Debating India


Battles within

Saturday 18 June 2005, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

in New Delhi

The attacks directed against BJP president L.K. Advani for his utterances in praise of M.A. Jinnah in Pakistan are not going to end with his resignation drama and the party’s resolution virtually disapproving his position, for they are part of an RSS-designed plan to remove him from the post.

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L.K. Advani walks past a portrait of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah prior to a meeting with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in Islamabad.

"THE crisis that besieged our party during the past four days is over." This was how Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sushma Swaraj began her media briefing on the evening of June 10, immediately after party president L.K. Advani withdrew his four-day-old resignation from the premier organisational position. Even as Sushma Swaraj continued with the briefing, before television cameras, with expositions on the processes involved in defusing the crisis, some leaders and activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) - another member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, like the BJP - who had gathered at one of the VHP offices in Delhi came up with an instant judgment on her opening comment. Their verdict: "Sushamaji has spoken too soon."

Sushma Swaraj’s explanation had revolved around the proceedings of a joint meeting of the BJP Parliamentary Board, the national office-bearers of the party and Chief Ministers of the BJP-ruled States. The crucial step taken at the meeting was the unanimous passage of a resolution on Advani’s recent visit to Pakistan, which was widely perceived to have triggered the crisis.

Citing the resolution, it was asserted that all the contentious issues related to Advani’s Pakistan visit, including his "controversial utterances" about the "secular vision" of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of the Pakistani nation, and the acknowledgement of the emergence of Pakistan as an unalterable reality of history, have been addressed to the satisfaction of all major sections of the Sangh Parivar.

Qualitatively, the resolution strove to strike a balance between the conflicting perceptions within the Sangh Parivar on Advani’s tour as well as his utterances. It lauded Advani’s visit as "path-breaking" and stated that it had "brought the people of India and Pakistan closer, helped remove a mountain of misunderstandings between them and taken the momentum of better relations to a new level, in continuation of the policy of friendship initiated by successive [BJP] governments led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee". It also recorded the meeting’s special appreciation of the Pakistan government’s invitation to Advani to inaugurate a project for the restoration of the Katas Raj temple complex.

At the same time, the resolution forcefully renounced the emphasis Advani laid on the secular vision of Jinnah during his visit to Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi by asserting that "the state he founded is theocratic and non-secular". For the BJP, "the very idea of Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations is repugnant" and "there can be no revisiting the reality that Jinnah led a communal agitation to achieve his goal of Pakistan, which devoured thousands of innocent people in its wake and dispossessed millions of their homes and livelihoods," the resolution said.

The initial reaction to the resolution from RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav seemed to confirm Sushma Swaraj’s optimism about the end of the crisis. He commented that the BJP had clarified its stand and it was the correct portrayal of history. He also said that the controversy was avoidable and that it had ended. Despite the RSS’ opinion, VHP leaders and activists persisted with their original assessment.

"The resolution has resolved nothing. There are so many unsettled issues, which are bound to erupt in the coming days," one VHP leader told Frontline.

A routine analysis of the VHP’s observation would have been that since its leadership, including its voluble general secretary Pravin Togadia, had stretched the limit in berating Advani - using epithets like traitor - it was fervently hoping for some justification for its line of argument. But barely 24 hours after Sushma Swaraj’s announcement it became evident that there was some merit in the assessment of the VHP group.

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VHP activists demanding Advani’s resignation in Ahmedabad on June 8.

None other than Kuppahalli Seetharamiah Sudarshan, the RSS sarsanghchalak, technically the head of the Sangh Parivar, endorsed the VHP’s opinion. Addressing an RSS camp in Sikar, Rajasthan, Sudarshan made a not-so-covert reference to Advani’s climbdown in his perception of Jinnah’s secular vision and that too in strong language. Quoting a Sanskrit sloka, and translating it into Hindi, he said that "just as a prostitute changes her clothes and appearance, a politician changes his stand."

A day later, another attack against Advani came from Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS. In a signed article in a Marathi-language daily, RSS ideologue and former spokesperson M.G. Vaidya stated plainly that the BJP leadership should have accepted Advani’s resignation. He made it clear that he was not satisfied with the tone and tenor - verbal tightrope walking, according to an RSS leader - of the resolution and said that it did not repudiate Advani’s controversial position on Jinnah. Vaidya is of the view that the BJP leadership could have accepted Advani’s resignation and allowed him to continue until a replacement was found.

The two comments, coming one after the other, made it amply clear that the battles within the Sangh Parivar were far from over. Interestingly, throughout the four-day crisis following Advani’s resignation on June 6, and during the build-up to it while Advani was travelling in Pakistan and making the "controversial" statements, Sudarshan and other RSS top brass maintained that they had nothing to do with the BJP’s internal affairs and that it was for the party leadership to settle the problems. Yet when the crisis had seemingly blown over, the two RSS leaders came up with aggressive statements that left no one in doubt about their target.

It is in the context of these contradictory positions that the goings-on in the Sangh Parivar come into sharper focus. The same context also enhances the relevance of the VHP leader’s comment about "so many unsettled issues". According to the VHP leader, an indication of these "unsettled issues" is available in the public stance taken by Togadia. He dismissed the compromise resolution and said he and his associates in the organisation would not accept Advani as a Hindutva leader any more. "Nothing short of an apology by Advani to the Hindus of the country and relinquishing of political office would be acceptable to us," he stated.

By all indications, the RSS leadership, particularly Sudarshan, is also moving in the same direction. In fact, a number of developments in the RSS that took place long before Advani began his trip to Pakistan had pointed in this direction. In fact, there are indications that the RSS had decided to make moves to remove Advani from the top organisational position of the Sangh Parivar’s political arm as early as March.

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RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan.

The decision was, by all indications, taken at the Akhil Bharatiya Prathinidhi Sabha (national general council) of the RSS in Mangalore between March 11 and 13. It was preceded by confabulations within the Sangh Parivar, which began at the RSS national executive meet at Haridwar in November last year and were followed up by a series of high-level closed-door sessions in different parts of the country.

The thrust of these meetings was that the BJP had lost its ideological moorings over the past few years and that the party’s leadership was in the hands of people whose sole objective was to occupy seats of power by any means. It was pointed out that the BJP, as it existed today, was incapable of advancing the core Hindutva agenda and hence the RSS had to make definitive interventions in order to make the political arm compliant with its larger socio-political objectives.

In fact, a section of RSS delegates at the Haridwar conclave even came up with a proposal to abandon the BJP and start a new party firmly committed to the Hindutva ideology and with a leadership that would not succumb to the susceptibilities of power. The debate on the BJP as well as the new proposal lasted eight hours at the Haridwar conclave.

According to a number of participants at the conclave, delegates belonging to the VHP and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch were most vociferous in advancing the case for a new party. Advani was present through most of this trenchantly anti-BJP debate. The Haridwar debate was treated as inconclusive and it was decided that the final decision would be taken by the time the Mangalore meet took place. Between the Haridwar and Mangalore conclaves, senior leaders of the Sangh Parivar met in different parts of the country, including the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. According to Sangh Parivar insiders, through these deliberations it was decided not to float a new party but to set the BJP’s course right by concrete and authoritative interventions.

In practical terms, the suggestion about authoritative interventions meant that the RSS would bring about a leadership change in the BJP, by installing leaders more amenable to its cause. Insiders pointed out that for long Advani was the RSS’ favourite among the BJP leaders, but in the past year or so that perception underwent a significant change. "The assessment of the RSS top brass was that Advani was also peddling for power at the cost of larger Hindutva goals and objectives," a VHP functionary from Uttar Pradesh said.

According to him, Advani’s contemporary political approach justifies this perception of the RSS. Advani has apparently gone on record saying at the internal meetings of the Sangh Parivar that the time was not suitable for an aggressive pursuit of the Hindutva agenda. "In his view, the BJP should wait for the inevitable collapse of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, strengthen the National Democratic Alliance by roping in more regional allies, and come back to power."

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Advani writes in the visitor’s book at the mausoleum of Jinnah in Karachi on June 4.

The VHP leader also said that Advani was of the view that the Left parties would become the rallying point for non-Congress, non-BJP parties if the BJP did not adopt this strategy. In this context, Advani apparently highlighted the growing influence of the Left in the national political firmament and the acceptance it was gaining even among the urban middle class. However, the RSS leadership did not find much merit in this line, the VHP leader added.

Other Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that the perception within the RSS in December was that the Assembly elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana would provide the perfect opportunity for a leadership change. The RSS, like most political observers in the country, expected the BJP to lose all three States and thought this would be enough justification to remove Advani.

On the face of it, there was no reason for a call for a leadership change or even the basis for generating a debate on the issue, with the relatively improved performance of the BJP in Bihar and with the return of the NDA to power in Jharkhand thanks to differences in the UPA and the tactical blunders committed by the Congress

It was in this context that Sudarshan departed from the normal, reclusive ways followed by RSS sarsanghchalaks and suggested in a widely televised interview in April that Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani step down from leadership positions and make way for the younger lot. Although this was rated as a realpolitik masterstroke by large segments of the Sangh Parivar, it did not have the desired effect as the majority of BJP leaders rallied around Advani. The situation forced Sudarshan to make a tactical retreat. Still, the VHP leader pointed out, he was determined to take his manoeuvres to their logical conclusion at least by September.

The VHP leader added that Advani was aware of Sudarshan’s determination, and his pronouncements in Pakistan contained an effort to take the battle to the RSS chief: "The idea was to create a bit of a controversy and build up a moderate, secular image acceptable to the partners in the NDA, rally them and sections of the party around him and thus scuttle, or at least postpone, decisive moves from the RSS." An argument put forward by BJP sources close to Advani is that Advani had not stated anything controversial in Pakistan - he only talked about Jinnah’s secular vision that was not fulfilled by the rulers of Pakistan. It was the VHP and sections of the RSS that had orchestrated a controversy with ulterior motives, one of the sources said. "It was this orchestration, more than anything else, that compelled him to write the resignation letter while he was in Pakistan itself," the source said.

Whatever the truth, the controversy relating to Advani’s Pakistan visit and his utterances there had elements of a larger power struggle within the Sangh Parivar. By all indications, the RSS had expected that Advani’s resignation would be accepted without their intervention, but the balance of power and personality considerations within the higher echelons of the BJP prevented such a development. The prospect of former Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi emerging as an alternative was, evidently, one of the factors that motivated a large number of second-generation leaders of the BJP to rally around Advani. It was also a factor that forced Advani to withdraw his resignation.

The perception within the BJP on June 10, when Advani withdrew his resignation, was that he successfully warded off the September deadline that Sudarshan had reportedly set for himself to effect a change in leadership. But the renewed attack by the RSS top brass immediately after June 10 has shaken this belief. One of the first comments that Advani made after withdrawing his resignation was that he hoped the lessons he had learnt in the past fortnight would help him shoulder future responsibilities. The way the battles within the Sangh Parivar are being fought will provide the veteran leader an extended education.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 13, Jun 18 - Jul 01, 2005

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