I have never believed that the Babri Masjid’s demolition on December 6, 1992 was the “saddest day” in L. K. Advani’s life.

Nor do I see him as the face of ‘moderate Hindutva’ — an oxymoron much like the ‘Good Taliban’, with whom the Americans aren’t averse to doing business. As an inherently divisive ideology, Hindutva is simply incompatible with the idea of India represented by Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar.

What cannot be doubted about Advani, however, is his absolute commitment to the party that he built from scratch. It is this, more than any deep-seated desire to occupy 7 Race Course Road at the age of 86, that explains his recent, albeit unsuccessful, efforts at thwarting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) choice of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the Lok Sabha polls due in 2014.

Saffron downhill

Being someone who knows the pulse of India’s electorate beyond Gujarat, Advani has every reason to resist the projection of Modi.

Since the general elections of 1999, when it won 182 seats, the BJP’s total numbers in the Lok Sabha have successively dipped to 138 in 2004 and 116 in 2009. The party’s national vote share has also fallen from 23.75 to 18.8 per cent over this period.

If the above decline could be attributed to any one person or phenomenon, it is Modi and the anti-Muslim pogrom that had taken place under his rule in Gujarat in 2002. Those riots — perhaps the first in the age of real-time television coverage — evoked a different kind of minority reaction, expressed through the ballot rather than the bullet. And that involved a shift in approach, from merely not voting for the BJP to one of voting for the party best-placed to defeat the BJP.

The results of the new voting behaviour were seen in the 2004 polls, where the BJP lost heavily, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar where Muslims constitute close to a fifth of their population. Even its alliance partners such as the Trinamool Congress, Telugu Desam Party and Janata Dal United (JDU) bit the dust in their respective states, with the communists, the Congress and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal being the beneficiaries of ‘strategic voting’ by Muslims here.

Lonely without allies

As the new reality — of minorities casting their 15-20 per cent votes in favour of the strongest non-BJP party/candidate in any state/constituency — dawned, the allies were the first to jump ship, barring the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and JDU. Even the last one made its support conditional upon Modi not being allowed to campaign in Bihar!

The 2009 election results more or less reinforced what happened in 2004, though, in this case, it may have been Varun Gandhi’s vitriolic anti-Muslim speeches more than Modi that cost the BJP dearly, at least in UP.

The BJP is today in a position where it has virtually no presence in the entire eastern/north-eastern region, been booted out in the only southern state (Karnataka) where it was till recently in power, competes with the Congress for the No. 3 slot in UP, and faces the prospect of reverses in Bihar due to an impending break-up with JDU over the issue of Modi’s candidature as Prime Minister. Even in 2009, the BJP won half of its seats in western and central India, where Muslims are not as electorally significant (see table).

The one man within the BJP truly aware of Modi being a liability outside Gujarat has been Advani.

The need to project someone more ‘acceptable’ in order to expand its coalition base — which is what enabled the party to win seats even in states like Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh — is also something that he has learnt from years of electoral battleground experience.

In ignoring Advani’s sane counsel and practically humiliating him, the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), clearly believes that Modi’s enviable development record in the last ten years as Gujarat Chief Minister will exorcise the spectre of the 2002 riots. His larger-than-life Vikas Purush image, it is assumed, will have a pan-Indian appeal that is good enough to give the BJP 175-200 seats on its own, forcing even old allies to come back.

Vikas myths

But there are two things to be noted here. The first is for all that his spin doctors might say, Modi’s role in Gujarat’s development is over-hyped. Gujarat had Amul, Ambani, Adani, Nirma, Torrent, Zydus Cadila, IPCL, GSFC or GNFC — not to speak of Rajkot’s machine tool and diesel engine industry or the diamond processing hubs of Surat and Bhavnagar — well before Modi became Chief Minister. Nor was Bt cotton’s success specific to Gujarat.

The ones, if at all, having better claims to bringing more than incremental development to their states are Modi’s fellow-BJP counterparts in Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh. Under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, MP’s contribution to national wheat procurement has gone up from hardly 500,000 tonnes to 8.5 million tonnes, with farmers being paid an extra Rs 100/quintal over the Centre’s minimum support price. Raman Singh has achieved no less with paddy in Chhattisgarh, besides creating a functioning universal public distribution system in a state where ration shops barely existed. And these, unlike Gujarat, happen to be backward Bimaru states — a point Advani forcefully made as an obvious counter to Modi’s tall claims.

Secondly, if history is any guide, the ghosts of the past keep coming back to haunt the perpetrators of conflicts. Again, no one knows it better than Advani, who could never overcome the stigma of the Rath Yatra of 1990 leading to the Babri mosque’s destruction (despite singing paeans to Mohammad Ali Jinnah and being forced by the RSS to resign as BJP President for that).

Modi is far from being someone capable of rewriting or changing the course of history. As a polarising figure, he is the worst bet for the BJP and probably the sole hope for a sinking ship called the Congress.