Friday, August 21, 2009

The art of firing blanks (August 22, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

“Membership of a political party”, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party told me on phone from the venue of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chintan baithak in Shimla last Wednesday morning, “also involves personal compromises. You must be prepared to accept curbs on your individual rights.”

The suggestion that political activism is not merely a set of entitlements but also involves genuflecting at the altar of the “party line” is known to all those who take the plunge into public life. It is to the credit of Jaswant Singh that he could persist with his individualism and free thinking and, at the same time, climb to the top rungs of the BJP leadership. To a large extent this was due to the remarkable indulgence of his angularities by three BJP stalwarts: Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and, most important, Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was Vajpayee who persevered with him despite the misgivings of the RSS and the exasperation of middle-rung BJP leaders who could never quite fathom what he was all about. The cumulative effect was that Jaswant remained his own man, never afraid of undertaking voyages into either uncharted or potentially hazardous waters.

Since 2004, however, the party’s exasperation with his individualism had been mounting. The release of his autobiography, A Call To Honour, was accompanied by huge controversies over his version of the Kandahar hijack of December 1999 and his suggestion that there was a “mole” in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet. On both counts Jaswant caused a huge embarrassment to the party, something he disregarded with disdain. He added to his offence by attempting to become a faction player in Rajasthan and campaigning openly for the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s ouster. Then, following the defeat in this year’s Lok Sabha election, he took the injudicious step of teaming up with Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha to ask uncomfortable questions of the leadership. The points he raised weren’t entirely invalid but it prompted too many people to retaliate with the query: “When has he lifted his little finger for the party? For 29 years he has eaten the party’s cream.”

The accusation against Jaswant was that he viewed his privileged status in the BJP as an entitlement, sans obligations.

That Jaswant was undertaking a political biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was known since 2005. He had made that public during the row over L.K. Advani’s misadventure in Pakistan. At that time, he had also let it be known that he would resign his primary membership of the BJP if it failed to back Advani on the Jinnah issue. It never came to that because the Advani tangle was settled—or, more accurately, brushed under the carpet—through some face-saving compromises.

In January this year when news of the imminent publication of Jaswant’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence broke, an alarmed party leadership pressed the author to delay publication till after the Lok Sabha poll. It was rightly calculated that the Congress would have a field day if the so-called “face of Kandahar” was now seen to be heaping lavish praise on the man who created Pakistan. Jaswant obliged. But never for a day did it enter his mind that the publication should be shelved for a time when he was no longer active in politics.

Jaswant’s astonishing reassurance was not bravado; it was based on calculation. He was certain that the BJP faithful would take a dim view of any reappraisal of Jinnah that made him appear as just another canny politician. The demonization of Jinnah has, after all, become a part of the broad nationalist consensus, just as Jawaharlal Nehru always wanted. However, this storm, he believed, would be managed. The BJP, he believed, would dissociate from the book, perhaps drop him from the Parliamentary Board, but would then allow the storm to pass. Jaswant took solace from the belief that the BJP would not really like to resurrect the Jinnah debate because Advani too would suffer collateral damage.

In hindsight it was a colossal miscalculation. The first part of the script went perfectly when BJP stalwarts stayed away from the book release at Teen Murti and so did the second act when, first Sushma Swaraj and then Rajnath Singh dissociated the party from Jaswant’s views. But things had already started going wrong. Jaswant’s interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN on Sunday night and its reports in the next morning’s newspapers fuelled anger in the BJP ranks in much the same as when Advani uttered his praise of Jinnah at the mausoleum in Lahore four years ago.

The party faithful were incensed on a number of counts: the description of Jinnah as “secular”, the suggestion that Muslims were yet to be regarded as equal citizens in India and, most important, the inclusion of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel as a man also responsible for the Partition. That Jaswant’s view of the Muslim plight in India was actually a subtle indictment of a two-nation theory which had led to an unending spiral of minorityism was too subtle for ordinary comprehension need hardly be stated. Read in isolation and without reference to the arguments in the book, it seemed very much like an endorsement of religion-based fragmentation.

Of greater consequence was the inclusion of Sardar Patel among the architects of Partition, along with Nehru and Lord Mountbatten. Since 1989, the BJP had very consciously tried to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Patel by including him in their pantheon of national heroes. At one time, Advani had cast himself as another Iron Mould in the mould of Patel and after 2002 Narendra Modi had been deified as the Chhote Sardar.

To be fair, Jaswant does not deal at length in his book on the culpability of Patel. He is included as a part of the larger Congress leadership that had to finally acquiesce to Partition as a way out of spiralling sectarian riots that followed the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day in August 1946. Yet, the perception, gained from a reading of his interview with Thapar, that Jaswant had tarred Patel with the brush of ignominy proved too much for the volatile Gujarat unit of the BJP to stomach.

There was another political compulsion that Jaswant never factored: a set of seven by-elections to the Gujarat Assembly where the Patidar (the community to which Patel belonged) vote was crucial. The Congress, which had jumped gleefully into the controversy by dubbing BJP the Bharatiya Jinnah Party, was more than prepared to remind Gujaratis and the Patels in particular that a front-ranking leader of the BJP had insulted their greatest icon.

Had Jaswant confined his indictment of the Congress to a targeted criticism of Nehru—something the BJP does routinely—his worst punishment would have been the withdrawal of invitation to attend the Chintan Baithak and subsequent exclusion from all posts in the BJP. In fact, that is what was contemplated till Tuesday morning. However, by the time Rajnath Singh mustered the requisite self-confidence to communicate the order to stay away from Simla, Jaswant was already ensconced in the very agreeable Oberoi Cecil in Simla.

When the order to stay away was finally communicated at 8.30 am or so on Wednesday morning, it was a case of too little and too late. The party leadership, influenced by reports of BJP cadres burning effigies of Jaswant, demanded exemplary action. This appealed to Rajnath who had seen his own authority successfully challenged by Vasundhara Raje the week before. He too wanted a scalp, if only to establish his claim as a tough, no-nonsense leader. Throughout Wednesday, the party president’s spin doctors kept feeding a hungry media the assertion that it was Rajnath who had decided to crack the whip, emboldened by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s pronouncement that inner-party squabbling must stop immediately.

When the Parliamentary Board members met on the sidelines of the Chintan Baithak at 9 am on Wednesday, Jaswant’s goose was cooked. The decision to expel him from the party was unanimous. Even Advani endorsed it.

From a public relations perspective, the Jaswant expulsion drama was a disaster for the BJP. First, there was the obvious discourtesy involved in communicating a decision of this magnitude by telephone and, if Jaswant is to be believe, with a chuckle from Rajnath. Secondly, the BJP leadership proved utterly insensitive to the perception that Jaswant was being expelled for writing a 600-page treatise which it was common knowledge almost none of the Parliamentary Board had actually read. To the faithful, the leadership had taken the right decision, albeit belatedly, but to the Indians (including BJP voters) unfamiliar with the innards of the party, it seemed an act of intolerance.

The legitimate outrage over a party arrogating to itself the role of a thought police has, quite rightly, fuelled speculation about greater RSS control over the BJP and the formal abandonment of all liberal pretensions. The BJP, it is being claimed, has retreated into the shell of a narrow, insular Hindutva and being an extension counter of Nagpur. It is said that it will no longer entertain the “overdose of democracy” that many leaders had in private complained of.

Are these fears real? At present it is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions but certain factors are worth considering. For some years the BJP is witnessing a tussle between ideology and politics. There are those who believe that the BJP exists as a Hindu party to uphold Hindu interests, even if such an approach proves electorally counter-productive. By this logic, the responsibility for organising the party should be entrusted to RSS functionaries and that lay RSS members should be encouraged to enter electoral politics in a big way and emerge as trusted mass leaders.

The pragmatists who prefer the political approach feel that the 2009 election is an eye-opener. The BJP, they insist, must focus only on those issues that are aimed at winning back the middle classes and the youth—segments that have deserted the party in favour of the Congress. In short, the BJP must embrace modernity, be in a position to re-forge meaningful alliances and relegate identity politics to the backburner. Interestingly, it is the Chief Ministers who favour such an approach.

An interesting feature of this debate is that the adherents of one position are not necessarily always on the same side. Unfortunately for the BJP, a decision on political positioning has been derailed by unresolved leadership questions. Who will be the party president in January? Will Rajnath Singh manage to amend the party constitution and a third term for itself? Is Advani really going to play out his full term as Leader of Opposition? Will the RSS chief’s desire for a younger leadership be translated into reality?

The answers to these questions are relevant because the redefined priorities of the BJP must match with the image and personality of those who are entrusted with the leadership. Tragically, the BJP has no institutionalised democratic mechanism to choose a leader who is most acceptable to both its ordinary karyakartas and, more important, ordinary non-attached voters. Traditionally, the party has left complex leadership questions to be settled by a small cabal that works closely with the RSS. The RSS would prefer if Advani drew up his own succession plans but Advani has shown no inclination to redefine himself as an elder statesman. Does Bhagwat’s clear preference for a younger leader mean that Advani will now be forced into revealing his hand? More important, does Advani still have the authority to not merely nominate his successor but ensuring he/she actually secures the post.

Alternatively, the BJP may decide that it will not rush things and wait for its next prime ministerial face to emerge at a time nearer the election. As of today, the real BJP leadership is in the states. Yet, it is the Centre that pretends it wields authority.

The Chintan Baithak may well help clear confusion in the minds of the top leadership and help forge something akin to a consensus. But that is assuming the participants speak out their minds frankly and fearlessly. The kerfuffle over Jaswant and the abstruse non-debate over Jinnah may have defined politics in the age of swine flu—when voices are muffled by the most visible symbol of self-preservation, the ubiquitous mouth gag.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 34, Dated August 29, 2009

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