April 04, 2020
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A Little Bad Blood

Advani surprises partymen by denying a rift with Vajpayee and dregs up contentious issues

A Little Bad Blood

THAT which cannot be proved, it is said, is better ignored. And reactions usually expose more than they hide. BJP president L.K. Advani sent most of his party colleagues and a section of the media diving for the nearest library when he spoke of his alleged rift with Atal Behari Vajpayee, on July 7 in Chandigarh. "Stories are being planted to project the image of a feuding BJP leadership and creating differences within the party by targeting Vajpayee," he said.

But all those who furrowed through press clippings came up with nothing. Towards the fag end of his gruelling two-month-long Swarna Jayanti rath yatra, which ends on July 15, Advani has taken many by surprise by drawing attention to an issue which many in his party had thought was dead and buried. While senior party leaders in Delhi confess that they were 'surprised' at Advani issuing what amounted to a rejoinder without specifying what or whom he was reacting to, party sources disclosed that the BJP chief was only doing Vajpayee's bidding. "The two of them had a long chat in the first week of July when the rath yatra was passing through Lucknow," says a BJP general secretary. "They spoke of the intelligence reports claiming that Vajpayee was showing signs of pique at the success of the rath yatra, that his camp was conspiring against Advani because his position as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate was being undermined, and other such stories that were doing the rounds. Advani concurred with Vajpayee's suggestion that he make a statement denying all such stories." But these are also the murmurs within the party, especially among the rank and file, never mind the fact that the Advani-Vajpayee relationship has over the past three decades shown that it is not only resilient but based on mutual respect.

And what the unidentified "intelligence reports" don't elucidate are problems that have existed for a while now: from claims that not enough was done to save the 13-day BJP government at the Centre in May 1996 after a reluctant Vajpayee agreed to play helmsman, to the displeasure of the RSS and a section of the BJP with Vajpayee over the handling of the Shankersinh Vaghela episode in Gujarat. Interestingly, on both occasions, senior party leaders, including Advani and Vajpayee, denied any rift.

Other running controversies include charges levelled by BJP MP from Nagpur, Banwarilal Purohit, against Pramod Mahajan. He is accused of having used "undue influence and misuse of his official position (during his 13-day stint as Union defence minister)" to grant mining rights to Nippon Denro Ispat Limited close to an ordnance factory near Nagpur. Mahajan, who denies this, seems irked that when Purohit met Vajpayee recently, he was given a patient, and according to some, sympathetic, hearing. Mahajan, handpicked by Advani to look after party matters in Maharashtra, was also surprised and annoyed at not being invited to the meeting.

Confessing that he has been advised by the party not to discuss the matter with the press, all Purohit says is: "I did meet Vajpayee and he listened to what I had to say about this particular issue. But I meet him regularly, so this is nothing unusual." Mahajan too is keen to play down the entire episode, especially as it has acquired a Vajpayee versus Advani colour: "Now that I have proved my innocence in the case, I have left it to the central leadership to decide on disciplinary action against Purohit."

HOWEVER, the BJP leadership has more on its hands. Primary among its tasks as soon as Advani's rath yatra ends will be a resolution of the Sahib Singh Verma versus Madan Lal Khurana battle for the Delhi chief ministership—a battle which, from the day Khurana was discharged in the hawala case, has been growing more acrimonious. Khurana has said that it is only 'natural' that Sahib Singh hand back power; and since he claims the support of more than half the 49 BJP MLAs (in a House of 70), thwarting him could prove problematic. Interestingly, Khurana has repeatedly talked of his very "satisfactory meetings" with Advani and hinted that he expects a favourable decision after July 15.

On the other hand, BJP vice-president Sunder Singh Bhandari says: "When Khurana stepped down after being chargesheeted in the hawala case, it was not on the condition that he would be reinstated if and when the courts acquitted him. Sahib Singh is doing a good job." And Vajpayee's ringing endorsement of the chief minister at a massive rally in Delhi on July 6 seems to have added fuel to the fire. Besides, Sahib Singh, who is being projected as a Jat leader, has the support of BJP MP K.L. Sharma (whose victory he ensured from the Outer Delhi Lok Sabha seat) and another old-time Vajpayee follower, Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. But the Advani-Vajpayee discussion seems to have put a temporary end to speculation on a change in chief minis-tership, with Advani declaring that he gave no assurances to Khurana.

Over the years, the Sangh parivar learned to live with the fact that Vajpayee differs with the official party line on many issues, as was evident during the Ayodhya campaign and the Vaghela revolt. A section of the BJP is also critical of Vajpayee's failure to seize the political initiative with the United Front and Congress in a shambles; for instance, Vajpayee has been to the President just once to ask for Laloo Yadav's ouster and left the rest to the BJP's Bihar unit and the party spokesman. "In conformity with the role expected of him," retorts Bhandari.

Even in terms of theoretical precepts, it was Vajpayee who flirted with "Gandhian socialism" in the early 1980s, before Advani's aggressive propagation of Deendayal Upadhyaya's "integral humanism" and the cultural nationalism/Hindutva agenda in the mid-1980s which formed the basis of the party's spectacular growth over the next decade. The RSS, as one of its senior most functionaries admits, was never "comfortable with Gandhian socialism, though that is a term that was given to the BJP agenda at the time and not one which it sought to carve out for itself".

According to a senior BJP leader, Vajpayee does not share the RSS's disdain for the 'alien' post-1947 politico-economic system which the RSS believes is not based on the Indian reality. The India-is-a-coalition theory, an anathema to the RSS and Advani, is something that Vajpayee does not reject outright though he has made it clear that his is an acceptance of reality, in contrast to it being his ideal.

Of course, Advani remains the blue-eyed boy of the RSS—he is considered the mobiliser whose rath yatras have been undertaken with a view to what the RSS describes as the exigencies of the moment but with an eye on the future. "The effect of Advani's yatras has always been to shift the point of focus—from Mandal to Hindutva by the Ram rath yatra and from caste, regional, community and linguistic affiliations to the question of national identity and pride with the Swarna Jayanti yatra," claims the RSS.

But then it is also a fact that it was Advani himself who insisted on Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate at the plenary session of the party in Mumbai in 1995. And the RSS too is aware that the BJP's best hope if it wants to cultivate a mass base and strike electoral arrangements with other political parties is Vajpayee, the most acceptable face of the BJP. No matter that he is certainly no rath yatra man.

However, it is important to note that Vajpayee has always toed the BJP line; his commitment to the party is too strong for him to take any other step. Advani too genuinely considers him the senior pro on the team. And with a general election looming large, the Advani-Vajpayee relationship will probably ride out any differences and put up a united front. The twin horses will, as in the past, be put to race on different courses. The crucial question, however, is: since none of them is getting any younger, what will happen after? So, trouble in paradise? Maybe later.

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