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BJP grapples with destination dilemma

New Delhi, June 9: Whether he agrees to return as leader or not, sources described L.K. Advani’s Pakistan visit as a “defining” moment.

For the first time, they said, it has opened the ideological divide, which had existed at a subterranean level.

Before the BJP came to power, the divide ' which almost always manifested itself in economic issues in the shape of the “swadeshi-versus-globalisation” polemics ' was papered over with the argument that it was important to grab the Centre first and then sort out the problems.

Once in power, the Hindutva-versus-secularism debate came up repeatedly but power had its own momentum. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were offered the bait that being in power was better than being out of it and, therefore, they should be discreet with their criticism.

With the BJP in the Opposition now, the RSS and the VHP grabbed the chance to put the ideological debate back on the centre-stage. Advani’s belief that the Hindu vote was a “myth” and the minority vote a “reality” ' voiced by his secretary, Sudheendra Kulkarni, at a parivar forum ' was the first provocation. A stung Sangh demanded that he should make way for a younger leader.

Advani, in turn, decided to hit back. His weapon was the same as that used by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was on a similar mission. Turn secular, sound pro-reforms with a vengeance. That was the context for his Pakistan trip.

Sources close to Advani claimed that the visit to Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi was part of a script written to “show the Sangh its place”, endear himself to a larger constituency and wash away the anti-Muslim stigma. The larger aim, they said, was to “reform” the BJP on a scale attempted by Tony Blair in the UK when he morphed the left-of-centre Labour to its new “avatar”, which has the features of a right-wing entity in Labour garb.

Where the script faltered was that Advani had not factored the resistance within his own party. The sources said it was as though he had taken the BJP for granted because, as usual, he counted on his acolytes like M. Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to package and sell the “vision”. They sided with the RSS, the sources added, to consolidate their own positions.

While Vajpayee’s image-makeover attempts rarely, if ever, impacted the BJP, a similar endeavour by Advani was different. A cadre person, the “benchmark” he drew through his Pakistan visit was something the BJP could not ignore.

Now, as Advani’s fate and, by implication the BJP’s, hangs in balance, party insiders have begun speculating on iffy scenarios.

Although everything depends on what happens tomorrow, one thing is clear. The sources said the BJP would have to decide if it wants to return to its Jan Sangh roots and function as an Opposition pressure group. Or recast itself as a party of governance with a modern outlook.

They said if the BJP is to stay at the head of the NDA, it would have to follow the path chalked out by Advani.

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