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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , September 20, 2013 at 01 : 38

Narasimha Rao, VP Singh, LK Advani: The tragic heroes of politics


The three most influential politicians of the 1990s were Narasimha Rao, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and LK Advani. At a time when the last of the triumvirate prepares to fade into the political sunset, this may be a good moment to pause, rewind and look back at the life and times and legacy of these men who redefined politics at the turn of the century.

It would be fair to suggest that all three played their part in shaping the destiny of contemporary politics more by circumstance than conviction. If Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated in May 1991, one can safely assume Rao would have retired to Hyderabad as a footnote in the Congress, blotted by the memory of being the eternal procrastinator as home minister during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. VP Singh too, was just another remote controlled Congress chief minister in the Indira-Sanjay years, till Bofors happened and transformed his persona into a tough anti-corruption crusader. And LK Advani too, was the quintessential party organisation man and would have remained so if the gates of the Babri Masjid had not been opened by the Rajiv government.

The three competing ideologies which they came to represent - market, Mandal and Mandir - were again accidentally constructed because of forces beyond them. The balance of payments crisis of 1991 left Mr Rao with no choice but to open up the Indian economy. If VP Singh had not felt the pressure of being toppled from within the Janata Dal, he might not have pushed ahead with the implementation of the Mandal commission report. And if the Rajiv government again had allowed a poor Muslim widow Shahbano her right to maintenance, it is likely that Mr Advani's "minority appeasement" politics that culminated in a rath yatra as a symbol of "Hindu resurgence" might have never resonated.

The similarities don't end there. None of the three were natural mass leaders. Rao had a very brief tenure as Andhra chief minister and had to seek refuge in Maharashtra for a Lok Sabha ticket. VP Singh too, had limited influence in his home state of Uttar Pradesh and owed his rise to the benevolence of the Gandhi family. Advani too, has never had a "home" base as such, having been elected from constituencies as varied as New Delhi and Gandhinagar. In a sense their becoming 'mascots' of big ideas gave them a political relevance which their rather dour, uncharismatic personalities would never have otherwise allowed.

A sharp contrast can be drawn for example between an Advani and an Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The latter was a "natural" politician, a wonderful orator, skilled parliamentarian, and statesman-like leader. He had the "common touch". By contrast, Advani was the strategist and ideologue, uncomfortable in public gatherings but adept at strengthening the party's organisational base. Vajpayee may get the plaudits as a three time prime minister, but lets be clear: without Advani's perseverance there would have been no alternate pole created to end Congress hegemony. If Vajpayee was a flamboyant Tendulkar-like batsman, Advani was the Dravid-like Wall of the BJP.

With their limited mass appeal, it is also no surprise that the Rao-VP-Advani troika were eventually devoured, or overtaken by their own revolutions. Having unleashed market-friendly economics, Rao was in no position to handle a family-led party which instinctively looked at a non Nehru-Gandhi leader as an outsider. It is typical of the Congress culture that the party chose to credit a bureaucrat like Manmohan Singh for the end of the licence-permit raj rather than a hardened politician like Rao. Dr Singh was ready to be his master's voice in sharp contrast to a Rao who was emerging as a threat to the dynasty.

VP Singh too, as an upper caste Thakur, could never compete with the rising OBC political juggernaut unleashed by the Mandalisation of north India. Once the Lalus and Mulayams had tasted power in the early 1990s, they were not going to share the power and the glory with anyone else. They had the political chutzpah and the confidence to build their own personality cults. VP, like Rao, passed away a sad, forlorn figure, aware that he was on the wrong side of a history which he had helped create.

And so to Advani, the man who has outlived his contemporaries. Through the 80s and 90s, Advani mentored a generation of young BJP leaders, including a certain Narendra Modi, who even was his charioteer during his Ayodhya rath Yatra. Cut in the Hindutva cloth, some of these leaders showed the aptitude and the appetite to sharpen the ideological base which Mr Advani had nurtured by adding the mantra of good governance. None did it better than the Gujarat chief minister. Hindu nationalism plus Suraj: why would a younger, more restive BJP rank and file not back a new poster boy and discard the old warhorse? A demographic shift necessitated a political coup.

Ironically, it was to protect the original Hindutva constituency that Advani had chosen to insist on Modi continuing in Gandhinagar in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. Removing Modi at the time felt the BJP's ideologue would send the wrong message to the party's cadres. Among the many "what ifs" in Indian political history we can add one more: what if during the BJP's national executive in Panaji in 2002, the BJP had chosen to follow Vajpayee's 'rajdharma' and change the Gujarat chief minister instead of following the Advani line? In his more reflective moments, the eternal political yatri must surely ask himself that question.

Post-script: Most pundits have been writing political obituaries of Mr Advani. The fact is, similar epitaphs were written of Vajpayee in the early 90s after the rise of Advani. And yet, in 1996, coalition compulsions made the "inclusive" Vajpayee the BJP's prime ministerial choice. What if the NDA doesn't get the 272-plus a Modi candidacy promises? Will there be another final twist in the Advani saga?


More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.


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