In an age of hyper-information and shrinking attention spans it has become easy for the cacophony of the latest headline to drown out the complex truths of history.
So much so that even when the parallels between the past and the present are evident, the theatrics of the here and the now prevent a proper fleshing out of characters in the never-ending drama of our politics.
Take the final-lap race within the BJP on who will front the party’s national election campaign. It seems pretty certain that the Gujarat chief minister — even more emboldened by a sweep of the by-elections in his state and a corresponding defeat for his Bihar bête noire in the Lok Sabha seat of Maharajganj — will be the only one crossing the finishing line. To that extent, this is not a sprint with other runners — at least not overtly.
But more than one of Narendra Modi’s colleagues are granting him victory in the 100 metre dash while silently preparing for the marathon they think could yet throw up unexpected winners in a coalition polity.
The only overt challenge — to the now inevitable anointment of Modi as the head of the BJP’s poll panel — has come from someone who even till recently refused to rule himself out as a prime ministerial contender.
As patriarch of the ‘parivar’— Advani has battled pressure from the RSS, subtly pitted the successes of the Madhya Pradesh chief minister against his more flamboyant counterpart in Gujarat, steered the ouster of Nitin Gadkari and then asked that the same former party president be made the chief of at least one of the party’s election panels, in keeping with his complicated plans to checkmate Modi. Other anti-Modi voices have coalesced around Advani; more than one claimed they were too unwell to attend the first day of the BJP Goa meet.
Today Advani has positioned himself as the softer, grandfatherly alternative to the much more hard-nosed, no-nonsense style of the Gujarat chief minister. But anyone familiar with the BJP’s evolution as a political force will tell you that not so long ago — you just need to look back less than three decades — Advani was to the party cadre exactly what Modi is to it today.
When the BJP made an astounding leap from two seats in Parliament in 1985 to 85 seats in 1989, in large measure that was because of the new aggressive brand of leadership under him as party president.
There are many interesting and ironic parallels that can be drawn between the two men on opposite sides of the trenches today. At different points in history, both successfully tapped into an existing anger with the ruling Congress.
Depending on your point of view, both men have been symbols of either a muscular nationalism or a hard-line intolerance. The political paths of both men have been stalked by the long shadow of a cataclysmic event — the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in the instance of Advani; the 2002 riots in Modi’s case.
In their earliest years both leaders have been fundamentally shaped by the RSS as pracharaks; yet both men have ended up earning the ire of the ideologues in their later years for asserting their own personality. Both have been proponents of political Hindutva — Advani could even be described as its original architect — and have then sought to recast their political identity well beyond it for wider acceptability.
Advani’s re-invention provoked a gigantic backlash from the super-bosses in Nagpur who forced him to step down as party president after his praise for Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. By comparison, Modi’s attempt to peg his current politics on the hook of economic efficiency has so far worked well with the urban middle class as well as India’s business leaders.
But, over the years, he has been locked into several battles with the state’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which has accused him and the party of “deviating from the path of Hindutva.” Much like Advani, the Gujarat chief minister could find himself caught between his national ambitions and the foisting of an old ‘Ram Mandir’ driven agenda by the hardliners within the parivar.
The last parallel between the two men still has to play out. For all his clout within the party, when it came to government building, the ‘Iron Man’ needed the softening tincture of his comrade Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At the time, the former BJP president Venkaiah Naidu came up with a mixologist’s description to capture their counter-foiling personalities.
One man, he said was a “Lauh Purush” (Advani), the other a “Vikas Purush” (Vajpayee) arguing that the BJP needed a combination of both to lead it. While many have already asked who will be Narendra Modi’s Vajpayee, he has projected himself as two-in-one — the tough leader who will simultaneously be a man of progress and development. It is in this attempted leap that his story diverts from his senior colleague’s history. It is in this political detour that his end-destination is still not certain.
Several BJP leaders believe that just like Advani once catapulted the party onto centre-stage; the Gujarat chief minister will provide exactly the same dramatic push this time in terms of increased numbers. But they also privately concede that in India’s coalition politics, you need a consensus building leader for the last-mile.
Advani was the party’s main chariot-driver whose yatra still needed Vajpayee for the last stretch. Will an otherwise remarkably similar story to Advani’s end differently for Narendra Modi?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal