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Atal sticks up for Advani

New Delhi, Aug. 21: If there was any doubt whose side Atal Bihari Vajpayee was on in the struggle between Lal Krishna Advani and the Sangh, the former Prime Minister settled it today.

In the presence of Sangh chief R.S. Sudarshan, who has led the charge against BJP president Advani, Vajpayee said Jinnah was “secular”, then qualified it by adding ' in his initial years.

Using the occasion of a tribute to Sangh leader H.V. Seshadri, who died in Bangalore last week, Vajpayee read out an anecdote from a book Seshadri had written on Partition. Jinnah is quoted as telling Motilal Nehru that he “does not believe in the bakwaas (nonsense) of mullahs”.

The attack on Advani from the Sangh and calls for his resignation as party president began after his comments on Jinnah on a visit to Pakistan that were seen to be in conflict with the RSS opinion on Pakistan’s founder.

Such was the outrage ' though Advani said much the same thing as Vajpayee ' that the turmoil tore the BJP asunder. Many of Advani’s acolytes deserted him.

Today, however, Sudarshan did not react to Vajpayee’s statement at all, though he spoke later.

After the initial outburst from the Sangh over Advani’s remarks, combined with Sudarshan’s comment to a TV channel that Advani and Vajpayee should make way for younger blood, it had seemed that the BJP president had no other choice than to step down.

But, following Madan Lal Khurana’s suspension yesterday over open criticism of Advani’s leadership, it seems getting rid of the BJP chief is not going to be as easy as it had appeared.

With Vajpayee publicly throwing his weight behind Advani, there are indications that the camp that holds more moderate views than the Sangh’s on so-called Hindutva is consolidating.

When Vajpayee spoke, Advani was travelling in Gujarat, putting an arm around Narendra Modi who, himself under attack in the state from within the Sangh, is now siding with the moderate section of the BJP.

Ever a master of the spoken word, Vajpayee, however, was cautious enough not to rub salt into the wound he opened in Sudarshan by praising Jinnah.

“We have to see in totality and he (Jinnah) was responsible for the Muslim League, the country’s Partition and religious fanaticism,” he added.

This followed the secular certificate that Jinnah had “nothing to do with communalism. It was wrong to call him religious”.

“It is regrettable that he had to go with fools,” the former Prime Minister said, quoting from the book ' The Tragic Story of Partition ' written by an RSS veteran.

He was clearly telling the Sangh leadership that such was Jinnah described by one of their own.

Vajpayee’s statement was interpreted by some Sangh sources as an “attempt” at damage control by invoking Seshadri, who was one of the most senior swayamsevaks, to infuse a degree of “credibility and authority” on the issue among the RSS-BJP cadre. Others claimed it was meant to “put down” Sudarshan.

A BJP source said: “Typically, Vajpayee has kept his secular credentials in place without annoying the RSS too much.”

He balanced the Jinnah aspect of his address by praising the Sangh. He said if the RSS had survived four decades, it was because it was “ideology-centred and not personality-based”.

Sudarshan was hardly in a combative mood ' perhaps the occasion did not warrant it, perhaps it was some other reason.

He indirectly expressed regret for the TV interview where he was heard saying the younger generation should take over in the BJP. Sudarshan said he was asked from within the Sangh why he had made such an issue public.

He said he had been quoted “out of context”.

The run-up to the BJP national executive next month is likely to be eventful.

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