A day before his 94th birthday, which falls on November 8, 2021, LK Advani attended the BJP’s national executive meet virtually on Sunday.
One of the key builders of the BJP, a core organizational man and the one whose Rath Yatra in 1990 turned India into a two-party democracy, Advani’s long career is almost synonymous with that of the BJP. Alongside the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani steered the BJP from a party with a small base into one that stormed large parts of north, central and western India.
The Lal Krishna Advani era may have ended some years back – when he as a senior leader became part of the Margdarshak Mandal of the BJP and did not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election – but his life story is in many ways the story of the BJP.
Advani’s trademark style
Advani has not been active in public in recent times. But up to some years back, he was active and considered fit and energetic beyond his years.
In his speeches – which were a regular fixture of his political life even close to a decade back – Advani would dive deep into the history of the Jana Sangh and the BJP. Each such sentence would begin with “mujhe smaran hai” (I remember).
He would recall the death of Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee in the 1950s in a Jammu and Kashmir prison for violating the ban to enter the state without a permit. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had accompanied Mookerjee there and they were arrested as soon as they crossed over from Pathankot in Punjab to Jammu. Advani would tell journalists that he was in Rajasthan at that time and a reporter broke the news to him.
Advani would also recall the first Lok Sabha election in 1952, when the Jana Sangh won three seats in all, the victories coming from Bengal and Rajasthan.
A dyed-in-the-wool RSS man, Advani would pronounce Hindustan (India) as Hindu-sthan in his speeches, using a Sanskritised concoction of the word.
His energy would surprise many. When I covered his 2011 anti-corruption Rath Yatra – starting from Jaya Prakash Narayan’s village Sitabdiara in Bihar and travelling through large parts of India – from Sitabdiara to Patna and up to Varanasi, Advani would glow and deliver his last speech close to 9 pm each day with energy uncharacteristic of an almost 84-year-old. Younger leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were taken ill during the journey and complained of dizziness. Advani was fine.
He had tried to play on his sound health in the 2009 elections as Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP, with his photos lifting dumb bells in a gym being splashed across the media. He would tell journalists that each person has a quota of how much he can eat – some exhaust it early but he hadn’t.
Advani came across as an amiable leader in his public dealings. Once he told journalists sitting in his chamber in Parliament: “I have earned respect in this building. Ask any staff member whether I do not wish them back with folded hands when they wish me?” Indeed, Advani was a rare senior leader who would address questions from even young reporters with utmost sincerity when he was having conversations with journalists.
This was the Advani of the last decade, when he tried to occupy the place left vacant by Vajpayee, who had retired from public life by 2007 due to illness. But his rise came about much earlier.
The rise of the Hindutva icon
Advani’s meteoric rise began around 1990, when he decided to counter VP Singh’s announcement that the Mandal Commission recommendations would be implemented – itself a knee-jerk reaction to a farmers’ rally Devi Lal was planning – by taking out a Rath Yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh to mobilize support for a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya.
This also catapulted his party into a major political player, a status that was not to be lost again.
Unlike Vajpayee, Advani did not begin as a mass leader. Vajpayee won the Lok Sabha polls 10 times, the first time in 1957 from Balrampur in UP. He had also contested from Mathura that year, but had lost that election to freedom fighter Raja Mahendra Pratap, who fought as an independent. Vajpayee won many elections when the Jana Sangh was a marginal force.
Advani, however, entered the Rajya Sabha in 1970. The party man was not yet a mass leader. He remained a member of the Rajya Sabha four times and Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House from January to April, 1980.
Political churn marked the period from 1970 to 1989. Indira Gandhi rose to be a formidable leader, veteran freedom fighter and Sarvodaya activist Jaya Prakash Narayan rose against her to steal her thunder, the Emergency (1975 to 1977) was imposed -- which saw Advani, among several others, being sent to jail after his arrest from Bangalore -- and opposition parties merged to form the Janata Party that defeated the Congress in 1977.
Advani became Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Janata government.
The Janata Party split due to its ideological contradictions and its Jana-Sangh component founded the BJP under Vajpayee on April 6, 1980.
Vajpayee’s attempts at evoking Gandhian socialism and weaving coalitions failed, as Indira Gandhi, whose popularity soared as Sikh militancy gathered steam in Punjab, was assassinated in 1984. The BJP could win only two seats. Vajpayee himself lost to Madhavrao Scindia from Gwalior. Rajiv Gandhi stormed to power with a record majority of more than 400 seats.
The Krishna Lal Sharma Committee constituted by the BJP in 1985 to look into the causes of the debacle called for retaining the distinctive ideological colour of the BJP.
Advani became party president in 1986 at a time when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had already begun its Ram temple campaign. In his presidential speech, Advani condemned cow slaughter in many states and the “destruction of temples” in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Shah Bano controversy – where the Rajiv Gandhi government overturned a ruling by the Supreme Court that the 62-year-old Shah Bano be given maintenance after divorce – provided the BJP talking points against the government. The Bofors scam hit the Congress hard.
Making electoral adjustments with VP Singh’s Janata Dal, the BJP won 86 seats in 1989. VP Singh became Prime Minister, supported by the BJP and the Left.
Advani metamorphosed into a Hindutva icon when he decided to undercut Mandal – which, he felt would divide Hindus – with Kamandal. He took out a Rath Yatra on September 20, 1990, from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP. Narendra Modi, then a junior Hindutva activist, made arrangements for the Yatra in Gujarat.
There was a sudden shift of upper castes and some sections of OBCs in north India towards the BJP as the Yatra made its way, attracting large crowds wherever it went.
The BJP withdrew support to the VP Singh government when Lalu Prasad as Chief Minister of Bihar got Advani arrested at Samastipur in Bihar. The VP Singh government fell.
On October 30, 1990, there was police firing on Kar Sevaks to prevent them from storming the Babri mosque, leading to six deaths. Polarisation deepened. On December 6, 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished by a crowd. BJP state governments were dismissed and cases filed against BJP leaders like Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, among others.
The turn of events also led to the Congress losing its Muslim votes in UP and Bihar to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad, respectively.
The BJP was on the rise in each election till 1998, but attracting allies at the peak of the Hindutva surge was a tough task. Advani had acquired a high profile, while Vajpayee was seen as more acceptable across the political spectrum.
It was at this time that Advani sprang a surprise. In the presence of Vajpayee in a public meeting at Shivaji Park in Mumbai just before the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, he announced that Vajpayee would lead the party in the Lok Sabha elections.
As Vajpayee could come to power for 13 months in 1998 – and then for five years in 1999 – he became the party’s top leader, with Advani a close second as the Deputy Prime Minister.
The decline of Advani
Once Vajpayee bowed out after losing the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Advani tried to step into his shoes. Coalition arrangements held the key to coming to power in those times.
This phase also saw a major controversy, when Advani on a visit to Pakistan called Pakistan founder MA Jinnah “secular”. He attracted harsh criticism for this, with media reports saying this was an attempt to cultivate a moderate image that backfired.
Advani led the party as its PM-candidate in 2009, but as a shadow of his former self. However, it was this election that saw a dedicated online campaign for Advani, with a team led by Prodyut Bora reporting to Sudheendra Kulkarni for the same, to ensure that the leader had greater visibility. On counting day, the team of young techies sat together wearing identical T-shirts that read: ‘Advani ji is PM, and so are we’.
However, this was not to be. The BJP was humbled with 116 seats and the Congress returned to power with 206 seats.
The next few years saw the profile of Advani gradually fall. He would still attend Parliament regularly.
The BJP was under Nitin Gadkari -- followed, briefly, by Rajnath Singh -- in the coming years, while Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley led the party’s charge in Parliament. The party chose Narendra Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 and stormed to power. Advani was now just a Lok Sabha MP. Organisationally, he was in the Margdarshak Mandal, a mentors’ club.
In 2019, he did not contest from Gandhinagar. Since then, his public appearances came down drastically. Age had begun to catch up with him.
However, the long Advani era is in many ways the story of the BJP and, to a significant extent, almost the political story of India in the heady decade of the 1990s.