Senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani turned 80 last Thursday. The entire top brass of the party visited the Advani household to greet him on his birthday. In the wake of Vajpayee’s continued illness, and his unlikely availability for an active role in politics, it is now the turn of Advani to be in the spotlight.
Advani almost single-handedly scripted the BJP’s success and powered it from the margins of politics—the BJP won just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls—into a national ruling party in 1998 and helped transform it from a political pariah into the leading party of the first-ever, stable pan-Indian coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998.
Advani’s rath yatra in 1990 and the social engineering strategy in Uttar Pradesh catapulted the BJP from being perceived as an upper caste, north Indian party into one with an expanded social base that took upwardly-mobile, politically-aspiring and numerically-strong OBCs (other backward castes) into its fold.
Advani’s leadership skills and Vajpayee’s wider appeal blended well to provide the BJP a huge leadership advantage, which no other party enjoyed throughout the 1990s. Vajpayee-Advani’s is a rare leadership duo that has lasted several decades and stood the test of time.
Vajpayee’s flailing health and the debilitating state of the party organization have raised doubts about the future of the BJP which has been besieged by internal troubles, ever since its shocking defeat in 2004 parliamentary polls. The Congress party’s enthusiasm and the rush for early elections at the Centre is largely on account of its assessment of the poor state of affairs and the leadership vacuum that continues to haunt the BJP.
In a number of states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to name just a few, the party is a deeply divided house—a situation aggravated by lack of central authority. For the same reason, governance also has become a huge casualty in BJP-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
With the next parliamentary polls just over a year away, the BJP needs a strong and focused leader to put its house in order. Can it hope to ride to power with Advani as its prime ministerial candidate in the next Lok Sabha polls, whenever they are held—on schedule or earlier?
Advani is, indeed, the best for the BJP as no other leader in the BJP can match his profile, intellect, wisdom, perceptivity and organizational acumen. His clarity of thought and sharp and incisive analysis marks him out as an outstanding parliamentarian and an effective politician. And, surely, none has the capacity and tenacity to lead the BJP into a national election.
Advani has also maintained high standards in public life. In the wake of hawala “Jain diary” allegations in 1996, he instantly resigned from membership of Parliament and vowed not to enter the precincts of Parliament until the bribery charges against him were disproved.
With his suitability and competence beyond any shade of doubt, the question is whether his age will come in the way of his ambition, especially at a time when the Congress has anointed the much younger Rahul Gandhi as its future leader. The answer, in my assessment, is a clear no.
Advani at 80 is as—if not more—healthy, agile and active as many younger, second generation political leaders. Further, we as a nation value experience and the wisdom that is usually associated with age.
So, if Rahul Gandhi were to be pitted against Advani in the primeministerial sweepstakes, my strong sense is that Rahul Gandhi, despite his dynastic legacy and lineage, will come a cropper for he lacks the necessary experience and wisdom.
Advani will shine even if he is pitted against Manmohan Singh, as he is perceived to be a strong leader, while Singh is considered to be unquestionably weak.
However, it is not age that will come in the way of Advani’s chances, but his and his party’s image. Advani and the BJP are strongly associated with the party’s favourite themes of national security, terrorism and “pseudo-secularism”. These issues have a limited voter appeal and in specific contexts.
Advani, and by extension, the BJP have to adopt a “Hindutva-plus” strategy highlighting people’s issues and their bread and butter concerns to reach out to wider audiences. Advani’s recent espousal of the cause of paddy and sugarcane growers is perhaps indicative of this realization and a step in the right direction.
Advani’s projection as the BJP’s primeministerial candidate—it would seem that this decision has been settled in his favour—is sure to energize the party and unnerve the ruling coalition at the Centre. The sooner the party makes a formal announcement to this effect, the greater will be its advantage.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org