Missing the fine print

JUST the other day Narendra Modi was mocking the current strongman of Pakistan as Mian Musharraf, and building an unstoppable campaign on the promise of taking him on. Nobody complained in his party or tried to stop him, except Atal Behari Vajpayee and that too through a discreet phone call, and only after a Pakistani protest.

By Shekhar Gupta

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Published: Sun 19 Jun 2005, 10:40 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:16 PM

Today, the same party is locked in a fundamental debate on whether or not the founder of Musharraf’s Islamic Republic, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was secular or not.

Even though Advani is back, the debate will go on for a long time. In different ways, three BJP leaders have come forward to back this idea of a positive new spin on Jinnah’s place in history. Advani, who so astutely calibrated the BJP’s politics and ideological instincts to lift it from two seats in Lok Sabha to the head of a powerful coalition. Vajpayee, who converted that strategy into victory electorally and by convincing the people of India that non-Congress, coalition governments could also last and function effectively. And the third, Jaswant Singh, who had played a key role in shifting India’s worldview under the NDA, building a new strategic equation with the US.

If you look closely, there is a common thread of logic in the way the minds of these three work. If Advani had not persuaded his party to put the temple, Article 370 and uniform personal code, besides its proactive Islamophobia, on the backburner, his winning coalition would have remained a pipe dream. Nor would Vajpayee have been able to run it. Also, without moth-balling an ideology that was a curious mix of free market and xenophobia, Jaswant would not have been able to bring about that vital, pro-western paradigm shift. You cannot join the caravan of globalisation if your politics and public continue to be xenophobic and anti-American.

You do not have to agree with all that Advani says. But you can try to understand where he is coming from. In the campaign of May 2004, he made an interesting observation. The key to better Hindu-Muslim relations in India, he had said, lies in better India-Pakistan relations. Many had questioned that logic. Did that not amount to painting the Indian Muslim as a permanent fifth column for Pakistan? Did it not amount to a kind of blackmail of the Muslims and as justification for Moditva? It seems now, it was the beginning of a thought process that led to his Pakistan visit and his remarks on Jinnah. Those who know Advani would never accuse him of making errors at the spur of the moment, or being overwhelmed by emotion. Advani has too much intellect and guile for that. He weighs his words before he speaks and disagree with him if you so wish, but you can never accuse him of not knowing what he is talking about.

Look at it this way. If the key to better Hindu-Muslim relations is a rapprochement with Pakistan, it follows that the key to the BJP being able to build a centrist national coalition is shedding its rejection of the Partition and its suspicion of the Indian Muslim. It cannot carry on with an old ideology that continues to punish for Partition those Muslims who preferred to stay back rather than follow Jinnah to Pakistan, even if his was the promise of a secular equal republic to rival India, albeit with a different community in the majority.

That India fulfilled its secular promise and Pakistan did not is a different matter, and open to different interpretations. The Congress and liberal intellectuals believe that the credit goes entirely to Gandhi, Nehru and other founding fathers like Ambedkar who wrote a secular Constitution but also built their politics around that great idea. The BJP and RSS would say that secularism grew in India because of its tolerant, fundamentally secular Hindu majority.

Now, you can accept any of the two propositions, or a bit of both. But either way, a secular India is a permanent reality that even the Sangh Parivar cannot deny. Because if India is secular because its Hindu majority is so tolerant and liberal, how can even a most ideologically kosher BJP, even if directly run by the Sarsanghchalak, change that?

Advani knows that if the BJP wants to be taken seriously as a national party, it has to accept that reality. Only then will it look like a claimant to power and unless it seems that way why would regional partners join hands with it?

Could Advani be thinking, therefore, that the process of fundamental ideological reform in the BJP has to begin now? That while there will always be space in Indian politics for a right of centre party, an ultra-right communal party could barely survive on the margins? And for that to happen it had to bury its suspicions of the Muslim, and hence a new beginning with Jinnah and Pakistan? However much the RSS ideologues detest the idea of Pakistan, it’s a reality India has to live with. Can you do that when its founding father is the leading figure in your demonology? And if the RSS won’t accept this reality it is time for the BJP to strike out on its own, leaving the baggage behind, but with the presumption that ideological soul will ultimately follow the political body, and mind.

On a broader front, two emotions are driving and dividing the world these days. One is anti-Americanism, the other Islamophobia. Both are rising globally. But a remarkable combination of factors has created a unique situation in India where both are declining. Despite questions on its invasion of Iraq, Indian public opinion is happy with the growing engagement with America.

It is also backing a rapprochement with Pakistan with willingness not seen before. Can India lose that historic opportunity? Can the BJP now reverse this momentum and again build a political platform on Islamophobia? Will it be the prudent thing to do, whether in terms of the national, or political interest. I haven’t spoken with Advani lately. But those in the RSS and even the BJP, who were asking for his head, and humiliation, and will now read the "resolution" as a renewed Hindutva resolve would do well to engage in a little discussion on these questions first. The debate that Advani called for the day he landed from Karachi may have only just begun.

Shekhar Gupta is editor-in-chief of Indian Express

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