Wednesday 18 May 2022

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Bloody Mary

Advani: The reluctant fundamentalist


Advani's own political cycle has gone from Jana Sangh moderate to Hindutva hardline to post-Vajpayee moderate again.

Challenging the Nehruvian consensus from the Right has been LK Advani's lifelong mission. When his memoir My Country My Life was released, Arun Jaitley said the single most important contribution of Advani is that he redefined the entire debate on "pseudo-secularism" vs secularism. From "pseudo-secularism" to "minority appeasement" to "cultural nationalism", Advani coined the lexicon of the post-Independence BJP.

Advani created a movement that demolished the Babri masjid, but the ruined masjid has taken its revenge on Advani. The word "secularism" has dogged Advani's footsteps, a word he has by turn rubbished yet sought to re-interpret. The word secularism was the reason he was thrown out of party presidency by the sangh when he asserted that Jinnah was secular. Today Advani, the anti secular Hindutva icon, finds his own complicated relationship with the word "secular" interrupted by a hardline personality cult which has no time for those tortured old debates. As Moditva becomes the reigning ideology of the BJP, who cares anymore about an octogenarian's decades long ideological battle with Congress vocabulary?

There may be a patchy compromise at the moment but the patriarch is in open revolt. As his party elects by democratic process the choice of the cadres, Advani has pricked the Modi bubble by making allusions to a Hitler, Mussolini and 'personal agendas''. Advani may be motivated by ambition. Advani may hope that his own newly acquired "moderate" image, will be a magnet for future allies ranging from the BJD to the JDU to the TMC and that he and not Modi is better placed to be the prime ministerial choice even at the age of 85, and even after leading his party to defeat in 2009.

Advani's own political cycle has gone from Jana Sangh moderate to Hindutva hardline to post-Vajpayee moderate again. He's seen the immediate popularity rush of a polarising movement, he's also seen the electoral pitfalls of such a movement. The BJP went from 2 seats to 182 in the Atal Advani era but even then it took the inclusive persona of a Vajpayee to cobble together the vote- catching NDA. Perhaps Advani has understood the electoral maths better than the Modi acolytes in the BJP, repeatedly asking the party to reach out to minorities, going on record to say the demolition of the Babri masjid was "the saddest day of my life".

Perhaps Advani has another fear. Perhaps what Advani, a party man for six decades, really fears is that Modi's personality cult will undermine inner party democracy in Delhi just as it has in Gujarat. That under Modi, the party he and Vajpayee built will cease to exist.

Modi's rise is spectacular. An up-by-his-bootstraps pracharak from the small town of Vadnagar in Gujarat, is now "the" face of the BJP. However much the BJP may say that Modi is only the head of the campaign committee, or that he is one among a "galaxy" of leaders, that he is still not the declared prime ministerial candidate, the fact is post 2014 Modi will be the natural claimant to the top job.

What kind of politics does Modi represent? Narendra Modi's economic model in Gujarat may be admired as business-friendly market economics. But his political model in Gujarat is vintage Indira Gandhi. Perhaps LK Advani, always a man of the party, anti- Emergency warrior against the Congress for decades, senses precisely this.

Indira Gandhi exemplified ruthless power politics and extreme centralisation of power. When the Gujarat BJP's Haren Pathak declared that "Modi is the BJP and the BJP is Modi", he sounded eerily similar to famous Congress loyalist DK Baruah who said "India is Indira and Indira is India". In 1969 Indira Gandhi threw out the Congress old guard or the Syndicate, split the party and formed a Congress party loyal only to herself and her own ideology of populist socialism. This party was totally subordinated to Indira's towering personality cult, it was a cult in which the Supreme Leader reached over the head of the party to create a direct covenant with voters. Like Modi, Indira's chemistry with crowds was legendary, she ruled through loyal bureaucrats and destroyed party institutions that her father respected until his dying day.

The Modi model of politics in Gujarat is strikingly similar. From Keshubhai Patel to Kanshi Ram Rana to Suresh Mehta, members of the Gujarat BJP have been systematically sidelined or eased out of the BJP. Modi rules Gujarat through his loyal bureaucrats, just as Mrs Gandhi did. His political opponents have been vanquished in true Indira style. The BJP cut its teeth in anti Emergency protests, but Moditva retains within itself traces of the Emergency. Modi is known for his trenchant attacks on the media, books like 'Great Soul' by Joseph Lelyveld have been banned in Gujarat, action was taken against films like Fanaa, and human rights bodies and trade unions in Gujarat have been rendered dysfunctional. With Modi's constant targeting of the media as "biased" will there come a time when a "biased" media is sought to be tamed just as Indira Gandhi once clamped down on an "anti-national"press?

Towering personality cults inevitably undermine democracy. On Hindutva, Modi remains a figure who mobilises but also polarises. Does Modi want to be figure of administrative efficiency who creates big growth but in the process also ends up, much like Indira, demolishing institutions of public accountability? Or does he want to keep up the ideological challenge to Nehruvianism by debating with the enemy in democratic terms?

We can question Advani's methods of publicly denouncing his own party. But as the 85 year old yatri fades into the sunset, his message can't be ignored. How very ironical that it has taken the politician who was the ideological mascot of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to caution the BJP about a polarising personality cult. How ironical that Advani of all people, is today the reluctant fundamentalist.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Sagarika Ghose

Sagarika Ghose has been a journalist for 20 years, starting her career with The Times of India, then moving to become part of the start-up team of Outlook magazine, subsequently joining The Indian Express as Senior Editor. She was anchor of the flagship BBC World programme Question Time India before moving to CNN-IBN as prime time anchor and Deputy Editor. She is the anchor of the award-winning flagship debate programme Face The Nation on CNN-IBN. She is also a columnist for the Hindustan Times. She has won numerous awards including FICCI Media Achiever Award and Gr8-ITA Award for Excellence in Journalism. She is a graduate in History from St Stephen's College and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University where she gained an MA and M.Phil in History and International Relations. She is the author of two acclaimed novels The Gin Drinkers and Blind Faith, both published worldwide by HarperCollins Publishers.


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