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Sunday, 16 October 2011

L K Advani's 12,000-km journey to nowhere?

When an 84-year-old politician goes on a gruelling 38-day, 12,000-km yatra against corruption, cashing in on the Anna Hazare movement, unfulfilled ambition is clearly the great motivator. But general elections are still nearly three years away. Will the BJP put up Advani, who will then be 87, against Rahul Gandhi, asks Mukesh Ranjan

Lal Krishna Advani is once again on a political yatra. It’s the veteran leader’s sixth, and perhaps his last, ‘Rath Yatra’. Which is why, the Jan Chetna Yatra is being seen, with some discomfort even within the Sangh Parivar, as the saffron stalwart's final shot at becoming prime minister.

By the time Mr. Advani is done criss-crossing the nation, he must be hoping he will have acquired a new image, one that could make him acceptable to the BJP’s current allies in the NDA and some potential new ones as their prime ministerial candidate.

This is not the first time Mr. Advani is seeking an image makeover. In 1990, he set out on his first Yatra, the ‘Ram Rath Yatra’, symbolically starting off from Somnath, Gujarat, on Sept 25, 1990.

By the time he reached Ayodhya on October 30, he had transformed into the political face of Hindutva, the hawk that he came to be regarded as for many years after that. He, and the BJP, reaped rich benefits from being the right-wing hawk. The BJP rose to power in 1998-99 and Mr. Advani himself became deputy prime minister. But that’s as far as he could go. The top job has eluded him, but not for lack of trying.

Indeed, every Rath Yatra, every political initiative he has undertaken since then – including travelling to Pakistan and praising Jinnah as a secular leader – has been aimed at undoing the damage of the image he acquired in 1990.

Yet, not one of them has left the kind of lasting impression that the first Ram Rath Yatra did. Will this, perhaps his last political yatra, do it for him? Will Advani, who turns 84 on November 8, be the man the BJP/NDA/Sangh Parivar will choose to put up against, potentially, Rahul Gandhi?

Mr. Advani himself has done well to choose ‘emotionally neutral’ issues – corruption and good governance -- for his nation-wide campaign. He may well succeed in causing Congress, already reeling under the impact of a series of highly publicized and embarrassing scams of gargantuan proportions, some discomfort.

He may have even succeeded in herding his party’s top guns – from Uma Bharti and Kalraj Mishra to Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley -together on his platform, even if it is a modus vivendi that may not last.

But if it is the prime ministerial bid that he is interested in, Mr. Advani is unlikely to be able to carry it too far. If reports emanating from inside the RSS headquarters in Nagpur are to be believed, Sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat has already poured cold water on the idea. Indeed, Mr. Bhagwat is said to have clearly told Mr. Advani that the RSS would support his yatra only on the condition that he withdraws from the race to become PM.

Which may be why Mr. Advani has repeatedly said since his meeting with the RSS head that he is not after the PM’s post. “My party and people have given me more than the PM’s post”. Still, he has not ruled himself out yet. As he said during a TV interview only last week, he did not see the need to announce that he was not a contender, adding on Saturday that if his health permits, he would take a shy at the top job.

Indeed, as news of the rift between Mr. Advani and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi spread, those opposed to Mr. Modi, such as the recently rehabilitated Uma Bharti and Sanjay Joshi have gone public that Mr. Advani is the “natural” choice for PM candidate. Mr. Advani himself didn’t let the issue fade away when he said that the party was still undecided and would “decide at a later date”.

Clearly, Mr. Advani is not giving up yet. Keenly aware that it is not just the RSS, but even his own juniors in the party, each a PM-hopeful himself or herself, who are not sanguine about his bid, Mr. Advani, even as he struggles to maintain ambiguity and keep options open, is strategising. Usually, a leader would expect to be endorsed by his own party to lead a coalition and then, on the strength of that, seek allies’ acceptance.

Given Mr. Advani’s position, however, he has to turn that on its head. He seems to have planned the yatra in such a way as to woo the allies, especially the socialist-leaning leaders in the NDA fold, to accept his bid, and then force his own party to fall in line.

This may well be the reason why he has allowed the yatra to symbolically tilt towards socialist leaders, choosing to start from Jai Prakash Narayan’s birthplace Sitabdiara in Bihar, flagged off not by the BJP’s new Hindutva poster-boy and Advani’s own protégé, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, but by the ‘secular’ Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Interestingly, all along the yatra route upto Varanasi, there were not even the usual posters of either Jan Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee or Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, although Advani did make a passing reference to the latter.

Instead, Advani spoke glowingly about the socialist ideologue and leader Ram Manohar Lohia.
Be that as it may, is the yatra itself lending Mr. Advani any help? Or, as this newspaper’s cartoonist asked, “how much political mileage is Mr. Advani getting per litre (of diesel)?”

Mr Advani’s arduous 38-day, 12,000-km nation-wide yatra has already passed through Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Orissa. There’s no doubt people are lining up to listen to the veteran leader. After all, thanks to the series of scams of the UPA government and the Anna Hazare movement, corruption and good governance is on everyone’s mind.

The question, though, is: Will people believe that the BJP is any better on these issues than Congress? Will they believe that Mr. Advani today has the credibility, given that several of the BJP’s own chief ministers and central leaders are either being investigated or tried on corruption charges or are generally perceived to be corrupt, and the energy to put a stop to corruption as he is promising to do?

Political analysts say that for the common man, it has become hard to distinguish between Congress and BJP on the corruption issue. Many doubt that Mr. Advani will be able to galvanise opinion in his favour, or his party’s, through the Jan Chetna Yatra. As one analyst put it, “the track record of BJP in states that it rules is no different from that of Congress.”

No doubt Congress is in deep trouble over the series of corruption scams and its political stock is at its lowest. But this, analysts say, has nothing to do with the impact of Mr. Advani’s yatra. Rather, it is the apolitical Anna Hazare and his associates who have made things difficult for Congress, and could make it worse.

Congress sources themselves say as much, admitting that their party is scam-hit, but that despite that, “we can counter any offensive by political parties, including the BJP. What we can’t counter is civil society”.

The fear of civil society is very real. “It is unethical on the part of civil society (the Anna Hazare team) to single out Congress on the issue of corruption because, in a way, it helps the BJP. In effect, they are supporting the BJP’s narrative on corruption,” a Congress leader said on condition of anonymity. “But people will soon realise the design and Anna Hazare and his team will be exposed,” he said.

But what about Congress’s other troubles. Its allies, such as the DMK and Mamata Banerjee, are displeased with it; it is split in Andhra Pradesh over the Telengana issue; it’s a divided house in Karnataka; and Uttar Pradesh may or may not go its way. Wouldn’t Mr. Advani be able to put Congress on the mat over all these issues, too?

“But these are part of political processes. Time will heal them all.

Differences and dissensions within the party and in the alliance (UPA) do exist. Such things happen, but we can turn them into opportunity. You see, we have the advantage of leadership. The issue of leadership is a settled matter in our party,” a senior Congress leader says.

He may have hit the nail on the head. It’s the leadership, stupid! And Mr. Advani’s yatra holds no promise of resolving it for the BJP.


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