21-27 June 2013 #661

Advani down, but not out

The BJP knows that politics of Hindutva suffers from limitations in India’s diverse society
Ajaz Ashraf
The furious debate in India this week over the wisdom of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in projecting Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014 has primarily focused on his divisive politics and unacceptability to potential allies.

But it also proves the Sangh Parivar’s ability to raise the threshold of acceptability of Hindutva in Indian society and underscores the perpetual pressure on Hindutva leaders wishing to play a national role to reinvent themselves.

Those outside the Sangh Parivar wanted former Home Minister LK Advani to be the party’s campaign chief, claiming that he, unlike Modi, pursues a soft line on Hindutva and adheres to consensus politics. It is strange that Indians should forget the political tornado Advani unleashed in 1990, jumping on a Toyota-turned-rath to journey from Somnath to Ayodhya and dividing India as sharply as it perhaps had been at the time of partition.

Indeed, there are few BJP leaders of stature who haven’t dabbled in divisive politics. Those in the BJP who wish to carve a national role are first required to win the support of Sangh cadres with a pronounced Hindutva line. It is why Advani became their mascot two decades ago, as is Modi now.

Yet, the politics of Hindutva suffers from limitations in India’s diverse society. It alienates both the religious minorities and downtrodden classes and Dalits. Despite the BJP’s attempts at social engineering, it is popularly perceived to represent upper castes and the urban middle class, who together can’t provide it a majority. No wonder then, every BJP leader nursing a pan-India ambition feels compelled to cultivate a persona acceptable to other sections of the population and, in this era of fractured polity, regional outfits as well.

Advani’s metamorphosis came about through what is called his ‘Jinnah moment’ during a visit to Pakistan in 2005 when he hailed Jinnah as a “great man” and described his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August, 1947, as “a forceful espousal of a secular state …” In the six-year-rule of the NDA, Advani tempered his Hindutva rhetoric not least because he was India’s home minister. It was now time for him to go in for a complete makeover. Advani needed the new persona for leading the NDA, the BJP-led alliance, in the 2009 election.

By contrast, Modi emerged from relative anonymity through the grisly Gujarat riots of 2002 and his subsequent communal rhetoric. Advani’s lowering of rhetoric allowed Modi to appropriate the partially vacated Hindutva space, post-2002. The BJP’s poor electoral performance indicated the party required a new leader to spearhead it. Confident of the Sangh’s rank and file, Modi took to cultivating the image of ‘Mr Development’ to widen his appeal beyond the BJP.

The need to reinvent is inscribed in the BJP’s DNA. Take former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is often extolled for his liberal views, but who was earlier in his career as pugnacious a Hindutva leader as any.

It is pertinent to ponder why Vajpayee and Modi succeeded in persuading people about their makeover and Advani failed. For one, Advani’s endorsement of Jinnah, anathema to the Sangh, alienated its cadres from him. In politics, you can’t hope to win from a weak home-base. Second, the Congress stole a march over the BJP through welfare measures, visibly reflected in the 2009 election verdict.

The liberal persona Vajpayee took on found acceptance, as there was a pressing need for a leader who could provide an acceptable ideological architecture for an alliance against the Congress, which has weakened considerably in the 1990s. Somewhat similar is the context in which Modi has attempted a makeover. Scams and indecisive governance have eroded the UPA’s credibility. Modi’s slogan of development has charmed many into forgetting his past.

You can’t rule out a second coming for Advani. Should the Modi-led BJP fail to get more than 170-180 seats, the ‘liberal’ or ‘reasonable’ Advani would be asked to lure regional outfits for forming a coalition government. Such is the dichotomous categorisation of Modi (hardliner) and Advani (softliner) that nobody will hark to the latter’s past, not even the secular camp.

From Vajpayee to Advani to Modi – the Sangh Parivar has indeed come a long way, putting before India every few years a Hindutva face rendered presentable through a shrewd makeover.


Other columns by Ajaz Ashraf

Imagine PM Narendra Modi

Us and them

What a riot

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