The BJP’s decision to expel Jaswant Singh is comic and crass
By Swapan Dasgupta
There is something both comic and crass about a political party first censuring and then expelling one of its most senior members for an exercise in revisionist history, and that too with astonishing gracelessness. It is comic because Indians, particularly Hindus, are temperamentally loath to see history as something distinct from mythology and even fiction; and crass because it reveals an inability to come to terms with non-conformism.
To be fair, the sharpness of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s response to his latest book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, released last Monday in Delhi, should not come as a complete surprise to Jaswant Singh. It was well known in political circles that, at the request of some senior leaders, the author kept the publication of the book in abeyance for some months to ensure that it didn’t become an embarrassment during the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections. As someone who had a ringside view of the convulsions that gripped the BJP after L.K. Advani’s display of political heresy in Pakistan four years ago, Singh must have also known that there is political price to pay for challenging orthodoxy and conventional wisdom. Not least when it involves the founder of Pakistan, a subject where demonology is the prevailing nationalist consensus.
Yet, there are important differences between what Advani argued in Karachi and what Singh has proffered in more than 600 pages of print. Advani based his perception of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s supposedly enlightened vision of Pakistan on a single speech made by the Qaid-e-Azam to the Pakistan constituent assembly on August 11, 1947. In that speech, a supremely self-confident Jinnah, wallowing in his success in securing a “moth-eaten” Pakistan, abruptly reverted to his pre-1937 liberal constitutionalism and advocated a non-denominational citizenship for a confessional nation-state that had just been established. Having belatedly discovered that speech, Advani told his Karachi audience they had erred by deviating from Jinnah’s original vision for the Muslim homeland.
Advani’s bid to gloss over the complexities of Jinnah and hone in on his constitutionalism alone may have been over-simplistic. But it had a definite political purpose. In trying to court acceptability in Pakistan where he was perceived as the “hidden hand” which wrecked the Agra summit, Advani assumed he was also sending a message to India’s Muslims who remain implacably hostile to the BJP. The assumption was based on the premise that the resolution of the Indo-Pakistan problem would facilitate the end of Hindu-Muslim problems. Ironically, this was exactly how Jinnah presented his case for Pakistan to a sceptical Congress in 1946-47.
From the Hindu nationalist perspective, Advani was guilty of heresy. Apart from giving Jinnah a certificate of greatness, his endorsement of Jinnah’s August 11 speech signalled his tacit acceptance of the two-nation theory and the repudiation of the Akhand Bharat ideal. Now, it could be argued that Atal Behari Vajpayee took the first step in this direction in his Minar-e-Pakistan speech in 1999. It could also be argued with conviction that whatever the past, Indians would be prudent to settle for the reality of Pakistan. Advani certainly believed so.
By contrast, Jaswant arrived at the conclusion that Jinnah’s bid to redraw borders, divide communities and fragment a common heritage was a monumental failure. Jinnah had believed that Partition would end the minority problem in both countries and create national citizens of India and Pakistan. Instead, more than six decades after Partition, the problems of minorityism have unsettled both countries and fostered a greater fragmentation of society through reservations and affirmative action. He concluded that Jinnah’s separatist idea had solved nothing and Partition had been a curse on all the three countries of the sub-continent.
This indictment of the two-nation theory, couched in excessive romanticism and nostalgia, can fit in with the Akhand Bharat principle of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with only minor modifications. However, Jaswant also concluded that Jinnah was at heart a decent chap — which he undoubtedly was — and had been cornered into accepting Partition by a venal imperial power and a pig-headed Congress leadership committed to a centralized India.
To those familiar with the intricacies of the negotiations over India’s political future, Jaswant, it would seem, was in basic sympathy with those who preferred a loose political arrangement to replace the British raj. The first of these was obviously the Muslim League, whose priorities were deftly articulated by Jinnah. The Muslims, believing themselves to be a separate nation from the Hindus, sought maximum provincial autonomy — it would earn them political power in north-western India, Bengal and, maybe, Assam, and a guaranteed share of the seats in a central legislature. This is basically what Jinnah sought from the Motilal Nehru committee in 1928, from the Round Table conferences and the last-ditch Cabinet Mission. Had he secured these and had his ego been assuaged by the Congress agreement of his “sole spokesman” claim, Jinnah was more than willing to be a partner in a united India defined by a minimal Centre.
But it wasn’t Jinnah alone who was frustrated by the Congress determination to create a modern India on conventional nationalist lines. The 600 princely states, where nearly 25 per cent of Indians lived, were also opposed to any all-India federation that didn’t guarantee their separateness. As a feudatory of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Jaswant had reason to imbibe the displeasure of the princes at Sardar Patel’s arm-twisting over integration into India, the anger over Indira Gandhi’s peremptory abolition of titles, privileges and privy purses in 1971, and the final collapse of a charming world built on custom, deference, obligations and entitlements.
In many ways, Jaswant has a quirky view of India. His Toryism blends with an intellectual acceptance of the formulation that India is a multinational aggregation. This is quite different from the prevailing RSS orthodoxy that Bharat is a Hindu rashtra that must aspire to a streamlined, efficient, modern state. In another age, Jaswant may have been at home with the pre-Independence Liberals — a grouping that suited the Bombay gentleman in Jinnah. Alternatively, he may have been a stalwart in C. Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani’s Swatantra Party, a mix of squirearchy and free enterprise. He has announced after his expulsion that his next project will be a political biography of Rajaji.
Jaswant was an important figure in a BJP that was formed in 1980 as a wholesome version of the discredited Janata Party. It was a party that attempted to incorporate different political traditions, apart from the Jana Sangh which made up the core. At an individual level, Jaswant never amounted to much. He never had either a caste base or a mass following. He was ill at ease with constituency politics. But his symbolic presence signalled the BJP’s readiness to be a broad church for non-Congress, nationalist tendencies.
With his expulsion, this space has shrunk symbolically. The BJP may recognize that its future in a cocky, younger India may lie in pursuing reasonable, moderate politics devoid of shrillness. However, if the leadership is unwilling to countenance the heresy of an amateur historian, how will it appeal to an India to which Akhand Bharat is fanciful nonsense?
From initial reports, it would seem that Jaswant’s expulsion was widely endorsed by BJP workers for whom he was the symbol of the shameful capitulation in Kandahar. Unfortunately, elections are not won by the votes of paid-up political workers. Does the truncation of the political imagination appeal to those who are BJP’s potential voters? The jury is still out.