Debating India

CAMPAIGN/BJP

Those Steeds, Reined In

John MARY

Monday 22 March 2004, by MARY*John

The uday yatra theme is nationalism as development. But it makes a tepid start.

It’s now certain that deputy prime minister L.K. Advani wants an image makeover. For, if there was any symbolism at the start of his 33-day Bharat uday yatra, it was the huge presence of minority leaders. No Ayodhya war cries or overt allusions to his old pet themes-though the locale, India’s peninsular edge Kanyakumari, unfailingly plays the cue for this emotional brand of politics. Instead, to send Advani off on his long ride there was Zain-ul-Abedin, the dewan of Ajmer Sharif; the BJP’s Muslim showboys, Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Arif Mohammed Khan; and two Kerala Christian leaders.

Though Advani did pray at the local temple and spend a few private moments at the confluence of the three seas, no photo-op was provided. The deputy PM preferred being clicked with minority personalities. As the ultra-modern, refurbished Swaraj Mazda rolled out from the tip of

India, Advani was flanked by wife Kamala and daughter Pratibha. The idea behind the cross-country, say BJP planners, is to rev up the party’s poll machinery in the 122 constituencies through which the caravan will pass. For instance, in Thiruvananthapuram, where Advani stopped to address a gathering, BJP Union minister O. Rajagopal is locked in a stern triangular contest. Advani only told the crowd they must vote BJP so as to make India a superpower.

Clearly, this chariot won’t have wheels of fire. In Advani’s own words: "This is not a rath yatra. This is just a yatra." He was obviously trying to reassure the minorities who don’t have happy memories of his other chariot runs. At Kanyakumari itself, it became clear the theme this time was inclusion, not exclusion. His speeches blended nationalism and development: "India is more secure than ever and it’s a country whose time has come, a global power in the making."

At every opportunity, Advani sang paeans for Vajpayee. There was no mention of the Ram temple, uniform civil code or other contentious issues. As BJP chief Venkaiah Naidu put it, "We have Atal, alliance agenda and Advani." But Naidu was careful to keep his distance from the idea of projecting the BJP’s twin mascots as vikaspurush and lohpurush. The next day, he addressed a press conference in Delhi and said: "If some individuals called Advani lohpurush, they did so on their own. There’s no party line to do so."

Advani has been irritated by suggestions ever since he announced his yatra that he could be using it as an opportunity to challenge Vajpayee. Sources close to him say he likes to see himself as the dedicated partyman who will undertake the most punishing journey to strengthen the BJP and the larger cause of what Advani calls "nation-building". From the very beginning, Advani has maintained that the only link between all his yatras is "resurgent nationalism". And though this time around the concept has apparently shifted dramatically from ethno-nationalist rhetoric to real, hard issues of socio-economic development, the deputy PM’s yatra, from all indications on the ground, has failed to rouse a convalescent Kerala-whose demand for an economic relief package he had himself snipped recently.

As it went, the BJP was left adorning its cap with a few new feathers, getting award-winner actor Gopi, his wife and comedian N.L. Balakrishnan to join the party. Still, the response at wayside stops and public meetings was subdued. Occasionally, women and children could be seen lining the route. But they seemed curious rather than committed. And what more could the BJP’s second pillar expect from a state that was-by its lavish standards-drought-struck and had suffered severe successive crop failures with not a trace of ’good feeling’ in sight. And though the BJP has been trying to rope in the minorities, it was significant that Advani avoided the Muslim-dominated Malabar region of Kerala.There are areas then which the BJP still prefers to leave well alone.

There’s no doubt that the long journey will be an exacting ordeal for the deputy PM-both physically and tactically. In every state, he will have to modify his speeches and change the rhetoric. In Kerala, Advani shifted tack from attacking the Congress to the Communists whom he described as "an anachronistic presence in just two states where they are engaged in a fictitious rivalry with the Congress. A fiction because they are alternating between the A and B teams in resisting the NDA’s modernising agenda."

All in all, Advani’s yatra had a slightly tepid start. Will it gather momentum as it rolls into the Indian heartland? Indeed, the biggest worry confronting the yatra planners is that it may be eclipsed by the cricket series in Pakistan. The start at Kanyakumari was delayed for an hour from 10 am on March 10 to 11 am because Saurav Ganguly was holding a press conference in Delhi that was covered live by all the channels.

So, unless the temperature is stepped up, the yatra may not be in natural contention for headlines. But given Advani’s record in such matters, and his gift for political eloquence, one might wait and see.

P.S.

Outlook India, March 22, 2004.

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