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BJP’s hide-and-seek with history

As tempting as it would be to treat Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the BJP as yet another saga of yesterday’s people fighting over yesterday’s issues because they know that they have no tomorrow, the fracas is more significant than we may think at first, comments Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2009 02:12 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It is tempting to dismiss the furore over Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the BJP as a matter of no great consequence. After all, the BJP is a party that is out of power and seemingly in terminal decline. Jaswant Singh is at the end of his career and even if the BJP does manage to recapture power in five years’ time, he would probably have been too old to play an active role in the next government.

But as tempting as it would be to treat this episode as yet another saga of yesterday’s people fighting over yesterday’s issues because they know that they have no tomorrow, the fracas is more significant than we may think at first.

First of all, the Jaswant controversy is only partly about Jinnah. It is also about the BJP’s attitude to Indian Muslims. For instance, in the last days of the Vajpayee government L.K. Advani declared that Muslims would vote for the BJP because it had improved relations with Pakistan.

The sub-text to this bizarre claim was that Advani regarded Indian Muslims as being sympathetic, if not loyal, to Pakistan and therefore inclined to support anyone who was pro-Pakistan. Naturally, Indian Muslims were outraged and an uproar resulted.

But Advani did not learn his lesson. Eager to cast himself in the Vajpayee mould and advised by a coterie of dimwits, he flew off to Pakistan to pose as a great sub-continental liberal. He believed that if he was perceived as being friendly towards Pakistan, he would gain moderate support in India along with a share of the elusive Muslim vote. His whole trip and the foolish remarks he made praising M.A. Jinnah only make sense when seen in that context.

As the writer Javed Akhtar said at the time, “Mr Advani thinks that Indian Muslims are all deeply loyal to Pakistan and put up pictures of Jinnah on their walls. He doesn’t realise that Indian Muslims don’t care at all about Jinnah.”

Advani’s Pakistan adventure nearly ended his political career. But, when it measured the outrage that emanated from its solidly Hindu vote base, the BJP also realised that Jinnah was a hot potato. The attempt to whitewash Jinnah’s role in the history of the independence movement — partly as an attempt to criticise Jawaharlal Nehru — had backfired badly.

Some of the negative reaction to Jaswant Singh’s book emerges from the fall-out of Advani’s Pakistan fiasco. Jinnah is now a dirty word in the BJP and the party will not risk alienating its Hindu base with any suggestion that Jinnah has been judged too harshly. As for winning Muslim votes, that dream evaporated a long time ago.

Then there is the BJP’s bizarre attempt to rewrite the history of the freedom movement so that it can retrospectively inveigle itself into the struggle. The truth is that there was no Jan Sangh during that period, the RSS’s role is controversial and elements linked to the Hindu Mahasabha actually killed Mahatma Gandhi.

Given this background and the widespread hilarity with which the BJP’s attempt to honour such dodgy figures as Veer Savarkar have been received, the Sangh Parivar has decided that its best bet is to pretend that Sardar Patel was a secret BJP mole within the Congress.

Serious historians are baffled by this claim. It is true that Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru frequently disagreed on the direction that India should take. But there is nothing to suggest that Patel was a member of either of the bodies — the RSS or the Mahasabha — that gave birth to today’s sangh parivar. He had no time for the Mahasabha elements who murdered Gandhi (Savarkar was charged in the case but acquitted), cracked down on them and remained entirely secular while in office.

So, why on earth should the BJP want to claim Patel for itself? Why did Advani as home minister want to be treated as another Sardar Patel when, given his performance in office, another previous home minister — Sardar Buta Singh — might have offered a more appropriate parallel?

The mystery endures. Because it sings the praises of Patel, the imaginary Sangh Parivar mole, the BJP cannot possibly tolerate any criticism of him. Jaswant Singh’s book breaks with the traditional, if somewhat unsophisticated, BJP line that every terrible thing that happened in India occurred because Nehru was A Very Bad Man. In fact, argues Singh, even Patel was Quite A Bad Fellow.

It’s hard to take a historical argument, conducted at this intellectual level, very seriously. But any suggestion that Sardar Patel could not walk on water is anathema to the BJP. That’s why Narendra Modi has banned Jaswant’s book. And that’s why all BJP workers are upset.

So, ultimately the controversy is not about whether Jaswant Singh has breached party discipline or crossed what Ravi Shankar Prasad, always more comfortable with mythology rather than history, has called the Lakshman Rekha.

It is about a party that seeks to rewrite its own history. It wants to invent a role for itself in the freedom movement. It has experimented with different assessments of Jinnah but the consequences have always been so disastrous that it cannot risk any further discussion on the subject. So now, it clings to the fiction that Patel was its man.

It is said that you get the true measure of a party only when it is in crisis. And certainly the BJP comes off very badly in the whole Jaswant Singh affair. Narendra Modi, we were told, was a liberal genius who had been misrepresented by such secularists as myself. Now, he has emerged in his true colours — as an intolerant book-banner. L.K. Advani, we were assured, was a magnanimous father figure to the party. He has come off as a frightened man clinging to office while his old friend is drummed out of the party.

Most revealing is the manner in which decisions are taken. The BJP claims to be a democratic party, as distinct from the dictatorial Congress. But there has been nothing democratic about its functioning in the last few months. Party leaders have been appointed in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha without due process. Critics, such as Arun Shourie, who raise valid issues, have been frozen out.

Somewhere in heaven, Sardar Patel, that canny old Congressman, must be looking at the disarray in the party that tried to appropriate his legacy. And he must be chuckling in delight.