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That Jinnah djinn

By expelling Jaswant Singh, the BJP has lost the last trait that it claims differentiates it from the Congress — inner-party democracy, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 07, 2009 13:05 IST
Barkha Dutt

Like many families in North India, dining table conversation in my house frequently veers around to the subject of Partition. My grandfather — a prominent Congressman and freedom fighter who went to jail during those years of struggle — was from Sialkot, now in Pakistan. I grew up on heart-wrenching stories of how he and his children somehow scrambled to the safety of Delhi, leaving behind all their material belongings and the security of a palatial house that I would later be lucky enough to re-visit in my college years.

The anecdotes that formed my childhood years were not academic; they were personal histories with all their rawness and pain. And yet, despite the sense of anger and loss, the Partition story was always painted for me in complex shades of grey: M A Jinnah’s strategic use of religion for political mobilisation; Jawaharlal Nehru’s adamant insistence on the Constituent Assembly having the final word; Mahatma Gandhi’s reluctant endorsement in the face of the possible Balkanisation of India and, of course, the role of the British who initially proposed a ten-year reprieve and then arranged a surgical division.

Despite coming from a family that was directly impacted by the cataclysmic division of India, I never had the sense that the “blame” for Partition could be parked at a single door. Political faultlines had clearly shifted enough to provoke an inevitable earthquake.

So, to me the most bewildering aspect of the controversy around Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah is the anti-intellectual need to reduce history to the good guys versus the bad. Yes, we may rightfully reject and abhor the division of people based on religion, and whether Jinnah was a practicing Muslim or not his political philosophy undoubtedly stood for that. But, if re-visiting history must be accompanied by circumscribed boundaries of inherited wisdom, then what is the purpose of scholarship?

Jaswant Singh’s book may or may not be historically accurate. And there is also something very peculiar about why Jinnah remains the magnificent obsession of a party that was only born after Partition and the freedom struggle — or maybe that’s exactly why. Perhaps the BJP resents the fact that modern Indian history effectively ends up being the history of the Indian National Congress. That could explain the strange need for the party to claim the legacy of Sardar Patel — a devout Congressman — as its own.

But, by expelling Jaswant Singh for his book on Pakistan’s creator, the BJP has lost the last trait that it claims differentiates it from the Congress — inner party democracy. For a party that made its revolt against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years the showpiece of its political beliefs, the irony today is lost on no one. True, you won’t see the Congress leading the protests against the ban on Jaswant Singh’s book in Gujarat. On the contrary, you would have probably seen the Congress demanding it, had Narendra Modi not beaten them to the finishing line first. But that’s not the point. The BJP must ask itself who or what it is trying to be in the India of 2009. Party leaders say the message is clear; anyone who goes against the ‘core ideology’ of the BJP will now get the sack. Fair enough. But, what is this ‘core ideology’?

If Varun Gandhi had not erupted and polarised the Muslim vote, the BJP was actually trying to fight the 2009 elections on issues of development, governance and internal security. You hardly heard about “Hindutva”, for example, in any of the campaigns. It’s true that after the poll defeat, Jaswant Singh, along with Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, made up a trio of public dissidents. But if the BJP was punishing dissidents, why didn’t it sack Jaswant Singh when he demanded to know what the “meaning of the word Hindutva is”, or when he pointed out that it was much too recent an entry in the BJP’s own lexicon? Why sack him for Jinnah and Patel and people of the past, instead of throwing him out for openly disagreeing with a contemporary political belief?

The BJP today has two problems. It is ideologically adrift and it doesn’t have a leader who can steer it towards clarity or consensus. When it tries to be different from the centrist politics of the Congress, it finds itself trapped by demons of the past. When it tries to be a more modern variation of itself, the party finds that it probably sounds too much like everyone else.

In the end, apart from looking intellectually intolerant, booting out Jaswant Singh hasn’t achieved much. It may have terminated Singh’s political career, but it won’t kickstart the flagging spirit of the BJP.

Jaswant Singh is right to recall his own support for L K Advani in 2005 when the Jinnah jinx claimed Advani’s own post as party president. Why has Advani — among the more cerebral and inquiring men in his party — been silent through this whole controversy? Doesn’t he remember his own bewilderment at the ferocity of opposition to the remarks he made in Pakistan? During the elections, Advani once told me that in the face of controversy he often retreated into his own private and silent shell. I think he has been quiet for far too long.

Frankly, the BJP needs a new-age Atal Behari Vajpayee — a man or woman who can speak in the syntax of contemporary India and engage with what voters care about today.

Jinnah, frankly, is beside the point. Nor is Jaswant Singh a cause célèbre. The tragedy of the Shimla ‘chintan baithak’ is that the party saved its alacrity of response for an issue that is entirely irrelevant. History may be complex, but the future is bleak. The BJP needs to see that before it loses the present as well.