Advani played a key role in building India's ruling BJP from the ashes but eventually he could not withstand his protege Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cut-throat ambitions, fading slowly into the sidelines of Indian politics.
Lal Krishna Advani, 91, one of the founding fathers of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would have perhaps sensed he was being pushed into political oblivion and irrelevance long ago. When on March 21 the BJP announced its first list of candidates for the general election that begins next month -- to elect the country’s 17th Lok Sabha or Lower House of Parliament -- and dropped Advani’s name, he chose not to react.
Party president Amit Shah, who rose to prominence as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sidekick, said he will instead contest his first national election from Gandhinagar in Gujarat, the place Advani -- who served three terms as the BJP president -- has represented six times in Parliament since 1991. Shah is already a member of the Upper House of Parliament, elections to which are based on winning the votes of legislators and not the citizens directly.
Within a month of Modi taking charge as India’s prime minister in May 2014, Shah became party president. In August that year, he announced that Advani, former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi -- the three founding fathers of the party in 1980 -- would now be part of a newly formed advisory council of elders called the Margdarshak Mandal, effectively announcing their retirement from running the affairs of the party. It has been nearly five years since the council was formed but it has not met even once.
While Vajpayee opted out of the electoral race in 2009 due to failing health and eventually died on August 16, 2018, both Advani and Joshi, who had been elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014, continued to attend Parliament. Now, both have been dropped from the party’s list of candidates. While Advani has remained incommunicado since the announcement, Joshi chose to make the party’s decision public by writing a letter to the voters of his constituency (Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh) saying the party had told him he could no longer contest.
“A generational change happens everywhere, the lack of finesse in doing so is what is striking,” said Sudha Pai, political analyst and author. “It looks as if he [Advani] wasn’t even consulted,” the former political science teacher at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University added. The BJP itself has chosen to remain silent on the issue. Party spokesperson Anil Baluni declined to comment when asked about what would now be Advani’s fate in the BJP.
Analysts said the move marks both a generational and functional shift in the way the BJP is now run. While the Advani-Vajpayee era saw a BJP that was known for its leaders’ dignified conduct in public life, Advani is actually the original architect and engineer of the right-wing party’s polarising project that propelled its rise to an absolute majority in the general election of 2014, in which the BJP won 282 of the total 543 seats.
It was under his first term as party president from 1986 to 1991 that the BJP rose from two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to 85 in 1989, after it took a calculated turn towards Hindutva, or militant Hinduism. In that period as other political parties worked on caste identities to wean voters away from the Congress, Advani chose to work on championing a politics based on appealing to the Hindu identity. On September 20 1990, he embarked upon a rath yatra or ‘journey on a chariot’ from the Somnath temple in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh (the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram) to demand a temple for the revered deity at a place where a mosque named after India’s first Mughal emperor Babur stood until December 6 1992.
To this day, Advani and Joshi are facing trial in the conspiracy case for the demolition, given effect to in a matter of hours, by a marauding mob of slogan shouting, armed men. The demolition triggered a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots in parts of the country and tensions continued to simmer several months later.
“Advani’s historic role in building the BJP into what it is today is undeniable. Of course the rath yatra [chariot march] led to many deaths and killings along the route,” said Balveer Arora, Professor Emeritus, JNU.
Years later, when Vajpayee was prime minister and wanted the party to take action against Modi for the failure of his Gujarat state government to stop communal riots in 2002, it was Advani who backed Modi’s continuation as the state chief minister at the party’s national executive meeting in Goa.
As Advani’s protege, Modi remained chief minister until 2014, before becoming prime minister. He eventually overshadowed his mentor as the party’s top choice as the prime ministerial candidate in the last election.
Having been the deputy prime minister under Vajpayee, Advani got a shot at the top job in 2009. But the party finished with 116 seats under his leadership, while the Congress came back to power with a tally of 206.
It was at this point of existential crisis for the BJP that Modi began preparing for a bigger role and positioned himself as the man who could lead the party to a victory in the next general election. As Advani resisted Modi’s attempts to get himself anointed, the man who would lead the BJP in the next election, his soaring ambition pitted him as the ageing patriarch who refused to bow out gracefully and make way for the next generation.
In June 2013, as party leaders met in Goa to declare Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the following year’s election, Advani skipped the meeting in what many in the party believed was an attempt to stall the announcement by expressing his disapproval through absence. Of course, the official word from him was it happened due to an upset stomach.
It was the first national executive meeting ever of the BJP that Advani had missed. Many in the party had by then begun to talk about how Advani could not digest the success of his own protege. Of course, Modi went on to become the party’s campaign committee chief and ultimately the prime minister. Though he never seemed to have forgiven Advani for that attempt to impede his rise.