The great capitulation

07 September 2009
Indians and Pakistanis have to develop a common, rational understanding of the partition story that is free of nationalist prejudice -- although Jaswant Singh makes little contribution to this.

Many Pakistani liberals are exulting over former Indian minister Jaswant Singh's book on Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the belief that it is a sign of rethinking within the conservative Hindu-communal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the founder of Pakistan, and that it will provoke a larger debate on the causes of partition and who was responsible for it. I hope the debate happens. Indians and Pakistanis have to develop a common, rational understanding of the partition story that is free of nationalist prejudice -- although Jaswant Singh makes little contribution to this. But the first thing isn't happening at all. In fact, the BJP is regressing further into Hindutva and sinking deeper into the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) lap. The blood-letting in the BJP has turned out far more prolonged and self-destructive than the party's most inveterate critics, including me, had expected. Not a day passes without senior leaders calling their colleagues names which would embarrass street-level thugs. The BJP cannot comprehend the causes of its second consecutive election defeat in structural terms linked to changes in the balance of social forces, Hindutva's receding appeal and the attraction of inclusive agendas in a society as badly divided and in need of healing as India. The Congress understood this and won. The BJP remained stuck in Hindutva, too-clever-by-half leadership projection, caste arithmetic and image management. It is now blaming individuals for its losses. The person who has been most ruthlessly attacked and suffered the greatest loss of stature is none other than the BJP's tallest leader after the now-incapacitated Atal Behari Vajpayee --perennial prime ministerial-aspirant L K Advani. Singh has pilloried him for his "consuming ambition" which prevented him from defending him against his summary expulsion from the BJP. He was told by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat that he mustn't pretend to be the shadow prime minister and quit as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. The RSS also wants BJP President Rajnath Singh to make way for a younger leader. This isn't a way of levelling the BJP's two competing power centres: the unelected core group dominated by Advani, and the other controlled by Singh loyalists. Rajnath Singh will complete his full term as party president by the end of 2009. He cannot have a second term unless the party constitution is amended. The RSS's real target is Advani, who breached his understanding with it that he wouldn't be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate beyond 2009. When the election results came in, Advani offered to step down as leader of the opposition, but unilaterally re-usurped that position. The RSS has treated him with apparent deference, but the thrust of its message, that he must hold no office by virtue of his "leadership" and "stature", is unequivocal. The BJP is in the grip of its worst-ever crisis. At its heart is more than a power struggle, vicious as this is. Its true dynamic lies in a total collapse of organisational authority, political disorientation and strategic bankruptcy. There's no one in the BJP to arbitrate between it warring leaders. This has allowed the RSS to dictate terms to the BJP in every conceivable way. The RSS decided that the BJP must promote leaders aged 55 to 60 years. And four such leaders duly landed at Bhagwat's feet. The RSS decided to read the riot act to Advani. And its top officials descended on New Delhi. The RSS wants the choice of the next party president to be extended beyond the Advani coterie so serving/former state-level ministers are suddenly in the running. The RSS is now micromanaging the BJP. It will probably insist on veto power over the party's political line. In some ways, this function is new. The RSS has doubtless intervened in the BJP's affairs in the past. Sarasanghachalak, KS Sudarshan's "midnight knock" in 1998, famously ensured that Jaswant Singh wouldn't become finance minister. Even more notoriously, after the BJP's 2004 debacle, the RSS summarily replaced Venkaiah Naidu as party president with Advani. In April 2005, Sudarshan publicly demanded that "there should be a generational shift in BJP …" and that both Vajpayee and Advani "should step aside… [and]… watch the new leadership come up…" This was an unambiguous directive. Vajpayee shrewdly ducked it by saying he held no post. But Advani refused to quit. Months later, the RSS succeeded in sacking him by using his remarks praising Jinnah as "secular" during his Pakistan trip. Advani's departure became a certainty once the RSS dissociated itself from his remarks. All he won was a little time. What is new about the present RSS-BJP relationship, shaped by the BJP's election defeat and unprecedented turmoil in it, is the scope and quality of the RSS's interference in its day-to-day affairs. Even BJP leaders without an RSS background like Arun Shourie accept this. Indeed, Shourie pleaded for it, when he said the RSS should "take over" the BJP. This inaugurates a new phase in the BJP's evolution. As long as the Vajpayee-Advani duo was strong, and especially while the BJP held power at the centre, they could carve out a certain degree of autonomy from the RSS in the party and government's day-to-day running. The RSS adopted a low profile, but remained the BJP's mentor, political guide and organisational gatekeeper. It coordinated relations with the rest of the Parivar. It conceded some policy space to the BJP in governance, especially in economic matters. But behind the scenes, it always asserted its overall primacy, especially that of the Hindu-nationalist vision. A key to this was the BJP's dependence on RSS pracharaks to mobilise votes for it during elections. This dependence has recently grown not least because the BJP's base and appeal have shrunk. RSS leaders claim that 40 percent of the BJP's total vote in the last election came from their work. Organisationally, the RSS influence is even stronger than in parliament. Thus, only 30 of the BJP's 116 Lok Sabha members come from the RSS. But two-thirds of its national executive members have RSS backgrounds. That means that the RSS will overtly and blatantly tighten its hold on the BJP, further damaging the party's credibility. Unless the BJP again takes to the politics of passion and mass mobilisation, it's likely to become a rump party, much like the Jana Sangh, albeit bigger in its Lok Sabha presence than the latter, with its 20-35 seats. Even such a party cannot be written off. But it'll be a far cry from a force that's about to come to power.