In the late-Seventies, China was engulfed by a bizarre political campaign. The Communist Party of China, at least a section of it, launched a vicious attack on Ludwig van Beethoven. Naturally, the assault wasn't really on one of the icons of Western classical music. In a society where politics was conducted in code, the denunciation of Beethoven turned out to be a cover for a very different ideological-cum-factional battle.
The outcry that greeted L.K. Advani's commendation of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Karachi has been interpreted by the editorial classes as a battle over something entirely different. It is suggested that the Jinnah issue is a red herring and that Advani is actually at loggerheads with the presiding deities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh over his attempt to modernize the party and widen its political appeal. If interventions on TV channels by a Bharatiya Janata Party office-bearer, who accompanied Advani to Pakistan, are anything to go by, the so-called Atal line and Advani line have effected a grand merger and this heralds a new beginning for the BJP. It was assumed he was speaking for Advani.
The implication is clear: there is a mismatch between those involved in mass politics, particularly Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani, and those preoccupied with organizing RSS shakhas. Whether the controversial journey to Pakistan marks the end of the beginning for the BJP or the beginning of the end for Advani is still unsettled. What is clear though is that the June 10 compromise which led to Advani withdrawing his resignation and the party reiterating the conventional nationalist view of Jinnah marks only the intermission stage of what may be a very damaging internecine conflict. It is always hazardous to predict the outcome of political battles, but some observations may be indicative.
First, what Advani wrote at the Jinnah mausoleum and his subsequent speech in Karachi were not momentary indiscretions. They were based on pre-meditation and calculation. The mausoleum visit was not in the original itinerary. It was Advani who insisted it be included because he wanted to make a larger point. Moreover, apart from stressing a moment in history when Jinnah was an avowed constitutionalist, perhaps no different from Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, he suggested that 'Jinnah's vision' could be an important linkage in the political lives of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Second, Advani was motivated by a desire to both make history and manage an image makeover. He felt that a big bang in Pakistan would crystallize a political shift far more effectively than a phased image reconstruction. The BJP president thought he had made history and was pained that his party colleagues thought he had made a fool of himself. Advani has not reconciled himself to this defiance.
Third, in proffering his resignation, Advani banked on an onrush of support both from the people and the party. He was aware of the disquiet in the RSS over his interventions in Pakistan, but calculated that these would be met by a wave of popular support. In a sense, Advani was trying to replicate Indira Gandhi's battle against the Syndicate in 1969. Unfortunately for him, the reaction in India was a blend of confusion and anger. There was no visible wave of support for him.
Fourth, the media belief that Advani's hand-picked second generation succumbed to RSS pressure was erroneous. Even before the RSS entered the picture, Advani's colleagues were unanimous that his Jinnah remarks were injudicious and damaging. There was a rare convergence of anger between the BJP and the RSS on this issue.
Advani's attempt to start a debate on Jinnah is unlikely to have too many takers in the BJP. The dispute, after all, is not really about 'facts', as Advani's secretary disingenuously suggested on TV. The debate is all about the expedient political usage of a very selective reading of history. Regardless of the references to Swami Ranganathananda and the Bhagwad Gita, there is a definite impression that Advani wants to reinvent himself, not through evolution but by repudiation.
However, it is unduly simplistic to suggest that it was the RSS which choreographed the opposition to Advani. There were few takers in the BJP to the RSS suggestion that Advani must go even if he agreed to the incorporation of two paragraphs clarifying the party stand on Jinnah. There were various hard political arguments offered in favour of Advani continuing after the party clarification but at the end of the day the issue was clinched by raw emotion. Everyone was agreed that it would be cruel to have the Jinnah label permanently tagged to Advani. It was also felt that the RSS should leave political decisions to the BJP and not get into micro-management.
While the second generation leaders may not have followed the suggestions from the RSS blindly, there is no doubt that the entire episode has raised Nagpur's comfort level with them. Their willingness to stand up firmly for what they believed was a cornerstone of the party's ideology and their ability to work together in the crisis has endeared every one of them to the RSS. Even three months ago there were questions over the BJP's ability to withstand a generational shift. In the public mind, these questions still persist. However, the RSS is now more convinced than ever that a generational change in the BJP is not only necessary but desirable.
For Advani this is not a happy augury. In the past fortnight, he has seen his political judgment questioned and his authority eroded. The NDA partners may have stood up for him, but even they know that any confusion in the BJP will have a bearing on the whole alliance.
Yet, Advani will not give up without a fight. He genuinely believes that the Pakistan visit was the first salvo of a larger project to reshape Indian politics. For the moment, he has been thwarted, but as he made clear in his discourse on the Bhagwad Gita last Wednesday evening, he will not run away from battle. Convinced he has righteousness on his side, Advani has decided to don the mantle of Arjun and be ready for battle. The question is: who is the enemy' The inescapable conclusion is that Advani is preparing for a no-holds-barred civil war.
The perception in the BJP that Advani's Pakistan visit was a misadventure refuses to go away. In attempting to redefine the movement he led, Advani tried to occupy the centre ground. Without any hint of discussion, he committed the BJP to a woolly-headedness that ran counter to all its impulses. It was all the more absurd because the BJP is not even in power.
The reinvention of Advani was prefaced by a lack of intellectual rigour. In chasing an elusive centre ground, he never undertook the challenge of creating what conservative thinkers define as the 'common ground' ' the synergy between conviction and unstructured popular beliefs. Advani failed to create a common ground that would have brought incremental support while galvanizing the faithful. He would have done well to have studied the debates accompanying past attempts to refashion ideological parties. Advani had a glorious track record of managing change. In 1989, he transformed an RSS rump into a larger Hindu constituency; in 1996, he compensated the dilution of distinctiveness with the lure of power and forged the NDA. This time, unfortunately, his revolution has been illusory. It recalls historian A.J.P. Taylor's remark about 1848 being a turning point in history when history refused to turn.