No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes.
The Who's Pete Townsend might as well have written that about LK Advani, who laid the seeds of BJP’s grand dominance but never got to sit in the Prime Minister's Office. In his later years, he cut a lonesome figure.
The August 5 Ayodhya Bhoomi Pujan event – on the same site where Advani’s Rath Yatra culminated in the destruction of Babri Masjid – was conspicuous by his absence.
Even as Narendra Modi - beard grown to an appropriate sage-like level that'd make hipsters jealous - attended the RJB event, one was reminded of a non-BJP event LK Advani attended last year.
It was at the release of Gulshan Grover’s biography The Bad Man.
It was almost as if the Expectations vs Meme Reality came to life, where instead of hobnobbing with world leaders, LK Advani was sharing the dais with Bollywood actors Jackie Shroff, Sunil Shetty, and others who'd cause 90s nostalgia.
Lal Krishna’s political demise was in a way similar to his namesake’s end, completely forgetful, particularly given the larger-than-life roles they played in their respective epics.
On September 30, LK Advani along with 31 other accused will hear the verdict on charges of the conspiracy in the Babri Demolition case, we look at the man whose legacy is writ large on current Hindutva-driven Indian politics, so much so that even a Delhi CM who won 67 out of 70 seats feels the need to bolster his Hanuman Bhakt credentials by chanting Hanuman Chalisa on live TV.
The August 5 coronation – one year after Article 370 Abrogation – saw two of BJP’s core premises achieved. A third, the Universal Civil Code doesn't look that far away.
To speak in millennial lingo, it’s not an exaggeration to say that what Iron Man (2008) is to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Babri Masjid demolition is to New India.
He might not be Marvel’s most popular hero, but he became Marvel’s most relevant.
Without the mad success of Iron Man, there’d be – to paraphrase the guys from Honest Trailers – no MCU, no Thor, no Avengers, no Captain America and no combined universe which would change Hollywood forever.
When the RJB event was announced, there was no clear announcement from BJP. No clarification on whether he had been denied the invitation.
Some reports claimed he had been given a video-conferencing link to the Ram Janmahboomi Pujan, which would be the political equivalent of Manchester United offering Sir Alex Ferguson a free month’s subscription to MUTV.
Finally, he put out a video statement on the event.
When PM Modi launched what felt like not just the Ram Janmabhoomi Poojan but the coronation of a new Indian Republic, completely cleaved from the Nehruvian era of secularism which ordained that obdurate display of group identity was only reserved for some religions, it's important to realise that none of them would’ve been possible without the Rath Yatra or LK Advani.
To understand how we got here, we have to consider how India was conceived.
Even though Mahatma Gandhi was a truly mass leader, the rest of Congress remained a party of elites.
This somehow permeated down to an idea of India where speaking English, showing one’s distaste for religion in public spaces, and mocking those beliefs became the established order.
In fact, English became the sole currency for acceptance, as if knowing one language and speaking it properly was a substitute for any domain knowledge.
We see it till this day, where news studios have the same person for every debate – from LGBT rights to space technology.
Enter LK Advani
The BJP had been around in various iterations, but it was the Rath Yatra that truly catapulted it to the national stage. The sigh of the majority that felt oppressed in a secular India turned into a war cry as Advani and BJP finally found the formula for capturing national attention.
As Kanchan Gupta notes in his piece in Open: “Hindutva became the new buzzword, resurrected from the archives of Veer Savarkar’s writings. Advani called it cultural nationalism—giving a new ideological edge to the BJP and, possibly unknowingly, sowing the seeds of the aggressive nationalist politics of today’s BJP.”
Things would never be the same again. It let to communal riots across the country which killed hundreds. It also catapulted BJP into the national consciousness-altering the political landscape forever.
Lalu Prasad Yadav – the then chief minister of Bihar - arrested Advani and stopped the Rath Yatra but by then it was already an unstoppable juggernaut tearing through the thinly-disguised veneer of secularism.
Questions that were whispered became louder:
Why couldn’t Hindus have a temple at a place they considered the birth of their Lord Ram?
Would Catholics beg for it in the Vatican?
Are Americans ashamed to say In God We Trust?
If other religions could have their Holy Lands, why couldn’t the Hindus have theirs?
The Rath Yatra took a sledgehammer to any tiptoeing around Hindu identity and also created a unified Hindutva vote, many of them former Congress voters.
Hindutva's critics have always called it an upper-caste exclusive, reactionary political version of Hinduism. As of 2020, given the number of BJP voters from Dalits, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Castes, the claim no longer holds up.
Those who claim to speak for sub-alterns seldom make a mark at the ballot box.
In fact, of the 976 elected MPs from Reserved Constituencies till 2014, 30% were from BJP and 28% from Congress. BJP won 67 of the 131 reserved constituencies in 2014. In 2019, the number was 77.
BJP also won more reserved seats than Congress in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2014.
A Lokniti-CSDS survey showed that BJP's vote shared had increased among all groups in 2019, including upper-caste, peasant castes (Jats, Marathas, Patels, etc.), upper OBCs, lower OBCs, SCs, and STs.
It also grew in rural, semi-rural and urban areas going against the grain of claim that rural voters were deeply upset with PM Modi.
Despite holding top posts, the Prime Ministership eluded LK Advani.
Vajpayee was PM from 1999 to 2004, and a supremely popular one. 2004 was a big dampener and a year later, fresh from the India Shining drubbing, the BJP stalwart went to Pakistan and called Jinnah a secular icon who batted for ‘Hindu-Muslim Identity’.
Perhaps he thought he was taking a leaf from his friend Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book, but it backfired spectacularly and made him persona non-grata for a while.
He was the PM face in 2009, but BJP managed only 116 seats, which totalled 159 with allies. In comparison, PM Modi’s BJP managed 282 in 2014 and 303 in 2019.
As the late Arun Jaitley once stated, LK Advani’s career can be mapped into these two periods - pre-Jinnah and post-Jinnah comment.
The one before was the perfect Swayamsevak, putting party before self.
The other was a different coin.
As Jaitley noted: “For everything he had come to say, ‘if you don’t do this, then I will not do this’. We had to take a call if we should yield to his pressure each time, and cry every day, or take a firm stand to ignore him. He threw up a dilemma during the black money yatra in 2011, but we did not yield. He still did the yatra. Similarly, he said I won’t come to the Goa meet in 2013 if Modi is announced as prime minister.”
Advani always said he didn’t want Babri to be demolished.
Veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta wrote that the destruction happened ‘despite his restraining hand’, and Advani called it the ‘saddest day of his life’, that matters of faith was beyond those of a court. Others disagreed with that claim. Another claimed that Vijayraje Scindia’s speech was the clarion call to take down the structure.
Advani’s comment earned fury from VHP’s Ashok Singhal who had claimed it ought to be celebrated as Shaurya Divas.
It got worse with the rise of Narendra Modi. His one-time protégé managed what he couldn’t, marry Hindutva with solid administration, an idea where capitalism and cultural identity would herald a new India.
Advani was meanwhile politely moved upstairs, a member of the Magdarshak Mandal – a council of elders. He didn’t get a post in the 2014 cabinet.
In 2016, he cut a lonely figure, lamenting how Parliament wasn’t functioning properly, saying he wanted to quit.
In 2019, Amit Shah contested from the Gandhinagar seat that had been his stronghold since 1998.
The verdict will decide whether LK Advani and 31 others are guilty of conspiracy to demolish the Babri Masjid, but it will not put the Hindutva genie back in the bottle. India has transformed from Nehru’s India to Modi’s India.
There’s no going back.
Nirmalya Dutta is the Web Editor of the Free Press Journal.
The views expressed are personal.