Now that the 40-day Rath Yatra of BJP veteran LK Advani has entered the second-leg, political analysts are wondering what its ultimate impact is going to be. Is Advani going to emerge as the undisputed leader of the BJP? And more important, is he going to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, or for that matter, of the NDA, whenever general elections are held? Though Advani has projected that his yatra has nothing to do with politics and that it is only aimed at making Indians aware of the menace of corruption, the reality is that it is a “power yatra”. If you just listen to his remarks and speeches during the yatra so far, the message is very clear that the Manmohan Singh government is utterly incapable of curbing the rampant corruption afflicting the country. In fact, Advani has alleged that the central government and the Congress leadership have been aiding and abetting corruption. Thus, the point that he has underscored is that the country needs a change of power.
Now the question is that if the country needs a new government, and Advani will surely like it to be a BJP-led NDA government, who is going to be the Prime Minister? Is Advani himself in the race? This question is all the more important because none other than Advani has kept this question alive. Ever since he announced his yatra, this question has cropped up too frequently. And not even once in the last one month has Advani given a straight answer. He has not said that “I am not the prime ministerial candidate”. After meeting the senior RSS leaders at Nagpur, he told the press, when asked about his prime ministerial ambition, something like this—that “the party and RSS have given me more than I expected”. But that was not exactly an outright rejection of the idea of being the Prime Minister. In fact, while traversing through Chhattisgarh, he further mystified the speculation by saying that he would respect the sentiments of his party if it gave him responsibilities, provided “my health permits”. And then on his 85th birthday celebrations in Delhi, when former BJP President Rajnath Singh touched on the topic by suggesting that Advani was the BJP’s natural choice for prime-ministership, the veteran leader did not reject the contention. Instead, the press reports suggested that he appeared very emotional.
Add to all this, Advani’s careful and systematic cultivation of relationship with Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu by showering praise on them during his yatra. While in Odisha, he literally alienated the entire BJP leadership in the state by refusing to utter a single critical remark against Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. It does not require any genius to infer that these three Chief Ministers’ support is crucial to the formation of any non-Congress government in Delhi. If all this is not garnering support for occupying India’s most powerful political office, then what else is?
Against this background, it is pertinent to assess Advani as a leader and as a prime ministerial candidate. On his “plus” side, I can think of the following. First, he is the tallest leader in the BJP now that Atal Behari Vajpayee is no longer in active politics. Even when Vajpayee was active, it was Advani, who as the organisational man, had architected the BJP. The BJP may have many talented and promising leaders, but it is still Advani, who, with the possible exception of Murli Manohar Joshi, is the best-read person. Advani arguably is the most eloquent BJP leader who could articulate on a wide range of issues and present a broad or macro vision of what India should be from BJP’s point of view. He may be old, but that does not mean that he cannot lead essentially a “young” India (those between 15 and 40 constitute India’s majority population today), given the fact that the so-called next-generation leaders, including the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, have entered Indian Parliament but have not exactly proved themselves competent to take up the reins of governance. I for one do not believe that age has got anything to do with politics. Some of the world’s most effective leaders have been septuagenarians and octogenarians, a la, Winston Churchill, Deng Hsiao-Ping, Ronald Regan and Lee Kuan Yew. In any case, though the present Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is touching 80, nobody is pointing out his old age to be a handicap.
This does not mean that as a prime ministerial candidate Advani does not have “minuses”. There are quite a few. One, his record in office as India’s Home Minister during the NDA regime was not inspiring. Critics do have a point when they say that Advani’s was a lackluster performance. Six years in office that he was, he did not come out with a vision or plan on internal security. He did not come out with his promised white paper on terrorism. He could not solve the ticklish issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. He could not bring about the much-needed Police reforms. He did not show any spectacular talent in tackling the secessionist tendencies in Kashmir and the North-East. Like present Home Minister P Chidambaram, he was equally confused on how to deal with the Maoist menace. Though he claimed to follow in the footsteps of one of his illustrious predecessors, “Iron Man” Sardar Patel, he showed that his feet were of clay while dealing with the IC 814 hijacking at Kandahar.
Secondly, despite his notable contribution to building up the BJP as a party of national consequence, Advani, of late, has not played the role of an integrator by taking everybody along. His decision to undertake the ongoing yatra was by no means the decision of the BJP as a party; it was his individual decision which took the party by a great surprise. In fact, the BJP was forced to support him in more senses than one. Besides, he is being increasingly seen to be a partisan, evident from the manner he has dealt with the situations involving former Karnataka Chief Minister Yeddyurappa and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Many in BJP consider his hatred for Yeddyurappa astonishing, particularly after the way he has promoted Yeddyurappa’s principal rival Anant Kumar, who, incidentally, if public perception goes, was one of the most dubious ministers in the Vajpayee regime. All told, Yeddyurappa was a competent Chief Minister. Many in Karnataka believe that compared to other chief ministers in the state, he was “least corrupt”. After all, while giving him the bail last week, the Karnataka High Court made an interesting point that all the allegations against him did not necessarily mean that he committed any crime—Yeddyurappa’s notifications and denotifications of lands were within his “discretionary power” as the Chief Minister, a power which every Chief Minister elsewhere has. One does not know what Advani thinks of the rapid urbanisation in NOIDA and Gurgaon in the vicinity of Delhi, made possible by the same discretionary power that various chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have exercised umpteen times.
Thirdly, by joining the prime ministerial race, Advani is not exactly providing any alternative to the Congress, which, unlike the BJP, is dearth of talented leaders. In fact, Advani will be belittling the BJP’s years of efforts of grooming the likes of Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Yashwant Sinha and Nitin Gadkari, each of whom is talented and competent to lead India. Interestingly, many of them have been groomed by none other than Advani himself.
Given these pluses and minuses, where do I stand? In my humble submission, Advani has reached a stage in his political life that has outgrown the office of Prime Minister. He can always command respect and exercise power, in fact more power than that of a Prime Minister, by remaining the “Senior Leader” of the BJP, and hence, of the NDA. Like Deng Hsiao-Ping in China (while he was alive) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan (who, incidentally, observed his 89th birthday last week), Advani can “set the goal” and “motivate” his party and the government. And as the world knows, Deng and Lee (who quit the prime ministership years ago) have been their respective countries’ most powerful political leaders.
After all, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘leader’ as ‘the person who leads or commands a group, organisation, or country’. ‘To lead’ means to ‘cause to go with one by drawing people along; show (someone) the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them’. In other words, goal-setting and motivation both figure prominently as essential attributes of the notion of great leadership. Advani can always play that role.
By Prakash Nanda