A saffron castle of miscalculations As L K Advani steps down from leadership of the BJP, this may be a good time to ask: why is he leaving with a sense of disappointment? Why has his term as Supreme Leader of the post-Vajpayee BJP been a failure? Before we answer those questions, a few qualifications. Advani and I disagree on nearly all issues of substance. But I have always believed that there is much to admire about him. He is a man of integrity and stature who believes in old style politics when people were expected to work only for ideology. In Advani’s world-view, deal-making, the buying of MP’s and corruption all have no place in politics. Nor is he motivated by power — unlike most of today’s politicians. Nobody whose chief motivation is power would have stuck with the Jan Sangh-BJP for so many decades when it looked as though the party would never come to power. At a personal level, there is also much to like about Advani. Unlike many other Indian politicians, he loves books and is a voracious reader. He can conduct conversations at the level of ideas — which most Indian politicians cannot — and if you mention a book to him, you will often find that he has gone off and bought it on his own. I have to say that, despite our profound disagreements, I like him as a human being. He represents a vanishing brand of Indian politician: thoughtful, well-read and easy to talk to. So why did his term as the boss of the BJP not work out as he had hoped? In assessing Advani’s career, many of us make the mistake of regarding him as somebody who only arrived on the political scene in the late Eighties, when the Ayodhya agitation erupted. In fact, Advani has been around for many decades. During his early career, he was never much more than AB Vajpayee’s protégé and speech writer. The two men were extremely close — they even lived together — and Advani’s take on any given issue was the same as Vajpayee’s. When Vajpayee was a fire-breathing advocate of imposing Hindi on the South, Advani went along with him. When Vajpayee moved to the middle, so did Advani. This ideological union lasted till the 1984 election, when Vajpayee led the BJP to defeat. Losing his own seat, as the party got only two of its MPS elected. Vajpayee went into a depression. The RSS (which had been getting increasingly tired of Vajpayee) made its displeasure known and the mood of the country changed. While we pretend otherwise now out of political correctness, the Hindu revival was not caused by favours done to Muslims by the state. It began when Sikh terrorists targeted Hindus in the Punjab and demanded Khalistan. History has demonstrated that Hindu political ideologies hold the most appeal when Hindus feel under threat. So, there was the potential to reap the Hindu vote in the early 1980s, but the BJP followed a high-minded secularist policy under Vajpayee and refused to play the Hindu card. In the event, the Congress got the benefit of the Hindu vote. It was not till 1986/87 that organisations af filiated to the RSS (such as the VHP) pushed for a more Hindu-focused policy. At that stage, Hindu anger was directed at Muslims who were said to be the beneficiaries of vote bank politics dressed up as secularism. When Vajpayee refused to go down this road, the RSS pushed Advani into the leadership role for such agitations as Ayodhya. In the process, Advani came to be seen as a Hindutva hardliner, when in fact, that role was actually forced on him. Fortunately for the BJP, the Hindu agenda worked and the party surged forward. Unfortunately for Advani, his image as a hardliner made him unacceptable to allies and so Vajpayee made a comeback. Since the end of the Vajpayee era, the story of Advani’s leadership of the BJP has been the story of a man in search of an ideology. Eager to shed the hardline image but without any core beliefs of his own, Advani looked for ways in which to project himself as a national leader. At every step along the way, he miscalculated. He believed, for instance, that the BJP would win the 2004 election and that Vajpayee would step down in 2006, installing him as Prime Minister. In fact, the BJP lost. Then, he believed that Sonia Gandhi would be PM and he could play the Indian alternative to her foreign leader. Sonia destroyed that calculation by installing Manmohan Singh. Advani miscalculated again by reckoning that Singh would be regarded as a puppet and promptly launched vicious personal attacks on him. In fact, Singh was widely respected and Advani’s abuse did the BJP more harm than good. Next, he played the Pakistan card. Bizarrely, Advani believes that anyone who is soft on Pakistan is regarded as a liberal by Indians. So, while during the Vajpayee government he had taken the credit for scuppering the Agra Summit, he now went around claiming that it had been his idea to invite Musharraf. Advani had failed to learn his lesson when, during the 2004 election campaign, he had made the outrageous claim that Indian Muslims would vote for the BJP because the government had improved relations with Pakistan. Indian Muslims angrily objected to the suggestion that they were pro-Pakistan. But once he became Leader of the Opposition, Advani once again played the Pakistan card, visiting that country and showering MA Jinnah with praise. This won Advani no fans among Indian Muslim (who have no special affection for Jinnah) and damaged his credibility among liberals who wondered how far he would go in repudiating his past only to change his image. And of course, the RSS was outraged. From then on, Advani never quite recovered his bearings. He continued to try to be a liberal and when that failed, seized on whatever issue was available to attack the government with. After 26/11, when India’s mood was one of unity, the BJP played politics. When Manmohan Singh pushed for the nuclear deal that the Vajpayee government had tried to get from the US, the BJP developed amnesia and opposed it. By the time the election came around, Advani and his BJP stood for nothing. Neither had he become a secular liberal in the public mind nor had the BJP remained true to its pro- US, free enterprise past. In terms of ideological consistency, the BJP was now on par with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. The emptiness of the BJP mirrored Advani’s own emptiness. He had gone from being a man who had no beliefs of his own to becoming a man desperately in search of any beliefs at all. Worst of all, was the lack of self-knowledge. When the results of the last election came in. The BJP had prepared a celebration at Advani’s house. The party genuinely thought that it would form the next government! It had no idea of how comprehensively it had been rejected by the voters. In a sense, it is hard not to feel sorry for Advani, an educated, decent man who now retires without having achieved his life’s ambition. But equally, it is re-assuring to know that for all the despairing things we say about Indian voters, they can tell a genuine believer from a phoney.