AFTER THE CONSECRATION, the consolation. As the new Ram temple in Ayodhya, built on the grief and patience of faith validated by law, opened its doors to the devotees, Lal Krishna Advani
was elsewhere. He was the one who turned the cultural hurt of the Hindu into a political swell and took the message of the displaced god to the electoral arena and beyond, into the drawing rooms of middle-class India. He dared, and, challenging the cosy assumptions of “pseudo-secularism”, his word, tapped into geography and history, mythology and memory, to make Ayodhya the epicentre of Hindu nationalism. The demolition on December 6 in 1992 “saddened” him, for it was a terrifying finale to a journey undertaken by Indian politics’ most ambitious nationalist, but deep within him, the ambition would remain only partially fulfilled. The first BJP government in India was indebted to the traveller who covered the longest distance in cultural nationalism, but he was not destined to lead it. And the God of Ayodhya, too, is indebted, but he could not have been there to bask in the glow of Ram’s homecoming, even though for so long that was the leitmotif of his politics. Then the Bharat Ratna. The consolation meant a lot.
Irony followed him. LK Advani, the man who brought the power of grief a displaced god felt to the ballot box, was the politician who could not hide his own grievance as the eternal Number Two. And when he thought his moment had finally come in the General Election of 2009, his campaign for his own redemption, unlike the one he led for the restoration of his god, didn’t work either. Still, he could have been in power, as the patron saint of the Indian Right. He should have accepted the honour that rightly belonged to him: the ideological guru of the new establishment. Instead, he withdrew into a shell of resentment, a metaphorical return journey of Indian politics’ long-distance traveller, and it was the loneliest of retreats. It showed what an overwhelming sense of unfulfilment could do to a man who could not reconcile with the incompatibility of his ambition and the altered reality of Indian politics. The isolation that he preferred to the power of the original proselytiser on the Right was the result of a wrong self-assessment. India, or his party, never assessed him as the rightful prime minister BJP never had. He, inflaming the baggage of hurt he collected along the way, assessed himself as a mentor who had not been rewarded by his protégés. And he never wanted this self-inflicted wound to heal.
Blinded by resentment, the traveller took routes he thought would gain him a place in a history that was otherwise unbearably cruel. At Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi in 2005, by paying tribute to the essential humanism and secularism of Pakistan’s creator, he hoped to be feted as a reconciler, and it only brought out what distance he was prepared to cover for solace and sunshine. It was more than the case of a desperate traveller trapped in the wilderness finding himself one day in the wrong place with a wrong epigraph to a wrong hero. It was more than just another pause in his travels, seeking validation from history. It was, in retrospect, a failure to see that history had never denied him his due. It was a failure to realise that his struggle for power was bigger than the rewards he expected from his party. Advani, in his autumnal isolation, allowed himself to be weighed down by the memories of political ingratitude when nobody was ungrateful. His legacy was intact. It still is.
The bestowal of the Bharat Ratna, in the afterglow of the consecration, is not an act of forgiveness by a government whose genealogy can be traced to his original revolt against the presumptions of secularism, but certainly not against secularism itself. It is not an act of gratuitousness or gratitude. It is an act of acknowledging his contribution to the most epochal transformation in Indian politics, the worth of which he himself seems to have failed to comprehend in the onrush of disillusionment. It was he who began the project of New India with a Hindu cultural accent, which is currently taken to new heights by his erstwhile protégé. An India where a Narendra Modi was made possible is indebted to the man who dared to hit the long road to Hindutva, defying the received wisdom of the “pseudo-secular” state. For Advani the nationalist, to be a political Hindu was not a badge of anti-secularism but a cultural correction of secularism itself. Lal Krishna Advani, Bharat Ratna, is a reminder of the origin story of the India Narendra Modi is rebuilding.