I went to meet the BJP patriarch L.K.Advani in Parliament during the recent budget session. He came to his room agitated after the house was adjourned in the middle of the day and said, “I am ashamed to be in this Parliament.” He was referring to how Parliament was not allowed to function. That was Advani, who believed in parliamentary decorum. Unlike many others he was a regular in Parliament though his Parliamentary role had shrunk as he spoke just 365 words in the past five years.
According to PRS Legislative, his attendance in the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha was 92 per cent, whereas the national average stood at 80 per cent. During the last five years he used to sit quietly in the House even amidst noisy scenes that had become a characteristic of Parliament. When the house was adjourned almost every single day, Advani returned to his room quietly sad about the non-functioning of Parliament.
Even outside, for almost five years the BJP patriarch did not blog nor did he utter a single word of political significance. He shrank into his shell. Therefore when he did break his silence and wrote on his blog on the eve of the BJP formation day on Thursday, it created a stir in the party and elsewhere. His last blog had been on 23 April 2014, a month before the Modi government assumed power. The nuanced statement came two days ahead of the BJP Foundation Day and was released to the media through Advani’s office instead of the BJP media cell. Significantly it also came days after he was denied a ticket by the BJP.
Why did Advani choose this time to come out with his statement? His comments come amid a raging political debate on the idea of nationalism and anti-nationals, which has been going on since the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strike. The BJP leaders were dubbing all those who questioned the strike as anti nationals. What he wrote in the blog was his expression of unhappiness at the way the party was deviating from its intended path. He said the BJP never regarded critics as enemies and also for him the nation came first, party next and self last. He also said that the BJP had never regarded those opposed to it politically as “anti-national” or “enemies”. Coming from the party patriarch these were indeed golden words. Even in the BJP many agree with his sentiments.
Advani was the top leader in the BJP until 2014 when Modi took over and nobody can deny his contribution to the party. He had built the party from two seats in 1984 to 282 in 2014. He steered the party along with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for decades. He is the only leader alive who was the founder member of both the Jana Sangh and the BJP. He led the Ram Janabhoomi movement in the late 1980s. However, since 2014, the Modi era has signalled a paradigm shift within the BJP and paved the way for some sweeping changes related to leadership roles in the party. Advani has been side lined and relegated to an Elders’ council called Margadarshak Mandal, which never met even once.
Last month, Advani’s Gandhinagar constituency in Gujarat was snatched away, leaving him humiliated. He waited for an opportunity and BJP Foundation day was a good occasion to release his pent up emotions. He weighed each word carefully so that no one could fault him on his language or his thoughts. He also chose the right moment when the party is in the midst of elections. The statement could have embarrassed the party but Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly contained it by praising the statement within an hour of its release. “Advani-ji perfectly sums up the true essence of BJP, most notably the guiding Mantra of ‘Nation First, Party Next, and Self Last.’ Proud to be a BJP Karyakarta and proud that greats like LK Advani-ji have strengthened it.” This was a good damage control exercise as no one else in the party spoke or criticised Advani after that.
The reaction from the opposition was also equally strong. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted within minutes, “as the senior most politician, former Deputy Prime Minister and founding father of BJP, the views Advani-ji has expressed about extending democratic courtesies, is significant. Of course, all Opposition who raise their voices is not antinational. We welcome his statement and convey our humble regards.” Other leaders also welcomed his statement.
The BJP might think that Advani’s critique might have no electoral impact but it is not so, as many in the party agree with him. We have to see whether the top BJP leadership drops the “anti national” theme about the opposition now or continues in the same vein. Or else BJP’s liberal use of the anti-national epithet might backfire during the election.