Book Excerpt: How Advani's Doubts Made Way for Modi

It is due to Modi's persistence, not riven by self-doubt or circumspection like his one-time mentor, Advani, that enough Indians began believing in the BJP's notion of cultural nationalism.

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This excerpt was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

If eventually [Lal Krishna] Advani failed to realise his ambition of becoming PM, the reasons lay in his later diffidence over the Ram temple issue. These self-doubts were not merely his, but shared by several in the Hindutva fraternity. These misgivings had nothing to do with Advani’s capacity to lead an electoral campaign on the issue, but were over the BJP being seen as a single-issue party…

‘The Demolition and the  Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India,’ Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Speaking Tiger Books, 2021.

[In contrast, from] as early as October-November 1989, much before Gujarat began being referred to as Hindutva’s laboratory, Modi had concluded that the Ayodhya agitation had opened the gates of electoral success for the BJP in Gujarat. Although secretary of the state unit, he was relatively junior at 39. His viewpoint that the BJP should contest parliamentary elections independently, and not in alliance with the Janata Dal, was turned down by seniors, Advani included. During negotiations, Modi wanted parity – 26 parliamentary seats from the state, apportioned equally. Others, unsure of the public appeal for the Ram temple agitation’s timbre, agreed to 12 seats that the Janata Dal was willing to give. Modi’s confidence was not ill-founded – the BJP won each seat it contested, while the JD lost three of the 14 it fought. Having scored a point within his party, Modi was elevated as principal negotiator for the Assembly elections in February 1990…

On his visit to Pakistan in June 2005, Advani – as part of a rebranding exercise – hailed Muhammad Ali Jinnah as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. Neither he nor the regime in Islamabad recalled that in a case dating back to 1948, Advani was named as a conspirator in a plot to assassinate Jinnah. Two days prior to this public praise of the person who developed the two-nation theory, Advani distanced himself from the concept of akhand Bharat. He also admitted to Partition being “an unalterable reality of history”. This tactic did not enable him to win over the middle ground in Indian politics and simultaneously, he lost his hold on the right…

It took the BJP two decades (since its three core issues were glossed over when it formed coalition governments in 1998 and again in 1999) to secure support in Parliament to do away with Article 370. In another three months, the party had the gratification of seeing a large section of society hailing the Supreme Court verdict on the disputed property in Ayodhya. In between, it had also sneaked in a promise which it delivered on, although it was not part of the ‘contentious three’: criminalising triple talaq or instantaneous divorce among Muslims.

Over the two decades after the demolition, the Ram temple campaign as a political instrument or tool of political mobilisation was used just once – in 2002. The BJP and its affiliates within the Sangh Parivar kept the Ayodhya issue in the national consciousness with a steady infusion of issues, having the foundations of Hindutva in its core. The only time that the Ram temple caused massive political uproar, in March-April 2002, it led to the rise in the national arena of the man who from 2014 onward played a pivotal role in guiding the religio-cultural brotherhood to political power.

Indeed, the rise of Narendra Modi is as much due to his consistent criticism by adversaries, as it is because of his steady articulation of the belief that Indianness, Bharatiyata and Hindutva are synonyms, the basis of India’s national identity. It is due to his persistence, not riven by self-doubt or circumspection like his one-time mentor, Advani, that enough Indians began believing in the notion that “cultural nationalism is the most potent antidote to communalism, divisiveness, and separatism of every kind … a guarantor of national unity and national integration.”

Excerpted from The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, Speaking Tiger Books, 336 pages, Rs 420.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.