—L.K. Advani, in an interview to The Pioneer, February 15, 2003.
It must rank as one of the most remarkable turnarounds in contemporary political history. L.K. Advani, the man who redefined Indian politics and polarised society with the Ayodhya movement, had suddenly discovered the virtues of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. As he set foot on Pakistani soil, in a feat almost act of magic realism, the Hindu hawk transformed into a Muslim-loving dove. Peace with Pakistan, he said. The demolition of the Babri Mosque was the saddest day. Partition is irreversible. There is a Pakistani in every Indian. And then remarkably from the president of a party whose members often referred to Muslims as "Jinnah ki aulad" (Jinnah's offspring), Advani came up with a complex formulation that presented Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, as a "great man" who had promoted Hindu-Muslim unity.
This was nothing short of heresy for the party of the faithful. Their ideological guru had just debunked an entire body of beliefs. A lesser leader would have been shown the door. But the man at the centre was the chief architect of Hindutva, who had groomed all the second-rung leaders who were now so scathing in their critique of his Jinnah utterances. The mismatch between the party and its leader had never been so huge. The BJP was plunged into what they might describe as a 'dharam sankat' of epic proportions.
VHP leaders called Advani a "traitor". The RSS was stunned and angry with Advani's ideological transformation. But the more crucial battle was being waged within the BJP where even Advani loyalists were unwilling to endorse his statements.
The real mystery lay in unravelling the mind of Lal Kishen Advani. What had the leader of the Opposition hoped to achieve beyond sending shock waves in his party and the larger Sangh parivar? First the geopolitical importance of the BJP president talking peace with Pakistan cannot be ignored. Advani has been telling close aides that the BJP must adjust to a changing world where Pakistan can no longer be perceived as the enemy.
A peace-loving BJP would certainly have been a huge relief after the nationalist hysterics of the past. But unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee's initiatives, Advani's revisionist view of Jinnah was seen as too bizarre by even moderate BJP leaders to be viewed as a genuine battle for the middle ground. Pragmatists like Pramod Mahajan watched silently from the sidelines. Sushma Swaraj had a minor altercation with Advani aide Sudheendra Kulkarni who had scripted all the Pakistan speeches, when Kulkarni demanded that the party release the Jinnah statement (the party eventually did not issue a press release but put the statement on its website). Another senior leader snapped at Kulkarni: "We are not contesting elections in Pakistan." For once even an Advani acolyte like Venkaiah Naidu could not find the words for a robust defence of his leader.
Many BJP leaders went public with their misgivings. Murli Manohar Joshi said, "There is no question of compromising with ideology and supporting Advani's words on Jinnah." Yashwant Sinha first demanded that Advani even quit as leader of the Opposition and then backtracked. Kalyan Singh said in an internal meeting that the party should be saved the embarrassment of a debate on Jinnah in Parliament by requesting Advani to resign from the post. "It is impossible for us to defend his words about Jinnah," he stated. Shahnawaz Hussain declared: "Jinnah is not a hero for any Indian Muslim. He is communal, not secular. We joined the BJP to fight Jinnah's legacy not, defend it." Vinay Katiyar, the hero of the Ram temple movement said: "Jinnah first partitioned India. Now he has partitioned the BJP."
The drama got more bizarre through the week as Advani refused to backtrack and offered his resignation. He also got into a huge sulk when it became clear that the BJP had toned down its welcome for him on his return and was even reluctant to release any statement hailing his visit to Pakistan. Indeed, by the time he returned from Pakistan, partymen had already prepared a "clarification" of the Jinnah statement. Advani refused to endorse this draft, saying he would "lose face" and nothing needed to be retracted from what he said.
Over the next few days, many second-rung leaders who called on him received a tongue-lashing. They were told that he was "deeply hurt" at their inability to defend him. It soon became apparent that Advani was using the entire force of his personality and authority to try and make the party fall in line. But he met with a stubborn resistance fuelled by the "no compromise with ideology" stand of the RSS. It was eventually left to Atal Behari Vajpayee to defend the man with whom he has such a complex relationship. Vajpayee is believed to have told his small band of loyalists that if Advani lost this round, the party would go into the hands of hardline extremists and it would signal the end of the NDA in its current form.
Advani too has been driven by the desire to show the RSS its place. Sources reveal that he was not in the mood to shy away from a showdown with the Sangh. Ever since RSS chief Sudershan publicly humiliated him by saying that he should make way for younger leaders, Advani has been telling loyalists that the RSS needs to be fixed. Says a BJP general secretary: "This is his way of doing it. He changes his own image and demands that the party toe his line rather than that of the Sangh."
Fundamentally, what unfolded through the week was a battle of nerves between the leader and his party. First it seemed that Advani wanted to quit in a blaze of "secular" glory. Then it became apparent that he was fighting the battle of his life—he wanted to stay in charge but on his own terms. Then a face-saving compromise seemed on the cards. A Rajya Sabha MP was roped in to draft a document that hailed Advani's Pakistan visit but stated the party's disagreement with Jinnah. Meanwhile, the RSS kept up the pressure from the sidelines. It soon became clear that even if Advani managed an endorsement of his Jinnah view, he would have to extract it from an extremely reluctant party.
For, at its core the party did not really agree with him. There was no "mindset" change in the BJP. It has only taken place on editorial pages where Advani was suddenly hailed for his discovery of secularism. Advani may have changed; but the BJP had not. On the contrary, the rank and file of the party complained of a "deep sense of betrayal." Said an MLA from Bihar: "This is ridiculous. I ask Advaniji when did he discover that Jinnah was secular?" A functionary at the party's headquarters observed: "If Sonia Gandhi had said this about Jinnah, we would have called her a traitor. But just because Advani has said this, we have to defend it. We will not be able to show our faces to our workers."
The ideological implications of Advani's utterances are stunning for the BJP. The party was, in one stroke, being asked to give up its pursuit of identity politics. The Pakistan-Islam-Muslim pyramid was being demolished by the very man who had constructed it. Even if Advani had set out with the noble intention of changing or modernising the BJP, the manner in which he did so placed a question mark on the entire enterprise.
There is still intense speculation on Advani's motives. A senior BJP leader speculates: "This is what happens when a leader who does not have time on his side makes a desperate attempt to get into the history books. There is a certain stubbornness of age where he does not accept that no one really wants to praise his Pakistan journey.He is emotionally blackmailing us to defend him." Advani is also believed to be driven by the Vajpayee complex. He has repeatedly stated in interviews that he believed his image as a hard-liner was "unfair". Like Vajpayee before him, Advani used a Pakistan journey for an image makeover.
But while Vajpayee with his open-ended statements could have pulled it off, the precise and methodical Advani got trapped in his own very carefully chosen words. Somewhat unfairly, the blame for this is being placed on his speechwriter Sudheendra Kulkarni. While working in Vajpayee's pmo, Kulkarni had shown a penchant for quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, Sufi saints and Urdu poets. With Vajpayee it worked, particularly as the ex-prime minister often departed from the written text. Clearly Advani is an altogether different proposition. Moreover, there is all-round agreement that both Advani and Kulkarni went horribly wrong with the Jinnah quote. But the buck must stop with the leader, not his scriptwriter.
Still, the cold shouldering of Kulkarni continued through the week. It was as if the BJP was venting its anger against Advani on his over-zealous aide. Moreover, Kulkarni was delivered a huge snub at the first meeting of the BJP's parliamentary board which Advani did not attend. When he suggested that the party move a resolution hailing the Pakistan visit as historic, he was simply ignored. Instead, the party passed a resolution requesting Advani to withdraw his resignation because "he has scholarly articulated the debate on nationalism in the past few decades with rationality, logic and powerful idioms. His contribution to our ideology is unparalleled." It was an ashen- faced Kulkarni who later left the meeting.
As for Advani, it was clear that Jinnah had cast a shadow on his otherwise remarkable visit to Pakistan. The overriding sentiment in the BJP was that in spite of misgivings the party could have lived with all his other utterances in Pakistan. But to digest the Jinnah remark was difficult. One of the most high-profile BJP leaders told Advani in front of several colleagues: "Advaniji, why have you done this to us? We are a laughing stock. Every journalist is asking us what our position on Jinnah is. Is this what we should be debating today?" Advani responded with a stony silence.
As the drama unfolded in Advani's residence and Venkaiah Naidu's house where leaders gathered daily for consultations and the party headquarters, the shadow of the RSS quietly grew longer. At one level this was a battle between Sudershan and Advani. At another level it was all about ideology. On Thursday night, as this magazine went to the press, RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav issued a terse statement: "Advani's statements on Jinnah and the Akhand Bharat concept is irrelevant as it does not jell with our ideology. We cannot accept that Jinnah was secular. The BJP has mature leaders who understand the implications of all these things. We don't need to tell them what to do. Advani knows what the RSS wants. He will do what is appropriate. We hope tomorrow it will be over." There was a chilling finality to that message. The ball was in Advani's court.
Yet Advani has shown that he is no pushover. As he wrote about Jinnah in the visitor's book at his mausoleum, Advani too is a man who has made history. He was the youth from Karachi who grew to be one of India's most influential politicians. The model swayamsevak and organisation man who stunned by staging a remarkable act of rebellion.Was this Advani's way of going out in a blaze of glory? Could he have carefully scripted this game of brinkmanship with his own party and the parivar? Was this Advani's final folly or a remarkable act of foresight and wisdom?
For the past two weeks, the entire political class has been riveted by Advani's utterances in Pakistan followed by the political storm in the BJP and larger Sangh parivar.The significance of his words and actions was not lost on the Indian audience. Advani will now be hoping that the entire episode does not simply degenerate into an unseemly inner parivar mess. He would like to preserve a certain nobility of purpose. It remains unclear whether he will be allowed to do so.