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Of Byzantine plots and saffron twists

Vidya Subrahmaniam

Mr. Advani did not disobey the RSS. He did worse. He captured the moral high ground. But it might be a futile fight begun too late in the day.

"FIFTY-FIFTY" was the reigning sound for much of the pulsating 48 hours that preceded the concluding session of the Bharatiya Janata Party's national executive meet in Chennai. For saffron supporters crowding the venue, the probability of Lal Krishna Advani surrendering to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was one half. For the smaller throng rooting for the BJP chief, the probability of him defying the RSS was one half. Neither knew Mr. Advani's mind, and both fidgeted nervously as the final moments of the party conclave drew near. A mutinous BJP chief spelt ruin — for the party and even more for the parivar, which would be pushed into precipitate action. On the other hand, a repentant and remorseful Mr. Advani meant the BJP's permanent enslavement by a victorious Jhandewalan.

In the event, Mr. Advani's devastating last word stumped both sides. He would "demit office" — but only by the year-end. And the Sangh would do well to know that it was a busybody that poked its nose in the BJP's internal affairs, forgetting that its mandate was in areas ethical and moral: "But lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organizational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS functionaries. This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the party or to the RSS. We feel that the RSS should continue to play its role to strengthen the ethical, moral and idealistic moorings of the workers as well as functionaries of the BJP ..."

What kind of a match was this where the vanquished knocked out the victor? The BJP chief seemed to tell the RSS: "If I have to go down, I will drag you with me." Which he has done. Mr. Advani's response and the machinations that went into getting him out have bared the ugliness of the power struggle in party and parivar. Today the saffron family has the look of a cloak and dagger outfit where ambition rules and enemies are brought down by Byzantine plots. The Sangh had worried that the BJP chief would flout its fiat. If Mr. Advani stuck to his guns, it would be the first time the RSS was disgraced by its own offspring, and there was no guessing the damage from this showdown to its authority and credibility, not to mention the effect of all this on the political clout the Sangh derived from the BJP.

Mr. Advani did not disobey the RSS. He did worse. He wrenched the moral high ground from Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan and exposed the ordinariness of his lofty organisation. Tragically for him, it might be a futile fight begun too late in the day. In the past, the Sangh had dealt with other malcontents, the minor league Mauli Chandra Sharmas and the Balraj Madhoks whom it crushed under its feet. Mr. Advani was something else. Born of the Sangh and raised in its ideological cradle, he had spent 60 years imbibing and preaching the goodness of Hindutva. Now he wanted things anew — a softer image, a less strident ideology, and a Sangh willing to abandon its meddlesome role.

The Sangh wanted Mr. Advani gone without a noise. That way Mr. Sudarshan and company would not need to soil their hands. And a BJP minus a squashed Mr. Advani would know never to walk in the rebel leader's footsteps. Yet there was not the slightest hint from Mr. Advani that he would do the needful. Far from it. He appeared to delight in tormenting his once idolised spiritual guru. The ghost of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was back at the national executive. Tucked into the kit made available to the delegates was the Jinnah speech that had driven the RSS up the wall. In his presidential address, the BJP chief journeyed back to Pakistan, this time with the call not to be "apologetic" about befriending it. Mr. Advani also recast the BJP-RSS relationship, preferring to call it "symbiotic," meaning equal and mutually beneficial. In the past, the link was always "umbilical" connoting a child-mother relationship.

The Sangh knew that if it followed Mr. Advani's script, it would be signing its death warrant. A moderate BJP without the Sangh's controlling hand was its worst nightmare: True the RSS' tumultuous history was dotted with compromises geared towards power but this pragmatism was to further its goal of a Hindu India, not to give itself a quiet burial so the BJP could be happily wayward. Thus was born the national executive offensive aimed at wearing Mr. Advani down — party resolutions, stock-taking, and such became secondary as rumours, threats, and entreaties took over, lending a Machiavellian touch to anything that was said or done. Backroom scuttlebutt masqueraded as news on television. Bangaru Laxman's hesitant morning remarks about a flexible leadership and transition to a younger generation became full-fledged revolt in competing headlines. Speculation about 11 delegates signing a memorandum against the BJP chief gathered ominous weight, though neither name nor text was verifiable. The plot grew thicker with the arrival in town of Advani-baiter Murli Manohar Joshi in the company of the Sarsanghachalak. Surely, Mr. Sudarshan meant to keep an eye on Mr. Advani's moves?

The excitement around Mr. Advani's exit plan was genuine. But on television, the "will he or will he not" question became a platform to mount pressure — and counter-pressure. Sangh-friendly journalists gave sound-bytes to the effect that Mr. Advani cared too much about his image to want to be seen as clinging to his chair. A clever and clear message: if the BJP chief did not step down, he would be called power-hungry.

The Advani group was unable to counter this strategy. For the simple reason that to say Mr. Advani was fighting for principles would be to point a finger at the RSS. So, they did what they could. Post-Jinnah, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been a valuable ally to Mr. Advani. He supported the BJP chief on his Jinnah appreciation and twice staved off the threat to his position. If the former Prime Minister could be shown as yet again casting his lot with Mr. Advani, the RSS would find the going tough. A fatigued Mr. Vajpayee exiting from the meeting found mega-phones thrust at him. Would Mr. Advani keep both his posts — that of party chief and Leader of the Opposition? A long pause later, the question popped up again. Besieged, Mr. Vajpayee muttered, "why not?" Enough for the channels to run the scoop: "Advani to hold both posts, says Vajpayee."

Perhaps all this was unnecessary and Mr. Advani had made up his mind to quit. But there was no way of knowing, and Mr. Advani only added to the suspense with his enigmatic smile when journalists hounded him for a hint of what was coming. The Sangh could take no further chance and a stern warning reached the BJP chief: if he did not do as asked, the RSS would withdraw all its pracharaks from the BJP and, at its upcoming meeting in Chitrakoot, consider going its separate way.

The Sudarshan Chakra worked. Forget the Sangh's anxiety about a chorus of support for the BJP chief (that would have constituted a mandate for him), not one delegate protested when Mr. Advani announced the timetable for his exit. Not "Atalji" — his "friend of 50 years." Not members of Mr. Advani's so-called inner circle. Not even those who wanted him not to go public with his exit decision for purely practical reasons: Like the Bihar delegation, which feared for the prospects of the BJP in the impending Assembly election. The man who took on the RSS after spending a lifetime at its service was all alone.

Perhaps Mr. Advani will ask himself why he could not muster support when he most needed it. In his concluding speech, the outgoing party president spoke of the BJP as an ideology-driven party, which nonetheless needed to reach those outside this ideology. Yet, having commenced this mission with the Jinnah project, Mr. Advani has since shown no hurry to take it further. Narendra Modi continues to be a favourite who must be shielded from the scourge of dissidence. Nor has Mr. Advani exerted himself sufficiently to take the party along. Moderation is not a speech delivered at a seminar or a presidential address made at a party meet. It is a change in mindset requiring years of persuasion and convincing.

The story might have been different had Mr. Advani started early and won the confidence of at least a section of the party. Today the BJP is a picture of dissonance. The rift at the top is visible for all to see. Indeed, the great Atal-Advani friendship is only in theory. The second rung is directionless, idea-less, mutually bickering, and suspicious. The RSS has been shamed, of course, but that is unlikely to deter it from taking the BJP — which is ripe for the plucking.

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