Debating India

BJP

After L.K. Advani’s yatra to Pakistan

Wednesday 8 June 2005, by KHARE*Harish

Mr. Advani has come uncomfortably close to departing, suddenly, without any warning, from the prescribed orthodoxy. Why?

AT FIRST glance L.K. Advani’s week-long trip to Pakistan - from its beginning till he returned home on Monday - seems to have been taken over less by what the Bharatiya Janata Party leader said or did not say and more by the media’s habits and attitudes of frenzy and over-dramatisation. It is these very habits and attitudes that have helped the BJP over the years gain an entr?e into Middle Class India’s affections. It is this same proclivity for tendentious hype and needless noise that has cost Mr. Advani his job as the party president. Not only did the media over-simplify Mr. Advani’s various observations, it also instigated hysterical reactions from the Right wing’s fringe elements.

Mr. Advani has been accused of not only visiting the Jinnah Mausoleum in Karachi, with all the associated symbolism involved in the gesture. He is also accused of having certified Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a "secular" leader. For the record, Mr. Advani said nothing of the kind. All he said about Jinnah was an entry in the Visitors’ Book at the Mausoleum: "His address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 is a classic, a forceful espousal of a secular state in which every citizen would be free to practise his own religion but the state shall make no distinction between one citizen and another on the grounds of faith."

A day later, on June 5, in a speech to the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Advani cited copiously from Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech, and surmised: "What has been stated in this speech - namely, equality of all citizens in the eyes of the state and freedom of faith for all citizens - is what we in India call a secular or a non-theocratic state. There is no place for bigotry, hatred, intolerance and discrimination in the name of religion in such a state. And there can certainly be no place, much less state protection, for religious extremism and terrorism in such a state." It requires courage of a certain kind for an Indian politician to present this interpretation before a Pakistani audience, and Mr. Advani displayed that courage.

Yet the question that invites itself is: why did Mr. Advani choose to make all these pronouncements which he should have known run cumulatively against the grain of his own party and that of the Sangh Parivar? The only other time in recent years when Mr. Advani displayed a similar uncharacteristic streak was on February 27, 2002 when he warned the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders not to precipitate a crisis in Ayodhya and dilated, clearly and unambiguously, on his obligations as the Union Home Minister to uphold law and order. It is different matter that the next day the Godhra tragedy took place and Mr. Advani looked the other way when the Gujarat Government failed to provide "protection against religious extremism."

It is also another matter that Mr. Advani’s decision to invest so much significance in the Quaid-e-Azam’s one speech in isolation does not jell with the national recollection and memory about Jinnah. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, delivered the contemporary judgment, in a letter, dated July 9,1948, to the then Nawab of Bhopal, when he noted with remarkable prescience: "how utterly evil tendencies were set in motion by Mr. Jinnah and the Muslim League, tendencies which I know could only bring disaster to India. They did bring disaster not only to India but even more so to the Pakistan of Mr. Jinnah’s creation. That disaster has not ended yet, and no man can say whether and how that will end." Nehru was generally not given to bitterness but he reminded the good Nawab that "the poison that Mr. Jinnah instilled into India’s public life spread in all directions." That sentiment remains intact.

Painful incongruity

What is incongruous is that Mr. Advani’s essay in historical revisionism strikes at the very root of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology, of the BJP’s politics, and, of his own political persona, forged in the rath yatra rituals. This incongruity is politically painful for the Sangh Parivar, which has fine-tuned a trilogy of cultivated animosities: anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and anti-Pakistan. Nowhere was this trilogy more bluntly stated and practised than by Narendra Modi and Praveen Togadia in the run-up to the Gujarat Assembly elections.

But Mr. Modi is not an isolated voice. The Sangh Parivar’s own institutional memory is predicated on these three inter-linked structures of suspicion and separateness. This historical memory devises a pantheon of heroes and villains. V.D. Savarkar is a hero; remember all the effort the Vajpayee Government undertook to have his portrait installed in the Central Hall of Parliament; and, also, remember, all the protests the Sangh Parivar mounted against Mani Shankar Aiyar last year for "insulting" the memory of a "great patriot" like Veer Savarkar. This history also demands villains and Jinnah has always topped the RSS list of villains.

Historically, the RSS could outpace the Hindu Mahasabha, the other self-avowed protector of the Hindu cause, when the swayamsevaks introduced that seductive element of violence in the Hindu-Muslim conflict; and, once Nathuram Godse pulled the trigger on January 30, 1948, the RSS version of how that conflict would finally be settled, gained a new constituency. This RSS version was presented as a counter-point to the Nehruvian perspective of a composite nationalism. The BJP since its inception, from its earlier incarnation as the Jana Sangh, has positioned itself in disagreement with that Nehruvian perspective; but found itself totally flummoxed by the Congress success in invoking a different kind of inclusive nationalism, be it Indira Gandhi’s invocation of national pride in the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict or Rajiv Gandhi’s Mother-India-in-peril emotionalism in 1984. Then, in 1989, at Palampur, the BJP embarked upon a new strategy of so-called cultural nationalism. The blueprint of the whole Hindutva project does not permit a historical reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. Mr. Advani himself became synonymous with that Hindutva project, beginning with his Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra.

Now, Mr. Advani has come uncomfortably close to departing, suddenly, without any warning, from the prescribed orthodoxy. Why? Why now? And why, of all places in Pakistan? And, even during his visit, he relapsed into his old form, when he was asked, by Hamid Mir of GEO TV, whether it was true that he was "the only person responsible for the failure of the Agra talks in 2001?" Mr. Advani replied: "Why are you talking about the past? It will not serve today, but I can say that the Indian Cabinet at that time took a decision. It was not a decision of an individual. It was the decision of the whole Government but I don’t mind these allegations."

It is possible to agree with many of his critics who insist that Mr. Advani has never had any core beliefs and that that his thinking and politics were always shaped by a shrewd discerning of the prejudices of the day. Today it is fashionable to talk of India-Pakistan amity, so Mr. Advani would go to Pakistan and talk of the imperatives of waging peace.

Or, is it possible that Mr. Advani has finally understood the need for the BJP to re-define the party’s orthodoxy? After all, the BJP was voted out of power, among other reasons, because Mr. Vajpayee failed to take his peace initiative with Pakistan to its logical readjustment at home; he could countenance a "Vajpayee Himayat Committee" in his Lucknow constituency but could not persuade his party to tone down its entrenched anti-Muslim animus. Mr. Advani has taken up Mr. Vajpayee’s unfinished agenda. In his Karachi speech, he asserted that while Partition could not be undone, "some of the follies of Partition can be undone, and they must be undone." He, then, added: "I dream of the day when divided hearts can be united; when divided families can be reunited; when pilgrims from one country - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs - can freely go to holy sites located in the other country; and, when people can travel and trade freely, while continuing to remain proud and loyal citizens of their respective countries."

This is a total refutation of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal theology of hate; whether Mr. Advani means it or not, or whether he retracts from it or not, is irrelevant. Leaders do not have the luxury of retracting their words. Mr. Advani’s current travails would serve the purpose if he could persuade his party to undertake the much needed mind-correction. Even better, he seems to have instigated a process that could lead to a "final solution" - an institutional de-linking between the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

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