As BJP’s Modi rises, the fall of Advani serves a cautionary tale

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On Sunday, December 6, 1992, 25 years ago, a 400-year-old mosque was destroyed because a sizable group of Hindus, mobilized by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believed that it was built on an ancient temple commemorating the birth of Hinduism’s mythological Lord-King Rama.

It was a local dispute that become a national-level tool for political mobilization; it was seen as a civilizational settling of scores by Hindus who had suffered a millennium of Muslim invasion and rule.

Indeed, for many years it was not important that a new temple be built in place of the torn-down Babri Masjid (incidentally named for the 16th-century founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur); it was enough that the invaders’ mark had been erased. Indeed, for a generation of hardliners, that may have been the limited symbolic goal. For Indian Muslims collectively, this day marks a big turning point, existentially.

The man who spearheaded the sharp turn right for the Indian polity was Lal Krishna Advani, the firebrand president of the BJP who a decade later, in February 2002, became deputy prime minister.

Advani was fearsome in those days. In 1990, he traveled on a customized Toyota from Gujarat, where a temple had previously been claimed during the tenure of India’s first deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, just after India’s independence in 1947. (Incidentally, Gujarat is currently in the process of holding state legislature elections.)

Advani’s “rath yatra” (chariot ride) was to end in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where the controversial Babri Mosque stood. He took breaks along the way, holding rallies where BJP workers would offer bowls of blood (a symbol of purity, as opposed to the blood of descendants of “invaders”); often the rallies would be followed by inter-communal rioting.

The dispute was in court, and a few months before December 6, 1992, Advani had assured the courts that nothing would happen to the mosque. Media collusion also ensured that the drills for demolishing the mosque that took place on site for weeks were never highlighted.

That day 25 years ago was Advani’s peak; it was also the beginning of his decline. He tried to portray himself as an intellectual in the years after, but he could never outsmart his old colleague and eventual prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Worst of all, the prime minister of India, P V Narasimha Rao of the Congress party, did nothing during the six hours of that Sunday afternoon while the mosque was being torn down. He was a man who followed a philosophy of inaction itself being an action; and possibly he thought the BJP would no longer have an electoral card to play once the mosque no longer existed. He himself said nothing, which led his predecessor Chandra Shekhar to refer to him repeatedly in Parliament as “mauni baba” (the monk with a vow of silence).

That day 25 years ago was Advani’s peak; it was also the beginning of his decline. He tried to portray himself as an intellectual in the years after, but he could never outsmart his old colleague and eventual prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who though on the right of the political spectrum was more of a social democrat than a nationalist-populist – more of an Angela Merkel than a Marine Le Pen.

The trouble with Advani was that he was a demagogue, not a politician. In his six years in government in New Delhi (1998-2004) he was more a bureaucrat than a decider.

In charge of the Home Ministry, he ceded all initiative to his prime minister. When Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi, he conveniently disappeared from the Crisis Management Group meeting that decided to exchange three terrorists for the release of the plane’s passengers.

When it came to India-Pakistan relations, the closest the two countries came to a peace agreement was in June 2001 at Agra, Uttar Pradesh. The summit between Vajpayee and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had been facilitated jointly by Advani and the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi, Ashraf Qazi; yet in Agra, finding himself ignored by the Pakistanis, Advani scuttled an agreement.

Despite his hardline rise, in power Advani did nothing of note. He did, however, stop Vajpayee from firing a chief minister: This was Narendra Modi of Gujarat, who allegedly did nothing to stop rioting in his state in 2002, which led to the brutal killing of more than a thousand Muslims. (This also marked Modi’s political rise to his current job, as prime minister.)

After he left government, Advani took a trip to Pakistan to soften his image, but it did not work. He was unable to win the 2009 parliamentary election because he was neither on the right nor on the left. And when Modi finally took over, in what can only be described as cruel irony, he prevented Advani’s return to government and instead dispatched him to a harmless party posting as an elder and guide.

Tuesday marked the final hearings at the Supreme Court on the ownership of the disputed mosque-temple. It is speculated that the court will divide the land so that the Ram temple can finally be built over the ruins of the Babri Mosque.

Modi, who is facing a tough election in his home state due to perceived economic mismanagement, would be happy to revive this hardline issue ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election. Except that he ought to take note of the trajectory of the previous hardliner’s career, and worry about the harder right in his party that is breathing down his neck, waiting to dispatch him to retirement.

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