Last month I described the transformation of General Musharraf from a no-holds-barred adversary of India to a jigarjaan dost. Indians have regarded him a bugbear for a long time ' certainly since he masterminded the Kargil adventure and showed up the Vajpayee government's lethargy and incompetence. But ever since he gave that televised breakfast to Indian editors in 2001 in Agra, he has also been the best actor on the Indian political screen. He is a great communicator ' articulate and quick-witted ' and extremely entrepreneurial.
Politics is an entrepreneurial game; risk-taking is its essence. But it is populated by risk-minimizers ' people who are always looking over their shoulders to make sure they do not fall foul of Sonia or cross the Lakshman Rekha over Ayodhya or whatever. Vajpayee made some highly entrepreneurial moves as Prime Minister ' most of which failed. But he made them in such a timid manner that his image as an easy-going granduncle was not dented. Whereas Musharraf is not just a risk-taker, but a passionate, flamboyant one.
That was until last week; then he was suddenly upstaged by Lal Kishendas Advani. In Lahore, Advani said that the day when the Babri Masjid ('the disputed structure' in Hinduspeak) was demolished was 'the saddest day in his life'. That, perhaps, should have surprised none, for he had used precisely those words for that event before. Then he had bewailed the fact that Hindutwit workers had pulled down the mosque in an undisciplined manner. He said nothing different in Lahore; but since the bit about indiscipline was left out, those Pakistanis who heard him heard what they wanted to hear ' that the Maharathi who had run around India campaigning for the replacement of the mosque by a temple, was now regretting the campaign.
But about the other turnabout there was no such ambiguity. In a speech he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations, Economic Affairs and Law in Karachi, Advani read out two paragraphs from Mohammad Ali Jinnah's speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, and then said about them, 'What has been stated in this speech ' namely, equality of all citizens in the eyes of the State and freedom of faith for all citizens ' is what we in India call a Secular or Non-Theocratic State. There is no place for bigotry, hatred, intolerance and discrimination in the name of religion in such a State. And there can certainly be no place, much less State protection, for religious extremism and terrorism in such a State. I believe that this is the ideal that India, Pakistan as well as Bangladesh ' the three present-day sovereign constituents of the undivided India of the past, sharing a common civilisational heritage ' should follow.'
This speech of Advani, coming as it did after he had paid homage at Jinnah's grave, caused outrage in the Hindu joint family and earned him the derision of secularists. I think he was only quoting Jinnah in a place where his name was revered; I also believe that Advani has always believed in a certain concept of secularism. That is the whole point of his criticism of pseudo-secularism ' that there is something like secularism which the pseudos have perverted. And we know the context of this distinction ' the way Rajiv Gandhi changed the law to deprive a poor Muslim widow of alimony granted by the courts. So if Jinnah is a secularist, so is Advani. Everyone is a secularist in his own judgment; and political figures do often have a number of faces for different occasions. Hence I do not believe that Advani was dissembling. But still, the about-face was a dramatic one; and in normal circumstances it would have persuaded no one. Advani a secularist' Tell me another ' that would have been the general reaction.
Advani went to Pakistan on the invitation from General Musharraf. Mursharraf thinks that Advani wrecked Agra; Advani is the archetype of Hindu chauvinist Muslim-baiter. So why Advani' Because Musharraf has an image problem; he is a hawk claiming admission to the pleasure-house of doves. Doves like Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh are nice people; they would give a certificate of dovility to anybody. But most Indians would not. Musharraf a dove' Tell me another ' that would have been the general reaction.
Unless the certificate came from a Hindutwit hawk. And that is why Advani met the bill. Nothing could attest to Musharraf's change of heart better than a hardhearted Hindutwit.
Musharraf needed to change his image; the old macho, trigger-happy image was all wrong for the post-9/11 world. But Advani did not have to change his. He has been comfortable in his extreme image for 60 years; it carried him all the way to Deputy Prime Ministership. So why did he take such an extreme measure'
I think that shrewd strategic thinking is behind it. Advani is all for building the temple, for abrogating Section 370 of the Constitution, for a common civil code. But none of these things is conceivable unless the BJP comes to power on its own steam. And he has calculated that it cannot do so unless the Muslims vote for it.
This is not the first time that the Muslim vote has figured in his calculations. Ten years ago, when the BJP and Shiv Sena won in Maharashtra and the BJP in Gujarat, he had said that they had done so because of the Muslim vote ' that the Muslims had seen through the pseudo-secularism of the Congress and decided to trust the Hindutwits. After that, there was the Gujarat massacre; elements of the Hindu joint family orchestrated it, and the entire BJP conspired in defending and covering it up. Overcom- ing this impression of complicity was an uphill task. It required extreme measures; and Advani found one.
But this superb move would be useless unless the BJP went along with it. It would never have if Advani had started a 'debate' over it; whenever the BJP people want to bury something, they say, 'Let us have a national debate.' Instead of a debate, Advani has thrown the gauntlet: either you are with me, or you have to have a debate on what to do with my corpse, and I dare you to reach a conclusion on that.
So I think the BJP will have a debate. A handful like Philip Foqatia and Ohshucks Jingles may leave the Hindu joint family; but the rest will fall in line. The question that has been put to them is: which strategy is going to get them more votes in the 2009 general elections: blowing conch shells about the temple, or aiming at a secular South Asian Federation' The answer is so obvious that even Hindutwits must ultimately get it.
The real issue, however, is whether the Muslims will see the BJP's change of heart as sufficient reason for voting for it. If they are disinclined, the Congress will help them make up their minds. For despite having perhaps the most intelligent Prime Minister of India ever, all that the Congress has for minorities is targeted handouts; they reach only a minority of them and alienate the rest. The BJP calls it votebank politics, but it is really votebank-emptying politics; it has only harmed the Congress in the past. So if the Congress continues to act according to form, it will provide the most crucial stepping stone for the BJP's return to power.