//The chariot-rider

The chariot-rider

4 11 2011

by J Sri Raman

Advani’s repeated attempts to reinvent himself in the image of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a more widely ‘acceptable’ candidate for the prime minister’s post than any other leader in the party or the parivar (the far-right family), are no secret

When the chips are down, the tireless warrior summons his trusty chariot again. Lal Krishna Advani finds himself back on a vehicle of mythological wars driven by a more modern fuel.

This is the sixth Rath Yatra (chariot ride) to be undertaken by the veteran of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a former deputy prime minister. It all started over 21 years ago, when he proposed in a party forum a Pada Yatra (a pilgrimage on foot) to rouse public awareness of the promising Babri Masjid issue. Pramod Mahajan, a bright young spark of the BJP then who made an impact by being one of the first politicians to flaunt a mobile phone, thought that the times demanded a more technology-aided travel mode. Thus was born Advani’s first rath, an imported Toyota mini-bus.

The yatra proved a big success. Launched on September 25, 1990, in Gujarat’s symbolically chosen Somnath, it did not last even a month as Advani was arrested in the then Lalu Prasad-ruled Bihar on October 23. But it had left by then a long enough trail of bloody communal strife, and was to lead to the barbaric demolition of the Babri Masjid two years later, bringing unprecedented political benefits to the BJP. Advani has not looked back since then.

Popular television serial ‘Mahabharat’, which ran from October 1988 to June 1990, had made the rath a reminder of India’s past glory, especially to ‘cultural nationalists’ of the BJP kind. Advani took it all forward. In 1993, he went on a Janadesh (popular mandate) Yatra, to protest in particular against the proposed constitutional 80th Amendment Bill, seeking to delink religion from politics. Followed by a Swarna Jayanti (golden anniversary) Yatra to mark 50 years of India’s independence.

Then came the Bharat Uday (India shining) Yatra from Kanyakumari to Amritsar and from Rajkot to Jagannath Puri in March 2004, on the eve of a general election. This was the least rewarding of Advani’s rath yatras, with the ‘Shining India’ slogan actually losing the election for his party. The Bharat Suraksha Yatra (for defence of India) against the Congress-led government’s policies on terrorism did not yield a political bonanza either.

Advani seemed to entertain higher hopes, however, from the current Jan Chetana (popular awareness) Yatra directed against the series of corruption scams rocking the country over the recent period. The 38-day chariot ride, launched on October 11, to cover over 10,000 km, is proving far more challenging than he might have foreseen.

Technologically, the rath represents a remarkable improvement. A luxurious Volvo bus has replaced the Toyota, and it boasts fittings and facilities including a lift and internet connectivity, besides a kitchen and space for at least six co-passengers. Unlike in the past instances, the yatra will take in a few flights as well as it covers 23 states, including the North-East and the Andaman-Nicobar islands. But there have been enough problems and bickering within the party and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to make the ride more than a little bumpy.

Speculation about Advani’s real intentions has been louder thus far than about the possible political impact of the yatra. His repeated attempts to reinvent himself in the image of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a more widely ‘acceptable’ candidate for the prime minister’s post than any other leader in the party or the parivar (the far-right family), are no secret, really. The attempts have failed so far. Advani is trying harder this time by avoiding stopovers altogether on this yatra at either Ayodhya or Somnath.

The yatra, however, is proving accident-prone indeed — even in a literal sense. Soon after the yatra’s start, the rath developed a snag that caused nausea for Advani’s colleagues and obliged him to get a standby chariot from Karnataka. The rath also got stuck under a railway bridge near Patna. But these were trivial problems, compared to other troubles.

One of these was reflected in a joke doing the rounds. Advani, it is said, would have done better to choose a Tata Nano car, known also as the ‘people’s car’ for its puny size and capacity, and thus give his party a pro-aam aadmi (common man) image. The crack does not conceal a reference to the fact of a special rapport between the House of Tatas and Narendra Modi who gave the small car project a place of pride and privilege in his Gujarat after West Bengal had shunted it out.

The reference was really to competitive politics between Advani and Modi, to which the country has been an amused witness over recent months. Advani’s fervent anti-corruption yatra began after Modi’s fast, believe it or not, for “communal harmony”. And the yatra, scheduled to start originally from Gujarat, was shifted to Bihar where chief minister Nitish Kumar has been chary of sharing even an election dais with Modi. The strongman of Gujarat, meanwhile, is continuing with a series of fasts for his strikingly ironic cause.

Advani has been denied the reassurance of support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), patriarch of the parivar, as one of its oldest activists. The RSS, in fact, is said to have insisted on several other BJP leaders accompanying him on his yatra, to ensure that every one of them gets a fair share of fake anti-graft credit.

Nothing, however, has proved a bigger speed-breaker for the yatra than the corruption scams in Karnataka, the only BJP-ruled state in the south. Former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, overthrown after an ombudsman’s report, was arrested in a case of land grab just days after pilgrim Advani’s progress towards “probity in public life”. Advani has disavowed any soft corner for Yeddyurappa, but we will wait to see if rhetoric against corruption stays the same after his yatra enters Karnataka.

It is a different kind of nausea that seizes the country, as it watches the spectacle of a spurious far-right war on corruption.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

From: Daily Times, October 21, 2011