If 85 is not the right age for a principled stand, then what is?

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Lal Krishna Advani (Photo http://www.lkadvani.in/)

With India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) getting ready to name its prime ministerial candidate, the near fait accompli of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi being that man is causing serious misgivings inside his own party. Those misgivings are not new and they have been simmering for at least a year if not longer.

The most important skeptic, if not an explicit opponent of Modi, is Lal Krishna Advani to whom the BJP owes a singular debt for its political success in the last two decades or so. It was Advani’s decidedly rightward lurch in the late 1980s and early 1990s that gave the BJP its distinguishing personality and eventually its parliamentary heft. It can be argued that Modi is a direct beneficiary, if not a creation altogether, of the way Advani fashioned the party. It is in this context that Advani’s current reluctance to back Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate should be seen.

On June 10, I wrote a detailed post, which bears repeating today as the party seems set to name Modi on Friday after a meeting of its parliamentary board. Here it is:

Even those virulently enthusiastic about human life and its consequentiality at any age would concede that 85 is an advanced enough age by which the better part of one’s life is practically over. It is also an age by which convictions ought to be firmly rooted and principles finely honed.

So it should not surprise anyone that the 85-year-old Lal Krishna Advani, one of India’s most consequential politicians, has taken what he considers a principled stand. If that is not the right age, then what is? Advani, one of those eternal prime ministers-in-waiting, has resigned from three powerful positions within the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which he founded and built.

Advani’s resignation letter to his party’s president Rajnath Singh has been assertively candid and unambiguous repudiation of what the party has become.

"For some time I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going," he said.

He said he no longer had "the feeling that this is the same idealistic party" formed in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookerji, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Nanaji Deshmukh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee "whose sole concern was the country and its people".

In perhaps the sharpest comment in his resignation letter Advani said, "Most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas." That is as swift a kick up many a groin as it could come from Advani. As I said on June 3,(Oh, what a joy it is to quote oneself with a smug sense of I told you so!), “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.”

Modi, for those of you who may not know such details, has been appointed as the chairman of his party’s election management committee in what is seen as the likeliest springboard to India’s prime minister should the BJP and its allies win big enough in the next general election to form a government. Advani as the progenitor of the BJP as well as someone who made it into a viable right of the center political alternative to the left of the center Congress Party feels profoundly disenchanted at having been pushed into a corner. In the new matrix that has emerged under Modi as the mascot Advani obviously feels himself rendered practically redundant.

In a sense, Advani’s dilemma is not that different from the old school Republicans in the U.S. who are being increasingly marginalized by the more aggressive extreme right described as Tea Party Republicans. The BJP is suffering from what seems like an affliction peculiar to right wing ideologies everywhere which is the shifting of the center to what was once regarded as the core of the right wing ideology. Advani, who was in the 1990s regularly described as a Hindu hardliner, now sounds like a moderate and reasonable voice in the mold of his contemporary and friend, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Having extensively reported on both the Congress and the BJP, I am very well versed with the internal fractures and strengths of these two adversarial ideologies. Advani  has not been, by natural temperament, a right wing demagogue in the manner of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Separated in age by 23 years and politically seasoned by two very different life experiences, it is not surprising that Advani and Modi have reached a point of such public divergence. Abrasive self-assurance has been an important attribute of Modi’s career which appeals to the abrasively self-assured new Indian middle class that finds Advani to be a fuddy-duddy. They forget Modi exists because Advani had the tenacity to build the BJP over the last three decades.

Somewhere along the line, Advani’s own unfulfilled ambitions of becoming prime minister do play a role in the current chaos in the BJP. As I said before, 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.

Politics is about not ever foreclosing on any option, irrespective of age. Advani knows that better than most in his party because he has been around longer than them all. Far be it for me to divine what may be in his mind but he could be thinking that at 62 Modi will get many more opportunities to rise to prime minister. In contrast for him, that window is rapidly shutting. I would not be surprised if that thought has crossed his mind. You have to hand it to Advani for maximally using his leverage to send the younger upstarts scurrying to cajole him back.

Having interacted with him quite extensively, I am willing to say that Advani’s motivations are much deeper than just the realization that the prospect of his rise prime minister has become significantly diminished. He perhaps rightly feels a unique sense of ownership about the BJP, which none of the current crop of young leaders can seriously claim. Vajpayee, the only man whose stature takes precedence over Advani’s, has retired and remains unwell. At the very least Advani deserves a much better dénouement than what he is currently experiencing.

At this stage, not just the BJP leadership but the superstructure of the regimental Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that towers above it, faces the choice of being ideologically driven and choose Modi or being politically expedient and choose Advani or Sushma Swaraj. The latter is the party’s most recognizable woman politician unencumbered by RSS baggage. Of course, it will all boil down to how many seats the party wins in 2014. If it wins 190 or more out of the total 545 parliamentary seats, then the whiff of national power would disorient non-BJP allies enough to forsake their principles and join irrespective of who the prime minister is. Nothing melts principles quicker than the prospects of power.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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