For three days LK Advani sat listening; the BJP's old yatri did not miss a single session of the BJP's national executive meet. On Friday, when his turn came to speak, he offered the out-of- power cadres of his party some tips for success. It was less speech and more counseling session as he said: "Be clean yourself, so you can attack opponents on corruption; be united, do not speak in multiple voices, and, the BJP needs to be not an opposition party but a credible alternative."
Mr Advani's worry is that while the Congress, he says, is declining, the BJP is not benefitting. He has already nudged the party in the direction of a "positive campaign" to replace the shrill rant on corruption and few wasted Parliament sessions that have brought no gains for the party. Party president Nitin Gadkari took that cue and said yesterday, "Let's not be known as the party of opposition. Let us be known as a party of good governance."
Mr Advani said today that in an "anti-Congress sentiment and public anger", he saw a space that the BJP must fill. But to effectively attack opponents on issues like corruption, he said, the party could not spare its own when they were at fault. "We should be equally tough on corruption in our own governments, as tough as we are on our opponents," Mr Advani said. The message would not be lost in faraway Karnataka, where the BJP rules and where party strongman BS Yeddyurappa has rebelled for not being reinstated as Chief Minister. Mr Yeddyurappa, who has been implicated in multiple corruption cases, stayed away from the Surajkund meet and in Bangalore held a parallel press conference today where he praised the Congress for backing its people.
Mr Advani asked party workers to be prepared for elections before 2014, when the term of the Manmohan Singh government is scheduled to end. So sure was he, he said, that the Congress-led UPA government would implode, with difficult allies pulling it down, that he wanted the BJP to even start thinking of finalising its candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. "Ten days back if someone would have asked me whether the government will fall, I would say, government is in ICU, on ventilator and the ventilator was not likely to be removed before 2014. But now, some of the allies are feeling that sooner the government falls it's better. Today, it seems almost certain.., it may happen that the government will fall in a year's time," he said.
Mr Advani has drawn that conclusion from events of the last two weeks. Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress walked out of the UPA last week to protest against new reforms like a diesel price hike, a cap of subsidised LPG and allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. All of this week, an NCP crisis in Mumbai has kept the UPA on tenterhooks. Then, at a meeting of its coordination committee of allies yesterday, the DMK, now the Congress' largest ally in government, was openly critical of the recent reform measures. The NCP, which is headed by Sharad Pawar, sought that a cap of six subsidized cooking gas cylinders for a family, be reconsidered. Even Mulayam Singh Yadav, who rescued the UPA government by reaffirming his party's external support to the government last week - he said it was to keep out the BJP - has made it clear that he cannot support the decision on FDI in retail.
Mr Advani's influence is also apparent in the party now deciding to go all guns blazing on the issue of FDI in retail. It had so far gone slow on the senior leader's suggestion that the government be attacked on the issue and a special session of Parliament be demanded to discuss it. On Thursday, the pro-reform right wing party took a left turn and spelt out its intent to make it an anti-aam aadmi issue. At the heart of that is the danger of the Congress staging a political come-back if its "reforms are back" agenda clicks.
The Advani session would also serve to highlight a saffron dilemma. Is the 85 year-old slipping into a mentor's role or is he still a contender to be the face of the party in the next general elections?
The BJP's parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is improving its grip on the BJP. On Thursday the party cleared a change in its rules to ensure that Nitin Gadkari will be party president for a second term and so in 2014 when elections are held. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is clearly the RSS' pick as the face of tomorrow. But Mr Advani continues to have a hold on the BJP. How the Sangh Parivar deals with the relevance of Mr Advani could well decide the BJP's fate.