At the end of first day of his ambitious Bharat Suraksha yatra, Lal Kishenchand Advani , the 78-year-old leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party went to bed satisfied and, maybe, surprised. The hero of 1992 Ram Janmabhoomi yatra was wearing the same Hindutva attire, but trying hard now to fit in, again.
Advani was a happy man on Thursday because the party was able to mobilise enough cadres to create the moderate crowd he needed at the flagging off of his ambitious yatra. At the last meeting he addressed in Ahmedabad, Advani said, "I am very happy today. People listen patiently if you carry the correct message."
He also looked pleasantly surprised, since media reports about poor reception of the yatra had unnerved him. Advani had visited Porbandar and Dwarka before starting the yatra from Rajkot. As the day progressed, he did not seem confident, but relaxed as things eventually fell into place. Much credit for this should also go to Chief Minister Narendra Modi's charisma and popularity, which drew crowds.
During his speech, Advani did not miss the opportunity to engage the crowd in his message of invoking Hindu identity since the BJP -- and he -- are reverting to their original Hindutva plank. And, paying close attention to Advani this time, the saffron was a deeper and darker shade than before.
While this may not affect the booming sensex, it should certainly give Sonia Gandhi and the Congress some food for thought.
In the Saurashtra region and Ahmedabad, Advani raised issues like Ayodhya, reservations for Muslims in the armed forces, the Shah Bano case, the Coimbatore bomb blast accused case and infiltration from Bangladesh. He highlighted the 'dangerous' situation on the north-east border, which he felt, can lead to a 'second division of India', which the BJP will 'not tolerate'.
Advani also addresses the issues faced by farmers but stressed that the key issue remains that of national security, which is in danger under the United Progressive Alliance government, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
During his speech, Advani seemed to be trying to focus, at times seeming incoherent in his thoughts. Even his musings on national security seemed in articulate. Though people listened to him, they did not respond. What helped, clearly, what the presence of Modi, which gave the yatra a modest, yet firm, start. It also helped that Gujarat, for the most part, supports the BJP.
The BJP's organisational ability rescued Advani, who is desperately trying to resurrect himself and recapture the support he lost in the party after the infamous Jinnah episode.
It was also clear that Modi threw his weight behind his one-time mentor, paying him rather handsomely in support. However, Modi's strident speech also seemed to almost overshadow Advani's. Cashing in on popular jargon and with his hand firmly on the local pulse, Modi said, "Its my word now -- either Modi will live in Gujarat or the extremists will. I will not allow traders of death to prosper in Gujarat."
But Advani, too, resurrected himself.
He travelled more than 350 km in his air-conditioned, bullet-proof rath, while the temperature outside varied between 35 and 40 degrees. In a day, he addressed two large public meetings, more than nine small meetings in villages and four in towns, greeting more than 2,000 people along the way. In all, he addressed more than 1.5 lakh people, giving them the message of Hindutva, disguised thinly as 'national security'.
For, if one reads between the lines, it is clear that these are the two major issues on Advani's mind, which led him to take up his taxing yatra.
For instance, the issue of the Sachchar Committee report on Muslims' condition in education and social sectors, which is expected in four months, was also addressed on Thursday. The buzz in New Delhi is that it is likely to highlight the alienation of Indian Muslims, particularly the youth. It has been hinted that when it is released, the report will 'shake up the secular groups'.
It may be possible, therefore, that on the basis of the Sachchar report, demands might be made by several factions to have 5 per cent reservation for Muslims. And this would open a pandora's box, stirring the nation into a tizzy.
The BJP believes that this issue will become more explosive than the Shah Bano case. And Advani spoke about this at the start of his yatra, using it as a sort of preview to the larger issue of reservations for Muslims.
It was clear that he intends to use this yatra to pre-empt and counter the Congress or the Left against any form of 'appeasement toward Muslims', especially after the Sachchar report.
The BJP's stand on the issue has always been clear. Advani, in his speeches on Thursday, made it clear that Sonia Gandhi, Dr Singh and the Left leaders must read the debates of the Constituent Assembly, which rejected the idea of reservations for Muslims. In fact, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had pointed out that it was a 'day, which is the turning point in India's history'.
The second large pertinent issue, which emerged out of Advani's speeches on Thursday, is the controversial Ram temple at Ayodhya. Particularly since the final judgement on the issue is expected sometime soon.
While in power at the Centre, the BJP had three options -- to accept the judgement, to convince Muslims to allow the temple's construction, or to pass a resolution in Parliament on the issue.
On Thursday, Advani addressed the Muslims. He spoke about how 'wonderful' it would be if they allowed and agreed to the temple being built. This cannot avoid provoking a debate in the community, especially since no-one knows what sort of judgement to expect.
If the judgement favours the Muslims, the BJP will find it hard to accept it, especially against the background of the sort of emotions it would stir up in its core constituencies. And if the judgement favours the Hindus, the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led government in Uttar Pradesh will get credit for the construction of the temple.
By raising it at such a critical juncture, Advani, ever the politician, has claimed the issue for the BJP. He has also responded to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's criticism of him for previously abandoning the issue. The master of politics that he is, Advani has told India that 2006 will see 'major reactions' over Ayodhya and reservations for Muslims.
Finally placing the Jinnah chapter firmly behind him, Advani is on overdrive to regain his followers of yore. On Friday, he reaches Baroda. And the next act will unfold.