(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 8 November, 2011)
NOTE: This contains very little opinion. It's a factual summary of the rath yatra Advani is on.
For nearly a month now, Lal Kishanchand Advani, who turns 84 on November 8, has been on a yatra across the country. The Jan Chetna Yatra, his sixth ‘rath yatra’ since 1990, has been touted as a crusade against corruption.
After much debate over whether veteran leader Advani or Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi would be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014, several controversies in BJP-run states, and reports of in-fighting in the party, the octogenarian set off on his journey, accompanied by his daughter Pratibha and several key BJP leaders.
From a theme song Ab Bas, complete with a tattooed guitarist, to a narrow escape from a pipe bomb planted on its route, to taunts from rival parties, the BJP’s latest yatra has been rather eventful.
Why Was the Yatra Organised?
Though the BJP has seen its share of reverses since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by the Congress came to power at the Centre, the Congress and its allies have been hit by a series of scams in the last couple of years.
The Commonwealth Games scandal was quickly followed by the 2G spectrum allocation scam, and calls for black money stashed away in Swiss banks to be brought back mingled with a chorus of support for Anna Hazare’s demonstrations demanding a powerful independent anti-corruption agency through the Lokpal Bill.
So, on 11 October, 2011, the BJP launched the Jan Chetna Yatra from Bihar, stating that its purpose was to mobilise public opinion against corruption under the UPA government, and to take its own policy of clean politics to the people of India.
The “rath” – a 13’9” tall, modified bus with a roof that can be opened to the sky – ran into trouble almost from the start.
First, a generator malfunctioned, leaking carbon monoxide into the rear of the vehicle. The exhaust developed a problem too. As a result, senior BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley dismounted the van, complaining of nausea. They were given medical aid, and the vehicle was repaired in Patna. Advani chose to travel in the repaired vehicle, but had a backup rath sent from Karnataka.
Then, the rath got stuck under a 13’ railway bridge, and the driver had to struggle to manoeuvre it out.
A few days into the yatra, a cash-for-coverage scandal broke out. Media reports said envelopes containing currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 were distributed to journalists at a press conference at Satna in Madhya Pradesh. Advani said the state BJP chief Prabhat Jha would investigate the matter and take strict action. Immediately, the media-in-charge, Shyam Gupta, who had organised the press conference, was suspended.
Meanwhile, Modi announced a second Sadbhavana Mission, the first edition of which had made people speculate about his candidature for Prime Ministership. Advani, who has refused to comment on whether he will stand for PM next elections, said there was “no competition” between him and Modi.
The party was in for something of a shock in Karnataka, where some of its own MPs and ministers boycotted the public address. They were loyalists of former CM B S Yeddyurappa, who was forced to resign by the party high command, after being accused in an illegal mining scam.
What has Been Happening on the Yatra?
Advani has been to several of the 23 states on his agenda, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.
At all his public meetings, he has addressed the main issues of corruption, black money, inflation and poor governance. In addition, he has included state-specific issues in his addresses. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, he called for aid for Sri Lankan Tamils, and spoke of the Congress letting down its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Throughout the yatra, Advani made references to Manmohan Singh, speaking of his personal integrity and following it up with declarations that the latter is a weak Prime Minister.
He met many of his supporters, without security checks. A worried Intelligence Bureau (IB) announced on October 21 that there was lack of cooperation between the security establishment and the organisers, and warned of a possible terror threat.
Advani’s most eventful stopover may have been in Tamil Nadu, where he had his narrowest escape on the yatra – a pipe bomb was defused just in time, and his convoy was rerouted.
The Pipe Bomb Scare
On 28 October, just before Advani left from Madurai, about 6 kg of explosive material was found in 4 packets stuffed into a 6-foot long PVC pipe and connected to a 12-volt battery at Alampatti, on the yatra route. A passerby, M Selvaraj, had seen a wire leading from the pipe, on the bed of the Kounda River, and called police.
The Bomb Squad found a detonator about 50 metres from the pipe, hidden under a bundle of grass and covered with a sari. The material in the pipe was identified as ‘Power Gel 90’, an explosive used for blasting rocks in quarries and believed to be illegally sourced from Karnataka and stocked in mines.
This was not the first time Advani was targeted in Tamil Nadu. On February 14, 1998, 58 people were killed and 212 wounded in serial blasts in Coimbatore, where Advani was to address a campaign meeting ahead of general elections.
In the pipe bomb attack case, police suspected the involvement of associates of Imam Ali, a terrorist killed in a police encounter on 29 September, 2002. Ali had masterminded a 1992 attack on the RSS office at Chetpet in Chennai, in which 11 people were killed.
After finding tyre tracks of an Apache motorcycle, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the CID traced two fundamentalists – Abdul Rahman alias Abdullah (26) and Ismath (22). They were produced in court the next day, and the SIT was given 4 days’ custody for interrogation.
On November 3, police detained Altaf from Mahabalipuram, and were still on the lookout for ‘Police’ Fakrudeen, the son of sub-inspector Sikkander Ali, and a member of the Islamic Defence Force founded by Imam Ali. Fakrudden was convicted of being part of an armed group that helped Ali escape police custody, and is also a suspect in the murder case of Hindu Munnani State President Rajagopalan. He jumped bail, and has been on the run since.
Altaf had allegedly helped Fakrudeen find a safe hideout in Mahabalipuram, and then escape from the state.
While the police work the case, the BJP has carried on with the yatra, saying it is up to the law enforcement agencies to do their duty, and the journey will go on uninterrupted.
BJP announces the Jan Chetna Yatra, to cover 12,000 km and 23 states.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar flags off the yatra from Sitab Diara; soon after, technical difficulties including a carbon monoxide leak halt the procession.
A new ‘rath’ is brought from Karnataka, as backup.
Advani’s ‘chariot’ gets stuck under a bridge in Bihar.
The yatra is hit by a ‘cash-for-coverage’ scandal; BJP media-in-charge for Madhya Pradesh suspended.
BJP says Advani will visit some states directly and address the public, rather than take the road route, due to time constraint.
IB concerned about security arrangements, warns of terror threats.
Pipe bomb discovered in Alampatti, hours before Advani arrives at a causeway by the Kounda River; police defuse the bomb, suspect involvement of slain terrorist Imam Ali’s associates.
Advani carries on with the yatra, addresses public meetings in Madurai, Srivilliputhur.
Abdul Rahman and Ismath held for plot to kill Advani; meanwhile, loyalists of Yeddyurappa boycott a public meeting addressed by Advani in Bangalore.
SIT gets custody of the 2 suspects, and is on the lookout for terrorist Fakrudeen.
Police detain Altaf, a friend of Fakrudeen, who is believed to have helped the latter escape; 9 people from Mandaveli in Chennai arrested too.
Abdul Rahman admitted to hospital after complaining of stomach pain.
THE ETERNAL YATRI
ADVANI’S 5 EARLIER CHARIOT RIDES
Ram Rath Yatra: On 25 September, 1990, Advani undertook a 5-day journey from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP dissociated it from the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue, and said it was about communalism.
Janadesh Yatra: This 14-day rally began from 4 corners of the country and culminated in a confluence at Bhopal. It lasted from 11-25 September 1993. The BJP said it was to seek the people’s mandate on 2 bills – the Constitution 80th Amendment Bill and the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill.
Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra: This cross-country yatra was held from May to July 1997, in celebration of 50 years of Independence.
Bharat Uday Yatra: This was a campaign run, held before the 2004 general elections, which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), headed by BJP, lost.
Bharat Suraksha Yatra: This political campaign, which lasted from April 6 to May 10, 2006, was headed by Advani and then BJP President Rajnath Singh. They took out yatras from Dwaraka in Gujarat and Jagannath Puri in Orissa respectively, and congregated in Delhi. It was taken out as a protest against corruption, inflation, left-wing terrorism and minority politics.