Friday, September 23, 2005

Wrong time to speak up (September 23, 2005)

Advani is the victim of his own creative restlessness

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is becoming a habit for L.K. Advani to spring unpleasant surprises on the BJP. He did it on June 4 at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Karachi and triggered a crisis which would have paralysed the party had it not been settled by the cease-fire agreement with the RSS on June 11. Three months later, on September 18, he again surprised the BJP National Executive at Chennai with a carefully prepared concluding statement which, defying tradition, he read out in English.

That Advani would relinquish the post of party president wasn’t a surprise. Although the terms of the June 11 truce were never made public, it was understood that the BJP would revert to the one-man-one-post principle after the National Council session in end-December. It now transpires that the Pact had also specified that he would announce his decision to quit at the Chennai National Executive. For at least a week before the Chennai meet, Advani had indicated his determination to make that announcement, despite suggestions that he defer it till the Bihar poll results. During the week neither the BJP office bearers nor the RSS leadership indicated they wanted him to reconsider.

The surprising feature of his concluding statement in Chennai, therefore, was not Advani’s announcement that “a colleague” would assume charge after the National Council meet. The BJP National Executive was mystified by his rigid insistence, despite last-minute advice to the contrary from anxious general secretaries, on using the occasion to speak about the creeping distortions in the BJP-RSS relationship. Advani spoke about the need to counter the prevailing impression “that no political or organisational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS.” The RSS, he said, “provide valuable inputs for our decision-making process.” The BJP, however, was a political party and had its own compulsions. “It is in protecting the ideological moorings of the BJP and in articulating it in an idiom and language the people understand that great care is needed.”

Advani's message was blunt: the BJP could do without RSS micro-management. The relationship between the two bodies had to be “symbiotic”, rather than filial, and based on trust. The RSS and BJP belonged to an ideological family but there could be no question of domination and subordination. It had to be a partnership of equals. In effect, Advani sought to transform an unstated Hindu undivided family into a binding confederal code.

Tensions, even dissatisfaction with the RSS, both at the local and national level, are not new to the BJP. Almost all the BJP stalwarts—from Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in Rajasthan to Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh—have at some time or the other come into conflict with the local RSS functionaries. Present relations between Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the state RSS leadership are, for example, incredibly strained, with anti-Modi dissidents being egged on by local pracharaks. In Rajasthan, many RSS stalwarts feel that Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is, like Modi, too high-handed.

Regardless of how the RSS conducted its political interventions in the Jana Sangh days, the friction in recent times--since the BJP started controlling governments--has invariably followed two themes: those involving appointments and postings, and those concerned with government policy and contracts. Matters came to a head during the NDA Government because expectations were high and demands insatiable. Unlike the Congress which is quite brazen in seeing government as the dispensing agency of political patronage, the sangh parivar carries a lot of ethical baggage. This may be a reason why run-of-the-mill corporate lobbying during the Vajpayee years had to be cloaked as commitment to lofty principles like swadeshi. It is a different matter that a few RSS leaders couldn't see through this humbug.

Apart from the hiccups over Jaswant Singh’s appointment in 1999 and tensions over the NDA’s rough handling of the Ayodhya agitation in 2003, the clashes of the past didn’t sour the overall BJP-RSS relationship. That was because they weren’t, by and large, concerned with the RSS’ ideological priorities. Some pracharaks in Gujarat griped about Modi’s imperiousness but they couldn’t really fault his inflexible determination to ensure that the BJP wasn’t another carbon copy of the Congress. Consequently, the dissident problem in the state hasn’t degenerated into a BJP versus RSS fight; it has remained an intra-BJP affair, with some RSS functionaries fishing in troubled waters.

Likewise, Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, sought to enlarge his personal base by reaching out to figures in the erstwhile Congress establishment. He routinely turned down requests from both the RSS and the party. The atmosphere of the Vajpayee court was decidedly anti-RSS. No wonder the Sangh felt slighted, even humiliated. But Vajpayee was Vajpayee, and always a law unto himself.

There may well be some takers for Advani’s terse message that the RSS should not get into micro-managing the BJP. It is generally agreed that it does not behove the RSS leadership to press the case of every swayamsevak aspiring to a position. With the phenomenal growth of the BJP in the past 15 years, there is some resentment in the BJP that RSS members enjoy an unfair advantage in the party hierarchy. This is despite the awareness that the contributions of some RSS-inducted functionaries are less than modest.

Yet, Advani’s plea for a debate to iron out the wrinkles in the RSS-BJP relationship was greeted with a sense of exasperation. For a man whose contribution to putting the BJP and the RSS ideology on the national stage is seminal, there was not a voice of anguish when he made his resignation statement.

Part of the reason lies in the perception that although a debate on the RSS-BJP relationship is interesting in itself, there is insufficient provocation for such an exercise at this moment. The controversy over Jinnah, which sparked the present turmoil in the BJP, arose because rank-and-file BJP members were outraged by what their leader said in Pakistan. It was their anger that led to Advani’s isolation in the party and the erosion of his moral authority. The RSS merely echoed what BJP activists felt.

When the RSS chief had earlier, during a TV interview, called for Vajpayee and Advani to retire the party rallied behind the two stalwarts. By showering praise on Jinnah’s vision, and that too in Pakistan, Advani alienated himself from both the party and the Parivar. Consequently, his concluding address in Chennai was viewed as a personal statement. At a time the UPA is on the backfoot, confronting the RSS with a theoretical debate wasn’t a BJP priority. Indeed, there was a feeling that Advani had become too self-absorbed.

That there is a special relationship between the BJP and RSS is undeniable. Some BJP activists treat the RSS as the mother organization, others see it as a moral guide and yet others view its role in strictly utilitarian terms and that too during elections. All these views co-exist harmoniously because the relationship with the Sangh, apart from being individual, is also an evolving one. It has to be nurtured and managed, with both sides sharing the responsibility, and it is just not prone to codification. When problems arise, as they invariably do, they have traditionally been resolved through protracted dialogue conducted outside the public gaze. The element of discretion is overwhelming.

In disavowing this unwritten code, Advani did himself grave injustice. The BJP’s sharpest thinker was a victim of his own creative restlessness.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 23, 2005)

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