At a recent screening of Shoojit Sarkar’s Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan-starrer, Piku, held at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the superstar was pleasantly surprised to see BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani seated beside President Pranab Mukherjee.
Advani asked the veteran, every now and then, to explain a scene or two, including those that depict the archetypal daughter-father relationship, portrayed by Padukone and himself. Once out of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Bachchan told a confidant, “I had not expected him (Advani) to be there. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Illustration / Uday Mohite
In the screening hall, the 87 year-old veteran kept himself busy by mingling with the crowd, between checking his morning and evening schedule of meetings.
Those present, say they found him agile and eager to hear, a far cry from the desolate leader who — in private — cried foul after being named marg darshak by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what was seen by political observers as an attempt to sideline the seasoned leader.
In the last six months, observers say his Prithviraj Road home has been crowded. Among those who went to seek “some advice” included Sultanpur MP Varun Gandhi, who wished to discuss governance within the party, and hoped Advani would raise it with Modi. There was senior party leader from Himachal Pradesh, Shanta Kumar, who had demanded an “Ethics Committee (which would act like Lokpal)” within the BJP to keep a check on cases like Vyapam and tainted politicians like Vasundhara Raje, Sushma Swaraj, and Pankaja Munde. Then there was Shivraj Chouhan, who wanted Advani to listen to his side of the story in the Vyapam scam.
Other visitors included 1983 World Cup winning cricketer and MP, Kirti Azad, and veteran actor, Shatrughan Sinha. While Azad talked openly against some top party leaders in the Lalit Modi scandal and his interaction with a Delhi-based publisher to write a bare-all book to expose “skeletons of Indian cricket”, Sinha raised issues of inner party democracy.
Advani, it is reliably learnt, was patient with both. He did not offer solutions, knowing well that Sinha was rapped on the knuckles for his pro-Nitish Kumar comments and criticizing the decision of Lok Sabha speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, to suspend Congress MPs who were disrupting the lower house.
Sinha remained unrepentant. “I am meeting the party’s marg darshak. I hope there is no ban on meeting Advaniji,” he said in a telephonic interview to sunday mid-day. Azad went a step further, saying he meets Advani routinely because “cricket binds us”.
And then, there was former FM Yashwant Sinha and another party veteran Murli Manohar Joshi. Both visited Advani recently, refusing to discuss why.
So did Advani, realising his comments — if made public — could upset the party equilibrium.
The veteran leader, in what appeared to be a calculated attempt to maintain his stature, even agreed for a joint resolution of silence when Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal called on him.
“We have agreed to a resolution that we will not talk,” Advani told reporters. But, interestingly, he did not prevent the mandatory photo shoot. News channels played breaking headlines, triggering studio chats where BJP leaders tried hard to downplay the meeting. The following day, newspapers printed the picture with a four-column headline, some even speculating that Kejriwal, exasperated at stone-walling from Delhi Lieutenant Governor, Najeeb Jung, wanted to convey his frustrations to Advani.
Political observers in Delhi say the meeting was fairly significant, ostensibly because the Delhi CM had earlier avoided Advani’s marriage anniversary after being told by AAP workers that Modi would be present, so would be top RSS functionaries.
“Advani knows his importance will increase with disenchantment in the party. He is keeping himself relevant. He does not want to be a rebel and die an unknown death. He wants to be the Last of the Mohicans, or rather, BJP’s Final Sounding Post,” says Trinamool Congress leader Dinesh Trivedi.
The former railway minister remembered how protesting students from FTII landed up at Advani’s home because he appeared to be the only one in Delhi lending them an ear.
Today, Advani’s diary is plump with appointments — with politicians, journalists, actors, thinkers, writers, even sports channel heads offering him CDs of cricket matches involving India. Some drop unannounced, wait till he finishes his frugal meals that include mini idlis (he developed a taste for them while in jail in Bangalore, when late Ramakrishna Hedge’s family was managing his meals).
Advani meets, Advani interacts. On paper, he is the chief thinker of the party. He has lost the chance to be PM, and knows he will never be president. He wants to be a voice of importance. “In the game of perception in Delhi, Advani is still alive,” says veteran political analyst Ajaye Upadhyay.
“All those who are loners, dissenters and on the margins of the BJP are queuing up to him. And with the Bihar elections round the corner, we must remember that the Nitish-Advani relationship is largely undefined,” says Upadhyay.