Advani’s yatra and BJP’s dilemma

BJP’s octogenarian leader LK Advani, in the evening of his life, has embarked on yet another yatra. In his six decades long political career, this is the sixth yatra for the quintessential yatri.

In 2006, Advani undertook Bharat Surakshya Yatra to highlight the failure of the Congress-led UPA government in combating terrorism. He went on Bharat Udaya Yatra ahead of the 2004 general elections to bring home the message that India was “rising under BJP rule”.

In 1997, Advani launched Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra to commemorate the golden jubilee of India’s independence. He led Janadesh Yatra in 1993 in a bid to mobilise public opinion against then Narasimha Rao govt’s attempt to ban religion from public life.

In 1990, he spearheaded Ram Rath Yatra in order to pledge support for rebuilding the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

It’s been 21 years. The wheels of Indian politics rolled a long way since then. From a Hindu nationalist force, BJP has transformed itself into a modern right-wing party.

Now, BJP's original charioteer is on a ‘Jan Chetna Yatra’. This yatra is different from the earlier ones. Unlike his previous yatras, its theme song is not graphite with hindutva or cultural nationalism. Surprisingly, the saffron party’s two crucial points of political pilgrimage -- Somnath and Ayodhya -- are missing from the itinerary of the yatra.

Jai Sri Ram is no longer the chant of this yatra. Rather a rock track titled ‘Ab Bas’ (It's enough) is the anthem. Perhaps this was done with the idea to entice today’s youth.

For the starting point of the yatra, BJP had chosen Sitab Diara in Bihar, the birthplace of Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan over Kasmad in Gujarat, the birthplace of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. However, the yatra was finally flagged off from Chhapra, situated at a distance of 20 kilometres from Sitab Diara as floods played spoilsport. A “secular” Nitish Kumar was roped in to kick start the yatra. This despite the fact that the Bihar Chief Minister do not see eye to eye with BJP’s star performer Narendra Modi. There are reasons.

First, the BJP, through this yatra, wants to focus only and only on anti-corruption. And it was more of a metaphor that the yatra against corruption started from the land of JP -- the ultimate icon of India’s anti-corruption movement -- on his birth anniversary October 11. Second, it was in October 1990 at Samastipur in Bihar that Advani was arrested on the orders of then chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav during his Ram Rath Yatra.

It was more symbolic that in October 2011, Chief Minister of the same state flagged up another addition of Advani’s yatra. But, by roping in Nitish Kumar to flag it off, the party has sent a clear message that it is reconciled to a larger NDA platform.

The yatra is undertaken just before the winter session of Parliament. It was launched at a time when a series of macabre scams have hit the nation and crores in black money are stashed in tax havens. Corruption is being used as a sheet anchor for governance. The Congress-led UPA government is facing credibility crisis as its image has taken a beating. The nation is running through political uncertainty.

Jan Chetna Yatra has a clear political goal. It was specially designed for elections. Trough this yatra, the party wants to tap the popular public mood against a corruption-ridden UPA ahead of Lok Sabha elections 2014.

Through this yatra, Advani wants to sensitise the common men about rising corruption in the country under the Congress-led UPA rule. He wants to rejuvenate and energise the party cadres across the country and bring them into the poll mode much ahead of the next general election.

“Good governance and clean politics”, with this catch-line, Advani’s Jan Chetana ‘rath’ is criss-crossing the nation. The BJP patriarch is calling for a change in the system. “Bhrashtachar mitayenge, naya Bharat banayenge (Let’s root out corruption and rebuild a new India), he says.

The saffron party is hopeful that through this yatra, it will reach out to the common man about the need to establish a “transparent” and “accountable” democratic system.

The BJP wants to initiate a debate on political reforms, administrative reforms, electoral reforms and judicial reforms through the show.

This is not to dispute that BJP as the principal opposition party has tried its best to put the government on tight spot. But, the party is worried that the civil society is eating into much of its anti-government space. And through this yatra the saffron party wants to regain that political space.

But the question remains, will the yatra translate into a political magnet for BJP?

Meanwhile, Advani’s yatra has gone onto a bumpy road. On Day-4, BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh reportedly tried to “bribe” journalists in order to ensure “favourable coverage” of the yatra. And on Day-6, former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa was arrested in connection with land scam.

This reminds me of the famous statement of LK Advani at BJP's Silver Jubilee celebrations in 2005 -- “BJP ka Congressikaran hoa raha hai (Congress culture is creeping up in BJP),” he had said. Even today, the “large hearted” leader is candidly admitting that “small mistakes” are embarrassing the party and asked the partymen to keep the slate clean to fight graft.

The yatra has stirred an animated debate, whether or not Advani is projecting himself as a prime ministerial candidate. What was planned as an anti-corruption movement is now seen as Advani's last throw of the dice as BJP’s prime ministerial face. Through this, Advani is apparently trying to pressurise the party to consider his case.

This is despite the party making it clear that the yatra is not meant for the prime ministerial post. But, Advani’s lurking desire to become the prime minister prompts him of not toeing the party line.

It is a fact that the yatra was announced almost unilaterally by Advani and BJP couldn’t but back it, despite reservations from sections of the party, who saw it as an exercise by the grand old politician to stake claim for prime ministerial candidature once again.

Last month, the BJP veteran called on RSS sarasanghachalak Mohan Bhagawat in Nagpur. It was during the meeting that Bhagawat is learnt to have told Advani that the Sangh would back his yatra only after he came clean on his prime ministerial ambitions. Advani assured Bhagawat that he is not in the race for the next general elections.

However, surprisingly during his yatra, the BJP veteran flip-flopped from his previous position by saying he is “not a contender for PM’s post”, but the “final decision would be that of the party” and he sees “no reason to rule it out publically”. Keeping his prime ministerial ambitions afloat further, the BJP veteran said he would decide on it depending on his "health" and "capability" to contribute at the time of next Lok Sabha polls.

By doing so, Advani kept his own party guessing about his plans. As Advani hops from one point to another, the RSS is learnt to be deeply upset.

It was LK Advani, who along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee who built the BJP from the scratch. He is undoubtedly the tallest leader in the ranks and files of the party and has mentored a whole generation of BJP leaders.

But, will the octogenarian leader pave way for a Generation Next leader to lead the party for the next general elections? Or, will the generation next sacrifice for a guru dakshina? In the days to come, 11 Ashoka Road will be busy in answering these two questions. Hope the questions won’t create yet another vicious leadership battle in the saffron party.

There is a fair chance for the BJP to win the next general elections. Hope the saffron party won’t love to lose yet another opportunity.