfortable for Modi and his proponents. Once you factor in all the internal tensions and fractures within the BJP over whom to nominate for prime minister the comments begin to acquire a different meaning. Add to all the internal jostling, Advani’s own unfulfilled ambitions of becoming prime minister and you have the makings of a classic political drama. He or his supporters may not have articulated it so clearly but it ought to hurt that Modi has been presented as the BJP’s prime ministerial fait accompli in full view of a visibly healthy, fully cogent and still widely acceptable Advani.
There is nothing necessarily right or wrong about what is being said by leaders like Advani and done by the various factions inside the BJP. It’s all part of realpolitik in the world’s noisiest political democracy. All concerned are grown-up men and women seasoned and marinated in a heady mix of political sauces. In short, it’s all good and healthy in a manner of speaking.
* The reference “sick” derives from Bimaru which in Hindi means sick. Bimaru is a sort of an acronym to describe the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the Indian states traditionally known to languish on the economic margins. Bimaru, which is coined using the the first letters of these states, is a popular pun.