The three most influential politicians of the 1990s were Narasimha Rao, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and LK Advani. At a time when the last of the triumvirate prepares to fade into the political sunset, this may be a good moment to pause, rewind and look back at the life and times and legacy of these men who redefined politics at the turn of the century.
It would be fair to suggest that all three played their part in shaping the destiny of contemporary politics more by circumstance than conviction. If Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated in May 1991, one can safely assume Rao would have retired to Hyderabad as a footnote in the Congress, blotted by the memory of being the eternal procrastinator as home minister during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
VP Singh too, was just another remote-controlled Congress chief minister in the Indira-Sanjay years, till Bofors happened and transformed his persona into a tough anti-corruption crusader. And LK Advani too, was the quintessential party organisation man and would have remained so if the gates of the Babri Masjid had not been opened by the Rajiv government.
The three competing ideologies which they came to represent — market, Mandal and Mandir — were again accidentally constructed because of forces beyond them. The balance of payments crisis of 1991 left Rao with no choice but to open up the Indian economy. If VP Singh had not felt the pressure of being toppled from within the Janata Dal, he might not have pushed ahead with the implementation of the Mandal commission report.
And if the Rajiv government again had allowed a poor Muslim widow, Shahbano, her right to maintenance, it is likely that Mr Advani’s ‘minority appeasement’ politics that culminated in a rath yatra as a symbol of ‘Hindu resurgence’ might have never resonated.
The similarities don’t end there. None of the three were natural mass leaders. Rao had a very brief tenure as Andhra Pradesh chief minister and had to seek refuge in Maharashtra for a Lok Sabha ticket. VP Singh too, had limited influence in his home state of Uttar Pradesh and owed his rise to the benevolence of the Gandhi family. Advani too, has never had a ‘home’ base as such, having been elected from constituencies as varied as New Delhi and Gandhinagar. In a sense, their becoming ‘mascots’ of big ideas gave them a political relevance that their rather dour, uncharismatic personalities would never have otherwise allowed.
A sharp contrast can be drawn for example between an Advani and an AB Vajpayee. The latter was a ‘natural’ politician, a wonderful orator, skilled parliamentarian, and statesman-like leader. He had the ‘common touch’. By contrast, Advani was the strategist and ideologue, uncomfortable in public gatherings but adept at strengthening the party’s organisational base. Vajpayee may get the plaudits as a three-time prime minister, but let’s be clear: without Advani’s perseverance there would have been no alternate pole created to end Congress hegemony. If Vajpayee was a flamboyant Tendulkar-like batsman, Advani was the Dravid-like Wall of the BJP.
With their limited mass appeal, it is also no surprise that the Rao-VP-Advani troika were eventually devoured, or overtaken by their own revolutions. Having unleashed market-friendly economics, Rao was in no position to handle a family-led party that instinctively looked at a non Nehru-Gandhi leader as an outsider. It is typical of the Congress culture that the party chose to credit a bureaucrat like Manmohan Singh for the end of the licence-permit raj rather than a hardened politician like Rao. Singh was ready to be his master’s voice in sharp contrast to a Rao who was emerging as a threat to the dynasty.
VP Singh too, as an upper caste Thakur, could never compete with the rising OBC political juggernaut unleashed by the Mandalisation of north India. Once the Lalus and Mulayams had tasted power in the early 1990s, they were not going to share the power and the glory with anyone else. They had the political chutzpah and the confidence to build their own personality cults. VP, like Rao, passed away a sad, forlorn figure, aware that he was on the wrong side of a history that he had helped create.
And so to Advani, the man who has outlived his contemporaries. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Advani mentored a generation of young BJP leaders, including a certain Narendra Modi, who even was his charioteer during his Ayodhya rath yatra. Cut in the Hindutva cloth, some of these leaders showed the aptitude and the appetite to sharpen the ideological base which Advani had nurtured by adding the mantra of good governance.
None did it better than the Gujarat chief minister. Hindu nationalism plus ‘suraj’ (good governance): why would a younger, more restive BJP rank and file not back a new poster boy and discard the old warhorse? A demographic shift necessitated a political coup.
Ironically, it was to protect the original Hindutva constituency that Advani had chosen to insist on Modi continuing in Gandhinagar in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. Removing Modi at the time, felt the BJP’s ideologue, would send the wrong message to the party’s cadres. Among the many ‘what ifs’ in Indian political history we can add one more: what if during the BJP’s national executive in Panaji in 2002, the BJP had chosen to follow Vajpayee’s ‘rajdharma’ and change the Gujarat chief minister instead of following the Advani line? In his more reflective moments, the eternal political yatri must surely ask himself that question.
Post-script: Most pundits have been writing political obituaries of Advani. The fact is, similar epitaphs were written of Vajpayee in the early 90s after the rise of Advani. And yet, in 1996, coalition compulsions made the ‘inclusive’ Vajpayee the BJP’s prime ministerial choice. What if the NDA doesn’t get the 272-plus, a Modi candidacy promises? Will there be another final twist in the Advani saga?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal