India's Political Patriarch Holds Back His Autumn

The grand old man of Indian politics stays in the picture.

Old politicians never die, they just harangue on. Pardon the dubious pun, but it is a fitting way to describe the recent behavior of the opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani, 85, the grand old man of Indian politics.

Advani has been in public life for as long as India has been a nation. He began his political career in 1947, the year that colonial India split into the nation-states of India and Pakistan. His peak came more than half a century later: He was home minister in the center-right coalition in power between 1998 and 2004. During this period, he thought of himself as the prime-minister-in-waiting, only for his party to suffer a sudden reverse in the next elections from which it has not yet recovered.

Last week, Advani found himself, or perceived himself to be, decisively sidelined by the BJP, the party he helped found in 1980. At a conclave in Goa where Advani was conspicuous by his absence, the party selected Narendra Modi, 62, the chief minister of Gujarat, to be the chief of the campaign committee for next year's national elections.

The very next day, Advani resorted to the classic, guilt-generating gambit of the spurned patriarch: He accused the other members of the family of dividing the house. In a damning letter to the party president announcing his resignation from all party posts, Advani wrote:

All my life I have found working for the Jana Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party a matter of great pride and endless satisfaction to myself.

For some time I have been finding it difficult to reconcile either with the current functioning of the party, or the direction in which it is going. I no longer have the feeling that this is the same idealistic party created by Dr Mookerji, Deen Dayalji, Nanaji and Vajpayeeji whose sole concern was the country, and its people. Most leaders of ours are now concerned just with their personal agendas.

I have decided, therefore, to resign from the three main fora of the party.

Patriarchs are possessed of a great moral force in India, their worldly power amplified by the rule drummed into every young Indian person's brain about "always having respect for elders." When they sense a challenge, patriarchs often take the route of deliberate retreat and public self-abasement, knowing that their actions will unsettle and embarrass the whole family.

So it was in the case of the BJP, a party publicly committed to "Hindu values." "We firmly believe in the Indian tradition in which the senior-most member of the family should not be hurt," a BJP spokesman said on national television. After two days of high drama in which the younger generation of party leaders -- that is, people in their 50s, 60s and 70s -- agonized about the grand paterfamilias, the high command decided that Advani's grievances would be addressed if he would return to the fold. Advani withdrew his resignation, all the talk about idealism and personal agendas forgotten. Having tested the extent of his power, he could, incredibly, become prime minister in 2014. It is a position he has always craved and repeatedly sought, only to find himself just out of tune with the times.

To give Advani his due, he is the most creative, if not the most constructive, of contemporary Indian politicians. Advani's longest and deepest allegiance is to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a national volunteer organization formed in 1925. The Sangh's core idea is that "Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindustan" (the ancient name for India) and that a modern movement for "national reconstruction" is required to revive a Hindu majority made supine by colonialism and a too-generous accommodation of India's many "others." Its vision of a Hindu state is a radical and even militant one when considered in the light of the secularism intended by independent India's constitution. For decades the Hindu nationalist movement in India was the source merely of an impotent sound and fury. Advani was the grand strategist who put it on the map politically.

The current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, enjoys the reputation of being the architect of the economic reforms that liberalized the economy in 1991 and set India on the way to becoming a new power. Today, he is widely derided as ineffectual and uncharismatic, but when he steps down next year, his legacy will show that ideas are a greater force than personalities. Curiously, the same meaning could be drawn from Advani's career. But while Singh's big idea tried to lift all boats, Advani's was more like a zero-sum game. Hindus must seek more; others must be content with less.

In the 1980s, after a spell in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-supported party, the Jana Sangh, Advani founded a new political party, the BJP. The party's main argument was that the secularism that now served as the default setting of Indian politics was, in Advani's words, "almost always anti-Hindu, and never against any other faith." Advani's political genius lay not just in his rhetorical dexterity -- unusually for a modern Indian politician he loves to write argumentative prose, and his English is excellent -- but also in his choice of emotive symbol for the movement. He alighted upon a mosque, the Babri Masjid, built in the northern town of Ayodhya in the 16th century on a site traditionally identified as the birthplace of the legendary king Rama, hero of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

The movement caught fire, helped by Advani's 1990 tour of northern India on a chariot. Advani was on the scene when a group of Hindu activists outrageously tore down the Babri Masjid in 1992, setting off a wave of sectarian violence across the country. The ensuing polarization of India's electorate worked to the BJP's advantage. The party went from strength to strength, going from two seats in the in parliament in 1984 to 182 in 1999. In less than two decades, the party had moved from the furthest fringe of Indian politics into the halls of power. Advani, the hardliner, became home minister in the new center-right coalition government formed that year with the BJP as its hub; Atal Behari Vajpayee, the liberal face of the party, became prime minister.

Advani hoped to replace Vajpayee in the 2004 elections, but the ruling coalition, the NDA, was voted out of power. Meanwhile, the allure of Hindu majoritarianism as a political ideal was beginning to fade. Advani had taken it as far as it could go, and the BJP would need a more inclusive agenda and a new generation of leaders to remain relevant to an electorate in which two-thirds were under the age of 35 and had no investment in the religious campaigns of the 1980s. The party, still led by Advani, failed to reinvent itself sufficiently in the elections of 2009, and lost further ground to the coalition led by the Congress. This time, it was the RSS itself -- to which the BJP always defers -- that suggested to Advani that he let a younger leader take on the role of the leader of the opposition in Parliament, a job he ceded to the politician Sushma Swaraj.

Advani was now supposed to oversee the transition to the next generation of the BJP, represented by Modi. But when you've been in public life all your adult life, it can be hard to step back. And as Advani said once about his advancing years, "The only health problem I have is it is very good." One might surmise that when he views Modi's rise within the party, Advani sees (and envies) a man very much like himself, but two decades younger -- a belligerent demagogue and chauvinist who aspires to the peak of Indian political life.

Modi's as yet unproved role in the terrible religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 remains, however, a black mark on his record and a source of permanent embarrassment to him. Most crucially, with India firmly ensconced since 1989 in an era of coalition politics, both its major parties, the Congress and the BJP, need the support of smaller formations to cobble together a majority. So even if Modi were to bring the BJP within range of forming the next government after next year's elections, the smaller parties in any coalition might demand a less controversial consensus prime ministerial candidate.

No one could bring more experience than Advani, who stitched together the NDA in the first place. Should that happen, last week's tantrum would have been worth it, and the autumn of this seemingly ageless patriarch would give way to a surprising spring.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.