Lal Krishna Advani’s name being dropped from the list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls from Gujarat is hardly the way anyone would like to see the wrapping up of his illustrious decades-old association with electoral politics.
But at 91, Advani did not choose it to be any other way. In a battle of nerves between him and the party, spread over the last few months, he refused to make it easier for those who wanted him to bow out with grace and make way for other leaders.
The unsaid strategy by his well-wishers was seen as pressurising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team to bear the brunt of the charge of “insulting elders” if they sought to deny him the ticket.
Unlike other seniors who publicly announced their exit, Advani wanted the BJP to make its first move — by dropping him from the list. Modi’s establishment led by Amit Shah did just that after interlocutors, perhaps, could not persuade Advani to express his own departure and enable a face-saver to soothe ruffled feathers.
At the end, it does seem like a bitter sign-off for Advani, which began with Modi replacing him in the top slot in 2013, followed by his winning a handsome mandate ever won by any party in the last three decades.
A big question that haunts the BJP’s rank and file is why did Advani refuse to read the writing on the wall — in 2013-14 and now? Was he still hoping that Modi would be forced to nominate him? Could he not have chosen a smoother route rather than allow himself to be dragged into mind games by announcing his own retirement?
Advani’s problems with the BJP seem like a saga of self-creation when he could have bowed out like a maestro.
As a strong opponent to dynastic politics for several years, Advani was not in a position to tell the BJP that he would like his daughter Pratibha or his son Jayant to be considered for a constituency he has represented six times — first in 1991 and then five times since 1998 consecutively. Second, after having resisted Modi’s ascent in 2013-14, Advani could not endear himself back to the rank and file.
His sorrow at having missed the bus was largely writ on his face. The contrast was stark — compared to an always smiling Advani everyone had got used to ever since he declared Atal Bihari Vajpayee as PM candidate in 1995. This was despite Advani enjoying a matching popularity rating with Vajpayee in the wake of the Ram Mandir agitation he had charioted around the country.
Advani’s best moments were in 2009. The BJP and the RSS chose to return the debt they owned to Advani by declaring him the PM candidate for the Lok Sabha polls against Congress’s Manmohan Singh. They put behind the convulsion that the party and its ideological family underwent in the wake of the “Jinnah controversy”.
Advani had virtually set a cat among the BJP hawks when he described Pakistan’s architect Quaid-e-Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” during a visit to his mausoleum in Karachi in June 2005. His refusal to clarify or amend his observation upon his return to India had added more fuel to the row, resulting in the RSS urging him to make way for a younger line of leadership.
But this episode was buried by the BJP and the RSS for the 2009 polls. It is another story that Advani’s campaign failed to work wonders for the BJP. Dr Manmohan Singh was back in his chair to complete his second term as PM.
Advani felt terribly disappointed but reserved his energies for the next battle that was due in 2014. However, Modi’s rise in the run-up to 2014 poured cold water over Advani’s plans, leaving him shattered.
Cut to 2019, Advani could not have expected a re-nomination to the Lok Sabha from a constituency that the BJP took care of all along for him. It had to energise the party’s machinery after a not-so-great win in the Gujarat assembly polls in 2017.
BJP chief Amit Shah decided to contest in Advani’s place from Gandhinagar, thereby underscoring the party’s own concern in Gujarat. The BJP needed to work at a full-throttle campaign if it hoped to win a maximum number of the 26 Lok Sabha seats. Shah, being an old hand as manager of the Gandhinagar seat for Advani, was best suited for the game.
We are also privy to a narrative that goes to say that Advani had not actually objected to the BJP choosing a younger leader in his place and may have finally conveyed to the party that he will stay out of the Lok Sabha elections. He was supposed to have been sounded out by BJP general secretary (organisation) Ram Lal who met them to convey what the party felt.
But silence on Advani's part and a clarification by his long-term aide a day before the BJP announced its list did not help matters.
At one time, it was said Modi and Shah did not want to upset the senior leaders if they are keen on contesting polls. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Advani, MM Joshi and former Himachal Pradesh CM Shanta Kumar, aged 84, were requested not to contest. They were offered Rajya Sabha seats but all the three leaders had then opted to contest.
No doubt, Advani, Joshi and Kumar had toiled hard for most of their life in building up the BJP all over the country. It was under Advani’s leadership that the BJP organisation spread far and wide across the length and breadth of the country. It was during his tenure as party chief that leaders such as Modi, Pramod Mahajan, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Sushma Swaraj rose on the political horizon.
But then, times do change. If the party wants to field new faces and wants to give its old stalwarts a rest from the hustle and bustle of electoral politics, a way has to be found.
Any vibrant and dynamic party, in order to sustain itself, needs fresh infusion of young politicians and the time has now come to bid farewell to the older generation, as many BJP leaders have felt.
Of course, there is still a strong possibility that Advani can be accommodated in the Rajya Sabha so that his association with Parliament and Lutyens Delhi is not severed before his time. Amit Shah’s tenure in the Rajya Sabha, which began in August 2017 runs till August 2023. If he wins the Lok Sabha polls from Gandhinagar, he would have to give up the Rajya Sabha seat. Advani can be easily accommodated in the vacancy that would arise. That is, if Modi wants.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)