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New Delhi: Nothing about Lal Krishna Advani suggests rashness. His walk, his talk, his demeanour—there is a considered air about all of these. Yet, on Monday, Advani, 85, one of India’s tallest leaders to have never held the top job—there are a few of those—surprised everyone by quitting all posts in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), signalling his displeasure with, and reluctance to go along with, the anointment of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as the party’s face in the run-up to the next general election in 2014.

The move has put his party in a spot, although it is unlikely that the mandarins who chose Modi to steer the party’s campaign in the next general election despite being aware of Advani’s feelings about him didn’t think of the eventuality that the grand old man of the BJP would do something like this.

Still, by resigning from all party posts, Advani risks an unceremonious end to his political career. Ever the bridesmaid, he has waited for his turn to be prime minister, and may have fancied his chances in recent times as the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has stumbled from one controversy to another. But Modi’s rapid ascent has all but put paid to those chances—despite Advani’s status as patriarch of the party to which he has contributed so much.

With his resignation, it seems Advani has conceded that the journey he embarked on over 70 years ago, when he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, may be coming to an end.

Early days

Advani was born in Karachi on 8 November 1927. According to the lengthy and flamboyant autobiography on his personal website, he grew up in a spacious single-storeyed bungalow called “Lal cottage" with his parents Kishinchand Advani and Gyani Devi, and a younger sister, Sheela. The Advani family belonged to the Amil branch of Sindhi Hindus. “We had a horse-driven Victoria (carriage) at home," he writes. “To outsiders, it may have seemed a status symbol; to me, it was a source of curiosity during my early childhood."

After attending a Catholic school, St Patrick’s High School for Boys, where he claimed to have been a top student as well as a Latin scholar, he joined the Dayaram Gidumal National College in Hyderabad, Sindh, in 1942, amid the turbulence of the Quit India Movement.

A disciplinarian and vegetarian, Advani joined the RSS in the 1940s, at the age of 14. He describes his first visit to a shakha (RSS gathering) conducted on the terrace of a large bungalow: “I knew little about the goings-on in the world, beyond the walls of my home and school. My introduction to the momentous political developments taking place in India and the world, at that time, was only after I started attending the RSS shakha."

At 17, he took his first job at Model High School in Karachi teaching Class 5 and 6 students.

After partition, Advani worked for 10 years as an RSS pracharak in Rajasthan, starting in Alwar, and later around Kota Bhundi and Jhalawar. “I was never deterred by hardships on account of food, money, travel or the harsh climate of Rajasthan," Advani writes. “However—and this may surprise readers—I was scared of one thing: tapeworm."

Advani moved to Delhi in 1957 to join the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—he would eventually become its president in 1972. At the beginning, he writes, he lived with his long-time colleague Atal Bihari Vajpayee at 30, Rajendra Prasad Marg, a house he shared with “a fellow Jana Sangh MP (member of Parliament), Premjibhai Ashar from Chiplun in Maharashtra."

“Atalji was also a good cook," Advani writes, “and, every once in a while, he used to treat us to his delicious preparations."

In 1960, Advani moved to journalism, joining the RSS journal Organiser as an assistant editor. The editor, K.R. Malkani, was a prominent member of the RSS in Sindh prior to the India-Pakistan partition. Advani claims that his salary from Organiser was relatively low— 350 per month— however, it still “necessitated a change in my sartorial appearance" from a dhoti and kurta to a western suit. Among his duties at Organiser, according to Advani, he wrote “a regular cinema column under the pen name ‘Netra’". He retains his love for movies and even now arranges special screenings of new releases at his residence.

“Advani was editing Organiser when I took over. His editing skills are outstanding," said Seshadari Chari, a senior RSS leader and former editor of Organiser. He said Advani was a dedicated acolyte of the RSS. “He never went against the wishes and dictates of the Sangh."

It was during this period that Advani got married, in February 1965, to Kamla. The couple had a son and a daughter—Jayant and Pratibha.

In 1967, after Delhi was reclassified as a Union Territory rather than a state, the Jana Sangh nominated Advani to the newly created Delhi Municipal Council, and he became the leader of the opposition in it. After Vajpayee took the helm at the Jana Sangh in 1968, Advani was fielded as a Rajya Sabha candidate in 1970.

In 1972, according to his autobiography, Advani took over from Vajpayee as president of the Jana Sangh—though he goes to great pains in his autobiography to insist that he tried to get out of the job. “I was a most reluctant party president," he insists.

Whatever Advani’s attitude to taking control of the party then, he soon became more comfortable with the idea of taking on leadership roles.

Political shifts

On 25 June 1975, the day the state of emergency was imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Advani began what he describes as “a two-year-long ‘exile’" from Delhi. Having been sent to a conference in Bangalore, he says, he was arrested along with Vajpayee and taken to Bangalore jail, where he shared a room with “Atalji". Prison wasn’t all bad, he writes. “One of the rare boons of my life in Bangalore jail was solitude, and the means to put it to good use. Apart from a well-stocked library and a quiet reading room, the jail premises had a badminton court and table tennis hall, where I played regularly."

The following year the formation of the Janata Party was announced, with members drawn from four constituent parties—Jana Sangh, Congress (O), the Socialist Party and the Lok Dal. There was very little time left to prepare for the Lok Sabha election, which had been scheduled for 16 March," writes Advani. “The Janata Party faced many daunting difficulties right from the onset of the poll campaign. Our flag and election symbol were new, and hence little known to the voters. In contrast, the people were quite familiar with the Congress party’s poll symbol of the charkha. Our party was starved of resources, whereas the Congress was flush with funds. The latter also had the entire government-controlled media at its disposal." Nevertheless, the newly formed Janata Party won the election with a majority, riding an anti-Emergency wave.

Advani joined the new government. as the minister of information and broadcasting, under Morarji Desai, along with two others from the Jana Sangh. Advani envisioned his new role as an opportunity to remove the restrictions on media and the censorship that had been imposed during the Emergency.

It wasn’t until 1986 that Advani was elected president of the BJP, created in 1980 (after internal differences in the Janata Party resulted in the collapse of its government in 1979) at the plenary session of its national council, held at Indraprastha Stadium in New Delhi.

Three years later, he was elected to the lower house as a Lok Sabha MP from New Delhi. The following year, Advani began his Rath Yatra, which cemented his reputation as a Hindu hardliner. The fervour fuelled by the yatra is said to have resulted in the desecration of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. Advani was named in one of the cases still being heard in a trial court.

By 1999, the BJP was back in power with an increased mandate of 182 seats, but it was the more liberal Vajpayee who was the party’s choice as prime minister. Vajpayee did try to soothe Advani’s sentiments by making him deputy prime minister.

Legacy

In 2005, a year after the BJP lost control of the government, and realizing that he had lost out on the top job due to his right-wing image, Advani set about effecting an image makeover. It was in this context that he made a landmark trip to Pakistan where he described the nation’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a “secular leader"—a political blunder that drew the wrath of the RSS and many in the BJP, eventually forcing Advani to quit as the party president, a position he held from 2004 to 2006. A few years later, he also lost his position as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha to one of his protegees, Sushma Swaraj.

N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has known Advani since 1970, said Advani’s downfall actually started in 2005, after he made the controversial remarks about Jinnah. “The Ram Mandir temple and Jinnah episode are the only two blots on his career," Rao said. “Otherwise he has been astute and highly disciplined leader throughout his political journey. He can also be defined as man of highest integrity, which is very rare these days."

For instance, in 1996, after the allegations of his involvement in the infamous Hawala scam, Advani resigned as an MP and was consequently re-elected in 1998 after his name had been cleared.

Meanwhile, the times, and the BJP’s preferences, seem to have changed.

It appears that Advani has been sidelined by a younger, more charismatic, more hardline, and controversial Narendra Modi. Although Advani had stayed Vajpayee’s hand when the former prime minister sought Modi’s head in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots, he doesn’t enjoy a good personal relationship with the Gujarat chief minister. It may be a question of his perceived seniority. “Advani by the virtue of his age and experience is senior to most of the leaders in the RSS," said Chari. “And to say that the RSS is giving the green signal to Modi as head of the election committee is nothing but (a) travesty of truth."

Of late, Advani has increasingly been a critic of his own party. In May, in his blog, he criticized the BJP leadership for not taking a tough stand against former Karnataka chief minister Y.S. Yeddyurappa, who was facing corruption charges.

Last year, Advani asked the party to walk a more secular path in order to increase its acceptability across the political spectrum and gain coalition partners.

In, politics, however, nothing is permanent. The big question is whether the BJP will succeed in placating the veteran, and rectifying the damage to its image caused by Monday’s events.

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