Indian Politics' 'Baghban' Moment: Modi Shouldn't Dismiss Advani's Letter Bomb As Damp Squib

11/11/2015 5:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI,INDIA APRIL 21: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with veteran BJP leader LK Advani during the BJP parliamentary board meeting in New Delhi.(Photo by Praveen Negi/India Today Group/Getty Images)

What’s in a name? Plenty.

The problem with calling someone a margdarshak is he might live up to his name and show the way.

The patriarchs of the BJP have done exactly that. Mothballed in the Margdarshak closet by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime, they have decided to strike while the party is still reeling from the Bihar blow.

The letter sounds like some good old commonsensical grandfatherly advice.

"A thorough review must be done of the reasons for the defeat as well as of the way the Party is being forced to kow-tow to a handful, and how its consensual character has been destroyed. This review must not be done by the very persons who have managed and who have been responsible for the campaign in Bihar.”

But let’s not be fooled. L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Shanta Kumar and Yashwant Sinha’s “open letter” to the BJP is born less out of genuine concern than bottled-up pique. These are the Grumpy Old Men of the BJP getting their grump on.

They also have little to lose. They have been shunted into the toothless Margdarshak retirement home anyway and rendered inconsequential by the party they once led. Given Modi’s commanding majority, it’s hardly likely that their letter will trigger an internal revolution among those who are actually of consequence within the party (or even the cabinet) who would end up risking far more than this quartet.

Shatrughan Sinha and Bhola Singh have signaled their displeasure but they are hardly of great consequence in the larger scheme of things though good for a media bite or two. And while their own reputations remain larger-than-life, there is hardly any groundswell of support for the Advani company within the public at large or in the ranks and file of the party which has steadily been Modi-fied anyway. Swapan Dasgupta wrote in the Indian Express the likes of Advani just could not “stomach change”. “The central office often had to browbeat BJP candidates into hosting an Advani meeting just to prevent the old war horse from feeling completely unwanted.”

Advani and co might be willfully blind to the writing on the wall but Narendra Modi would do well to take some lessons from their letter instead of ignoring the “Diwali letter bomb” as a damp squib. The Modi-Shah style of leadership had always been about my way or the highway. Their ruthlessness remained unchallenged while they were winning but when the chips are down they are understanding how much needless schadenfreude it has engendered.

The party had posited the Bihar election as part of a long term strategy to change the numbers of the Rajya Sabha to remove obstacles to its policies instead of working to win over opposition leaders right now in order to pass its bills. Congress-mukt Bharat is one thing, Opposition-mukt Bharat is another. And Amit Shah saying a vote for the opposition Mahagatbandhan would set off crackers in Pakistan signaled that’s what the BJP ultimately wants.

advani modi

By fixing his sights on changing the Rajya Sabha numbers, and staking his own political capital on it, Modi finds himself embroiled again and again in high-voltage state elections. His unprecedented involvement in Bihar which made him the face of the party, thus came at the expense of his stature as Prime Minister. BJP MP Bhola Singh complains, "He started speaking in Lalu’s language. He began using undignified language while Nitish did not forget decorum even in the battlefield.” Modi needs to get back to being PM.

He has to learn the fine balance of getting along with other political leaders both within his party and outside instead of just cutting them down to size because they are not toeing his line. The party while paying lip service to Advani has repeatedly humiliated him. He refused to speak at the conclave. He did not attend the BJP’s founding anniversary celebrations this year. He stopped writing his blogs after the party leadership wanted to vet them. Now to add insult to injury when the BJP Patna workers burst firecrackers to prematurely celebrate their Bihar ‘victory’ and were caught on the wrong foot they pretended they were celebrating Advani-ji’s birthday.

If Modi had created a Margdarshak panel which actually was empowered to give advice, he could have assuaged bruised egos. As Sudheendra Kulkarni tweeted “Don’t turn #Margdarshak Mandal into ‘Marginalisation Mandal’”. A few governorships dangled like carrots here and there did not assuage the sting of an unwritten no-one-over-75 rule for the party elders that cavalierly dismissed them as redundant. Bolstered by the election victory of 2014, Modi thought he could afford to shrug and let the elders sulk at home. All that has consequences.

“Far from growing, the number of stakeholders of this government has fallen over the past year,” writes Ashok Malik in The Economic Times. The problem writes Malik that the attack on the Lutyens establishment resonated well on the campaign trail but the “angry outsider” image is wearing thin now that Modi is in charge.

Modi who can be charm personified if he wants to, has to learn the art of wooing those skeptical or wary of him instead of ignoring them/humiliating them/sending them to Pakistan. And that charm offensive can start at home with the Margdarshaks.

One thing is clear. Even as Narendra Modi talks endlessly about India’s youth dividend, he cannot dismiss the elders. Who would have imagined that in the last couple of months, such stinging discomfort would come courtesy two 88-year-olds? Nayantara Sehgal and L K Advani are having their senior moment in the sun and Indian politics its Baghban moment.

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