In the initial years of the VHP’s campaign, its leaders had argued that the claim of a Ram temple at the disputed site would be eventually “proven”. However, the findings by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as part of its Archaeology of Ramayana Sites project, suggested that there was no evidence of any human settlement in contemporary Ayodhya before eleventh century BC.

What this meant was that if events described in the epic did occur as believed by several Hindus, they perhaps may have, but not necessarily in the location that the VHP insisted they did. At a time when the sangh parivar was in a conundrum over faith and fact, it was Advani who had come to their rescue by proclaiming that Ram was a matter of faith.

His master stroke of a statement, which was in a way an assertion of belief over rationality, gave the RSS and its affiliates instant nirvana from the burden of confronting historical facts.

Much like phrases which have become part of the urban political narrative today – “Libtard” to mean someone who is an unyielding liberal and therefore, biased, or “bhakt” to mean a blind devotee of the current ruling dispensation, it was Advani who was instrumental in coining a phrase which not only became a significant part of the Indian political lexicon, but helped the BJP to gain further acceptance amongst its supporters – pseudo-secularism.

His argument being that the sangh parivar and its subsidiaries believed in genuine secularism which was built on the principle of “equality for all, but appeasement of none”; while the rest of the parties appeased religious minorities, especially Muslims, thereby being anti-Hindu and were therefore deemed to be pseudo-secular.

At one point during the Ram temple agitation, and especially after the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992, Advani had layered his original argument even further and said that their campaign wasn’t just limited to building the Ram temple in Ayodhya, but was part of a larger plan to propagate the idea of cultural nationalism. This wasn’t an original idea by any standards. What Lal Krishna Advani had managed to do was astutely repackage a core Hindutva ideal for modern India. He had turned the idea of cultural nationalism on its head, while juxtaposing his idea of a nation with territorial nationalism, and redefined ancient religious codes for Hindus to take pride in their religious identity.

While the majority of VHP leaders spoke in a rhetorical fashion, LK Advani loved a good argument and constantly emphasised on buttressing the political thought behind Hindutva. He was perhaps the first RSS leader who could hold his own with the intelligentsia and was therefore used by the sangh parivar to address a section amongst Hindus which was distinctly uncomfortable with the Congress’ approach towards the minorities, but also found the sangh parivar either too coarse or incomprehensible because of their insistence in speaking in highly Sanskritised Hindi. Advani succeeded in creating a vocabulary that appeared coherent and logical. Even those who disagreed with him found it difficult to dislike him, for such was his charm which hid an extremely tough interior.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author.

The year 1990 clearly belonged to LK Advani. The BJP was waiting in the wings to act as per a pre-meditated plan. On 23 October, when Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav arrested Advani in Samastipur, Bihar (under sub-section [2] of Section 3, National Security Act, 1980) to “prevent him from acting in a manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order,” Vajpayee was tasked with informing the then President, R. Venkataraman that his party was withdrawing support to VP Singh’s coalition government.

Meanwhile in end 1990, the British Broadcasting Corporation or BBC had sought nominations for its annual Man of the Year award. Decades before the existence of social media platforms, the BBC had discovered that several supporters of LK Advani had made multiple nominations to ensure his selection. His name was consequently struck off the list, but there was no denying the fact that Advani was clearly the man of the moment for his cadre.

Two years later, when he was in “partial” confinement in a government guest house in Jhansi, Advani had written two signed articles in The Indian Express stating that 6 December had been the “saddest day” of his life. After his release from detention when he was asked if it was correct to presume that he had actually apologised to the nation for the demolition of the sixteenth-century mosque, he had replied in the negative.

However in his memoirs, Advani wrote that his regret had stemmed from the inability of the sangh parivar in controlling the mob, and how it had resulted in a personal loss of face for him. The reason being that he had all along claimed that some form of symbolic or even shambolic construction activity would be undertaken at the site without incurring any damage to the structure.

Advani also wrote that he was not only criticised within the sangh parivar for having expressed his sorrow, but also by secular groups who had heaped scorn on him for his refusal to express regret. He had further explained that the incident had hurt him the most because it had eroded his personal and professional credibility within the organisation.

It needs to be questioned and owing to the personality that Lal Krishna Advani is – was Advani being truthful when he had clarified about his controversial statement in the newspaper articles? Was he actually showing remorse, and if so, then why?

It is my belief that memoirs of well-known political leaders, especially when they are still active in public life, are more often written with the sole intention of leveraging their last years. In retrospect, Advani’s statement terming 6 December as the saddest day of his life has to be viewed contextually and by juxtaposing it with the past and future events in his career.

For instance, he had proclaimed that the Ayodhya agitation was not so much about constructing the temple, but for a larger political agenda. Therefore, one wonders if the Babri demolition had actually taken the sangh parivar closer to its objective? Thirty-five months after the demolition, why did he cede space to Atal Bihari Vajpayee by resurrecting the party’s old slogan – “Agli baari, Atal Bihari” (The next time around, it shall be Atal Bihari), clearly indicating that the BJP would contest the next elections under Vajpayee’s leadership? ...[T]his was in effect LK Advani’s acceptance of the fact that despite the success of the Ram temple agitation in Ayodhya, it was prudent to promote a comparatively liberal and more acceptable face such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In the years preceding the Ayodhya agitation, the Right-wing had relentlessly presented the disputed mosque as a symbol of Hindu subjugation, and avowed to build a grand temple almost as an act of penance towards the community. Ironically, with the demolition of the disputed mosque, the object for invoking hostility towards the minority community had suddenly disappeared and impacted the sangh parivar and LK Advani’s collective cause.

While introspecting in the guest house, Advani must have perhaps realised that henceforth it would be nigh impossible to enthuse the Hindus towards a cause that they were sworn to for decades.

For some time, the movement for building the Ram temple was de-escalated, but no one in the sangh parivar had the gumption to declare that the Ayodhya agitation had accomplished its mission once a makeshift temple was constructed, and henceforth it would rest on the Indian courts to decide if a permanent structure could be built at the site or not. But more importantly, the cause of Hindutva had to now find a more relevant peg to consolidate the community and there was concern over how this could be achieved.

It was therefore sheer political necessity which had made LK Advani vacate the top spot for Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the run up to the elections. According to several insiders of the time, he had hoped to influence his old comrade with assistance from the sangh affiliates, which had worked but for a short while before Vajpayee became his own master. In later years, LK Advani had conceded that he was most definitely the second-in-command to the late Vajpayee.

After Vajpayee had lost the elections in 2004 and openly attributed it to the 2002 Gujarat riots and the decision in allowing Modi to remain in office, Advani’s assumption was further buttressed. Consequently, with an eye on India’s secular consciousness, he had discovered the secular credentials of Mohammed Ali Jinnah during a tour to Pakistan in June 2005. But the ploy had backfired: for secularists, Advani remained the quintessential driver of the rath, a man who had mobilised Hindus to pledge their allegiance for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. On the other hand, he was alienated by the RSS and the entire rank and file of the sangh parivar.

From early 2005 onwards, whether it was by design or naïvete,...LK Advani refused to read the signals from Nagpur – it was time for him to call it a day, and which had eventually resulted in humiliation that a leader of his stature did not deserve.

One afternoon in June 2013 at the party conclave in Goa when Advani was all by himself after Modi was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, there was no one around to share his pain. From an entire generation of leaders who had been virtually mentored by him, this was a tragic payback. But politics is cruel and seldom leaves room for niceties, even if it means disrespecting a party elder, and in a party which insists on adhering to ancient Indian values.

Today, when one sees him being ignored by his associates in the BJP, one has to be reminded that this was the man who had in a way contributed to the demolition of the Babri masjid.

Excerpted with permission from The RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Tranquebar.