The 1990 Rath Yatra may have been a watershed moment for the growth of BJP in the rest of the country but it left hardly any impact on Andhra Pradesh, one of the states covered by LK Advani’s political pilgrimage.
The saffron party had to wait for eight more years for the lotus to bloom in a state that was dominated by the Congress, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the left parties. Barring a few pockets of influence in the Muslim-dominated parts of Hyderabad, the BJP was a fringe player then. The growth of BJP in the old city at the time was largely seen as a counter to the All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) which continues to be a dominant player, winning the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat continuously since 1984.
It was only in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections that the BJP put up a creditable performance, winning four out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the combined Andhra Pradesh.
However, Advani’s yatra, which passed through the Telangana region before entering Maharasthra, succeeded in whipping up passions and played a significant role in the consolidation of the Hindu sentiments. Several ‘kar sevaks’, who went to Ayodhya and took part in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, were mobilised from Hyderabad.
The chariot worked as a great stimulator as it passed through the Naxalite-affected Telangana districts.
“There was an atmosphere of frenzy along the route. The Hindutva supporters rang temple bells, shouted slogans to welcome the Rath. Some smeared the Rath with a tilak and smeared the dust from its wheels on their forehead,” recalled P S Jayaram, a veteran journalist from Hyderabad who had covered the Rath Yatra for a national news agency.
Another journalist Ramakrishna Sangem, who covered Advani’s public meetings in Nalgonda and Mahaboobnagar districts, recalled that Narendra Modi, then a low-profile leader and one of the party coordinators during the Yatra, was actively interacting with reporters covering the event.
Regionalisation of politics
The Ayodhya campaign, which essentially promoted a singular and monolithic Hindu identity, failed to yield immediate electoral benefits for the BJP in Andhra where regional identities were taking strong roots.
It was only after the saffron party forged an alliance with the Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP, a formidable regional party, that it started reaping electoral dividends and making new inroads in the region. It needed a piggyback ride on a regional party to stay relevant.
Moreover, the BJP was the first to openly support the demand for a separate state (Telangana), indicating an acknowledgement of the growing regional identities. The party adopted a resolution in 1999, promising “One Vote, Two States”, the first for any mainstream party to support bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. However, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), founded two years later to revive the statehood movement, went on to capitalise on the sentiment and finally achieve the goal in 2014.
After supporting the Telangana statehood cause and forging an alliance with the TDP, the saffron party won 7 out of 42 LS seats in the state in the 1999 general elections and garnered a 9 percent vote share, its best performance till date.
For a national party that made Hindu identity its ideology, the growth of regional parties presented a key challenge. Along with it came the need for forging smart alliances to capture power. This was evident from the fact that though the BJP had emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha in 1996, it garnered support only from its ideological affiliates in the Shiv Sena. In order to attract alliance partners, the BJP was forced to tone down its Hindutva agenda and its anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Change in tactics
While the 1990 Ram Rath Yatra was unabashedly rabble-rousing, whipping up Hindu fervour, another political journey undertaken by Advani in 1997—Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra—marked a clear change in tactics by the party to widen its social and geographical base in view of the growing regionalisation of Indian politics and the need to forge alliances in order to assume power at the national level.
During this campaign, a conscious effort was made to harmonise its core Hindutva-driven nationalism with the local sub-texts. As a result, the nationwide yatra, celebrating India’s 50th anniversary, focused on several sub-themes in order to expand its base, including the issue of ‘political violence’ in Kerala and West Bengal, ‘developmental neglect’ in the north-east, and farmers’ issues in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
The BJP made efforts to accommodate regional diversity and garner more allies. This implied redefining the Hindu identity and applying it according to regional variations. With coalition politics becoming the reality of the day, the BJP, as a national party, had to regionalise its own strategies and find new ways of mediating between the national, the regional and the local.
During the rallies, Advani sought to appropriate the local cultural heroes and political legacies into his party’s broad national framework, and turned them against the dominant parties in the respective states. Establishing the relationship between unity and diversity was the key theme.
For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the BJP veteran paid tributes to Potti Sriramulu, who died in 1952 while on an indefinite fast demanding separate state for Andhra. By embracing regional identities, the BJP sought to assure people that it posed no threat to such loyalties and that they were not in conflict with the party’s framework of nationalism.
For a party which also has a clear national vision, this development implied that it had to regionalise its own strategies without undermining its key message of Hindu cultural unity.
This transformation was largely a result of the party learning lessons from the limitations of its Ayodhya movement. Though the Ayodhya Rath Yatra generated a lot of enthusiasm in northern and western India, the communal violence in the wake of destruction of the Babri mosque, appeared to backfire on the BJP. The anti-Muslim rhetoric had its own limitations.
In the 1993 Assembly elections, the party suffered setbacks in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, all states considered important for the Hindutva brand of politics.