In politics, timing is everything. In more normal times, L.K. Advani’s blog, written partially in response to my column last week, could have been viewed as an intervention on inner-party democracy or, more specifically, the BJP’s ability to respond to adversity. Unfortunately, the blog was uploaded on May 31, in the immediate aftermath of the BJP National Executive in Mumbai and on the day that the NDA (of which he is the Chairman) organised a reasonably successful Bharat bandh to protest against the steep hike in petrol prices. In other words, while the party’s foot soldiers were out in the streets on an unbearably hot day, Advani diverted attention to navel gazing.

Admittedly, playing spoil-sport, even if it was only to contest my assessment of the Mumbai National Executive meeting, may not have been uppermost in the mind of the BJP patriarch. But his unequivocal assertion that there was widespread popular disappointment with the party and internal disenchantment with some of its recent moves ended up suggesting one of two things: either that the party was deeply divided or that Advani himself was out of tune with the organisation he has so lovingly built over the past three decades. 

In a mass party of the size and diversity of the BJP, it is near-impossible to believe that every functionary will be on the same page. Even in the heady days of the Ayodhya movement, it was hardly a secret that Atal Behari Vajpayee harboured misgivings of the BJP’s hyper-involvement in the agitation. Yet, it was also true that Vajpayee’s scepticism was not shared by the overwhelming majority of the party, and this was a reason why Advani, strongly backed by the RSS, was preferred over Vajpayee for the Leader of Opposition post in 1991. Of course, Vajpayee’s dissent happened in the pre-Breaking News age.

In today’s BJP, there are many shades of opinion jostling for attention. Consensus-building is tortuous and often involves leaving issues unresolved for longer than is strictly necessary—as happened in the case of Uttarakhand and as is happening in Karnataka. More often than not it also produces patch-work compromises that fail the test of wider political acceptability.

For the BJP, the exercise in collective decision-making has not always yielded satisfactory results for two reasons. Since the Jinnah controversy and the retirement of Vajpayee from active politics, the BJP no longer has a pre-eminent leader who can take a final call, even if it involves offending colleagues. Advani was unquestionably the tallest leader and a person who enjoyed wide respect of all. However, following the BJP’s failure to make the grade in the presidential-style campaign of the 2009 general election, his ability to get his way on different issues is carrying diminishing returns.

One of the reasons for this is a mismatch of perception over the veteran leader’s role. Whereas most of the party views Advani as a mentor occupying the largely ceremonial role of Chairman of the NDA, Advani sees himself as an active player in the day-to-day affairs of the party and a person who still calls the shots. It is not that his views are disregarded or that he is kept out of the party’s important decision-making bodies, but that his word is no longer final. It is a human problem. The world around Advani has changed but he has not moved with the times.

The consequences have been tragic. Advani may imagine that he is expressing his heartfelt anguish and echoing the sentiments of those exasperated by the delay in creating a viable alternative to a discredited UPA. However, to the party faithful he is increasingly appearing in the garb of a faction leader and a pliant instrument of those who have scores to settle with colleagues. Advani may reflect on the fact that while his blog has aroused fierce media interest, it has generated very little sympathy from within the BJP.

In Mumbai, the BJP moved one step closer to finding a new equilibrium. First, it took the first tentative steps in anointing a leader who can step into the shoes of Vajpayee and Advani. On his part, former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has identified the man explicitly and this was echoed in the public meeting at Mumbai. Secondly, in keeping with the enhanced importance of states in the polity, the BJP chose to formally recognise the importance of regional leaders in national affairs. There were many things the National Executive left unaddressed. The most important of these is the policy orientation of the party which is increasingly looking very ad-hoc. But at least a beginning was made in recasting the party to suit contemporary realities.

The BJP is in the throes of a delicate transition to a new order. Like any new enterprise, there are grave risks and many uncertainties. There are also dangers that the removal of one set of problems could lead to the creation of new distortions, the most import of which is ideological insularity. With his long experience, Advani has a key role to play in the run-up to the next general election. Every organisation can do with a father figure who can iron out the creases, provide encouragement and caution, and inspire with his record of selflessness. Like his favourite A.K. Hangal contemplating a comeback, Advani can enrich a good story. He must leave the business of drawing in the crowds to someone else.