It can be nobody’s case that L.K. Advani lacks political intellect, guile or commitment. For three-and-a-half decades now since he arrived on the national centrestage with his arrest, and then elevation as Information and Broadcasting Minister in the first non-Congress (Janata Party) government in 1977, he has been one of the most prominent success stories of our politics. He has been one of the few truly self-made leaders to have attained such a high position, which is particularly remarkable because unlike many others, Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh and even Mamata Banerjee, he did not use the Congress fast-track ever. In so many ways,he is truly an original. Nobody who could resurrect a party from the train-wreck of the Janata in 1980 and then lift it from two seats in 1984 to nearly 200 in 1999 and to national power for six years can be written off by history.
Yet, you’d wonder why we are using the expression ‘has been’ so many times even as we list out his many positive attributes and successes. Even the finest political minds do not get their instinct right all the time. This is particularly so when it comes to choosing a time to call it a day. Advani missed his moment to bow out honourably when the 2009 election results came. He offered to quit but then allowed those around him,the same cynical coterie that he should hold responsible for so brutally damaging his image and political legacy, to ‘persuade’ him to hang on. Hang on to,and for,what,they didn’t tell him and, it seems, he did not bother to ask. The bid for prime ministership over forever, it was entirely up to him to earn a well-deserved farewell in dignity. His CV for a half-century in political life would have still been formidable. But he did not,and has brought himself to this pass now, when he is accused of lying by one of his closest associates, of having his memory fail him and of being weak by his many partymen.
These must hurt. One unusual thing about Advani the politician is that unlike the cynical thick skin that decades in public life help you grow, he is, actually,quite a sensitive person. Unlike many in his business who would laugh a crisis of this sort away, Advani would brood, because he also weighs himself on a scale of stature,respect and legacy. If his own colleagues now question his integrity, memory, strength and conviction, it must hurt like hell.
His minders told him they were packaging him as a tough, decisive leader in this election. That was fine. But he allowed them to go too far,in suggesting that he was tough not merely when compared to Manmohan Singh, but also to Vajpayee. It was for that reason that it was ‘necessary’ to distance him from anything ‘soft’ that was done by the NDA while giving him the full credit for anything tough or decisive. The Kandahar hijack was seen as one ‘soft’ spot on NDA’s record. A little nuance, his minders told him, would do no harm if it could convince people that at least he was not aware that Jaswant Singh was going on that plane with the terrorists. That image,the memory of that humiliation, was indefensible and Advani had to be protected. He erred gravely in letting his people build this fiction. It is at moments like these that a leader is tested. He should have said that his shoulders are broad enough to take responsibility for whatever happened. Also, while nobody can run his politics like Raja Harishchandra these days, there is something morally,and tactically wrong with a prevarication so cynical, it camouflages your own responsibility and puts the blame on your own colleagues instead. As long as there was the promise of a return to power, those colleagues were willing to take the rap. Why should they now continue to do so? Defeat, as we all know, is an orphan. And orphans of defeat also have only one game left to play, every man for himself.
Advani and Vajpayee have had a remarkable relationship of love, and respect. I had once described them as an old couple who argue all the time but one would never do anything the other doesn’t want. Maybe a better way to describe their relationship is that of siblings who love each other but also harbour healthy rivalry. Many in the BJP, and particularly those around Advani, were quick to draw historic parallels with Nehru and Patel, both diehard Congressmen, but one ‘soft’, the other ‘hard’, one a believer in harder secularism and the other not shy of his Hindu identity. It is a great irony that while they occupy opposite ideological poles, the BJP leadership still draws inspiration, even personal comparisons with Congress leaders of the past. Advani’s spin-doctors tried to paint him as the new Sardar Patel and that is what led to a series of blunders.
Advani erred not merely in letting them take over his politics but his life in general. Some of the same lot would hang around him even when he was in government,merrily dropping his name to feather their own nests,rent-seeking or power-broking. They would call businessmen,party leaders (particularly chief ministers with patronage to dole out) and even senior journalists from his office and home phone numbers and preface the conversation, usually, with “I am calling from Advaniji’s home” or “Advaniji was saying…” Many of the same people hung on to him because,even after the power was lost at the Centre,the party still controlled eight states. These low-level operators,using his name,made him no friends and lost him many. If Advani had chosen better company,he would not have gone against his grain on the nuclear deal,and then,because one bad judgement is usually followed by many more,joined hands with his most vicious ideological adversaries, the Left and the BSP, in trying to bring down the government. If Advani had not suspended his own formidable political instinct, he would have known this was a lose-lose game for him. If the government had fallen, Mayawati would have emerged the giant-killer and a likely prime minister in a rampaging Third Front led by the Left. If the government survived,he and the NDA would go to the polls as recent losers. But he went ahead, even allowing that totally stupid cash-for-votes operation, and is now paying for it. You have heard often of somebody snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This was a remarkable case of somebody snatching someone else’s defeat. What should have been the Left-Mayawati-Third Front defeat actually became Advani’s and BJP’s, mainly because they put so much capital behind that idiotic sting.
Mani Shanker Aiyar upbraided me in a TV discussion earlier this week for having said that I have not known Advani to either tell lies, or to have a weak,or convenient memory. How can anybody say that when Advani’s own colleagues are questioning both, he asked. Let me now venture to say one more thing. That deep down Advani is a sensitive and introspective man. And some day soon,when political stakes are lower,he will reflect on how and why did his script go wrong,and give us honest answers. Probably in the next edition of his autobiography.
This article was originally published on 30 August, 2009.