It is unlikely that mainstream Indian politics has witnessed anything as patently absurd as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s expulsion of Jaswant Singh for authoring a 600-page book on a topic as abstruse as Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
That there were many in the BJP and the RSS who were angered by yet another demonstration of individualism by Jaswant was evident after his CNN-IBN interview last Sunday.
But few expected anything as precipitate as his expulsion from the primary membership of a party he has been associated with since its formation in 1980.
Was the graceless political execution of Jaswant merely a consequence of perceived ideological heresy or was the former associate of Atal Bihari Vajpayee a symbolic victim of an exemplary measure?
Different impulses have been at work in the BJP. First, it has been clear for some time that the party was sharply divided over the reasons for its Lok Sabha defeat and equally at odds over the route to recovery.
Secondly, it has also been evident that after the defeat, the period of L.K. Advani’s effective leadership is over. The only one who has been slow to read the writing on the wall is Advani himself.
Thirdly, there is no acceptable consensus as yet as to who should replace Advani as the party’s national face. There are potential claimants —Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi and, at a generous pinch, Rajnath Singh —but there can be no meaningful choice unless the party is clear about the road it has to travel.
Finally, there is no clarity as yet over the role the RSS is expected to play in resolving the BJP’s crisis.
From 2005, RSS-appointed organising secretaries have tried to impose their stranglehold on the BJP at all levels, frequently coming into contact with chief ministers and other mass leaders. This formidable RSS lobby believes its domination over the BJP will give it clarity and direction and resolve disciplinary issues.
With Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s anointment as the new chief of the RSS earlier this year, a fresh complication has developed. While Bhagwat favours functional autonomy for RSS-linked bodies, the RSS functionaries who have tasted political power have other ideas. There is a mismatch between the autonomy the RSS espouses and the intrusiveness its functionaries practise.
For the past three years, Rajnath has emerged as the implementing arm of the RSS agenda. However, his effectiveness was marred by the presence of Advani as the overall captain and a reputation for factional intrigues. The post-election salvage operation was meant to signal his emergence as a tough leader — perhaps someone worthy of another three-year term.
This explains his assault on Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, an operation remote-controlled by the political pracharaks. The initial assault failed because Vasundhara demonstrated she has a majority of MLAs. But Rajnath needed a symbolic victory before the chintan baithak to bolster his claim of being a tough, no-nonsense leader.
Jaswant Singh happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had Vasundhara been felled, he may have got away with a censure or simple exclusion from the BJP Parliamentary Board. He was the second-best scalp on offer.
But a larger purpose has been served. Rajnath has informed the world that inner-party democracy need not exist in the BJP and neither should intellectual pluralism.
It is a powerful message. From trying to be the Hindu broad church, the BJP may be regressing into a Hindu sect. Unless, of course, the chief ministers din a sense of realism into the proceedings.