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Misplaced priorities

india Updated: Aug 20, 2009 23:51 IST
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This independence day weekend, I chose to sit at home and read Jaswant Singh’s book on M A Jinnah. It might seem odd to read a book on the father of Pakistan on August 15, but then the great joy of books is that they know of no boundaries. The book is well written and extensively researched. I must confess to have finished reading it with a sneaking admiration for the former minister’s scholarship.

Unfortunately, the comforting world of books is far removed from the harsh reality of politics as Singh has now found out. Had he been a historian, he could well have engaged in debates over whether Jinnah was an ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ or whether he was the ‘villain of Partition’ as is generally considered. The fact is, Singh is not a historian, but a practising politician, that too a senior leader of a party whose core ideology is based on the rejection of the two-nation theory and the portrayal of Jinnah as the ultimate symbol of Muslim communal politics.

To have expected the Sangh parivar to engage in a honest dialogue on Jinnah, in the name of academic and literary freedom, was politically naïve, even self-indulgent. Would, for example, the Congress have tolerated any of its senior leaders attempting a critique of Gandhi or Nehru?

A few years ago, the late V N Gadgil wrote an essay on secularism which appeared to mildly question some Nehruvian ‘secular’ practices, only to find himself marginalised. Would the left allow any of its leaders to write a book which repudiates its principles? Forget writing a book, when Somnath Chatterjee tried to assert his idea of parliamentary procedures, he was expelled from the party last year.

Just as the gregarious Somnathda was a misfit in the rigid Left hierarchy, Singh with his chota pegs and angrezi mannerisms was an oddity within the puritanical orthodoxies of the Sangh. As he admitted in an interview after his expulsion, he had never been at ease with a semitised Hindutva ideology, and almost at times felt like, ‘an obligatory Negro’.

His training had been on real battlegrounds in Army fatigues, not in martial shakhas. Recall how in 1998, the RSS had ensured that Singh would not be made finance minister despite his benefactor A B Vajpayee’s protestations only because he was seen to be anti-swadeshi economics. If even when Vajpayee was an all-powerful PM, Singh was a marked man, then what chance did he have once the Vajpayee factor was out of the scene?

To expel Singh was the easiest act for a party straining to come to terms with its poll debacle and growing dissension. A Vasundhara Raje could almost get away with revolt because she appeared to have a support of a majority of the state’s MLAs. A Narendra Modi could run a one-man show in Gujarat and alienate senior leaders because he remained easily the most popular mass politician in the state. An L K Advani couldn’t be expelled from the BJP for having affirmed Jinnah’s secular credentials because he was, after all, the party’s ideological mascot. Singh, by contrast, was seen as a rootless politician, who had to move from Rajasthan to Darjeeling for Lok Sabha rehabilitation.

By striking against him, the RSS leadership, incensed with the fratricidal war within the Hindu political parivar, was sending out a clear message to dissidents: anyone who challenges the Sangh’s disciplinary code will be ejected. The Sangh was looking for a fall guy to re-establish its moral authority over the BJP, and found the perfect candidate in Singh.

Will the removal of Singh resolve the BJP’s problems? After all, the crisis goes beyond individuals and strikes at the very heart of the BJP’s ideology. How does the party’s socially and geographically limiting Hindutva identity operate in an election environment which rewards inclusive politics?

Even before the party has settled the vexed leadership question, ‘after Advani who?’, it needs to resolve this more fundamental identity challenge. It is apparent that the Hindutva of the kar-sevaks and sants which propelled the BJP into power in the 1990s has passed its use by-date. It is equally apparent that for the vast majority of the younger generation of aspirational Indians, the BJP’s raking up of past animosities holds little attraction.

Repackaging the party as a modern, right-wing political force is the real task before the BJP’s leadership. Unfortunately, instead of addressing this central challenge, its leadership has been in self-destruct mode, entangling itself in petty personal battles. Which is where the party is desperately missing the Vajpayee touch. The former PM was the reconciler, constantly accommodating and aiming to build consensus. That consensual approach would have ensured that a Jaswant Singh would have been reprimanded but not isolated, humiliated and expelled. And certainly not removed through a phone call.

Post-script: Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah is a little over 650 pages. I am willing to place a small bet: none of the 20-odd members who comprise the BJP’s think-tank at the party’s chintan baithak has read the book cover to cover. Had they read the fine print, they might have realised that the book is more a critique of the role of the Congress leadership during Partition, doesn’t eulogise Jinnah, nor does it castigate the BJP’s new posterboy Sardar Patel. Unfortunately, in politics, no one really bothers about the fine print.