| L.K. Advani after meeting Manmohan Singh on Wednesday. (PTI)
The storm within the Sangh parivar over L.K. Advani’s view about M.A. Jinnah shows little sign of subsiding. Tempting as it is to dismiss it as a family feud or a difference of styles, it is also a turning point in the history of the quarter-century-old BJP.
The chief attack on the former deputy Prime Minister has come from the very quarters that once saw him as the champion of their cause. It is a far cry from the times just a-decade-and-a-half ago when he embarked on the Ram rath yatra and transformed the grammar of Hindutva from the norms of a fringe to the part of the political centre.
That the remarks should have been made in Pakistan resonates with significance. The RSS has long believed that the very creation of the nation state was a result of the weak-kneed attitude of the Congress. When the BJP and the Janata Dal parted ways, no less than Advani himself derided V.P. Singh for his “Jinnah cap”.
The comments may have won him friends across the border but are difficult to digest for cadres brought up on a black and white view of the world. Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who speaks in parables, phrases and verses well chosen with an eye to ambiguity, Advani rarely hesitates to spell out precisely what he means. In doing so, he has re-opened a live historical debate about what Jinnah was or was not.
But his party and the tradition it represents remain in a state of turmoil. At stake is not polemics about the past but the vision of the future direction for the movement of Hindutva, now in disarray.
There is little doubt that this is a continuing struggle to find a coherent voice for a party and a larger ideological grouping in the wake of the defeat in the general elections of May 2004. But there is more to it than just that.
As party president, Advani first signalled a return to Ram. But the slogan did little to enthuse cadres. The Maharashtra Assembly elections showed that Veer Savarkar is a cult figure for a militant minority with no wider appeal even in his own home state.
The need for allies and partners made it essential for the top echelons of the party to develop and sustain an acceptable image. Such moves were well under way even when the NDA was in power.
In the five years he was a Union minister, Advani liked to declaim about how “governance, not ideology” was the new touchstone of performance in public life. When confronted by an angry Mrs Naipaul on the Gujarat massacres, he agreed they were a blot but insisted they were “an aberration”.
As Vajpayee has stepped into the shadows, leading a semi-retired life, Advani has striven to take over the former’s mantle.
The problem is the cap does not quite fit. His own past, from the rath yatra to his unstinting praise for Narendra Modi did little to increase his appeal outside his party.
Even in the past, he has often been uncomfortable, deeply so, with taking aboard the actions of his followers. Unlike a Balasaheb Thackeray or a Modi, he has been careful not to be direct in his polemics but to use acceptable language. He never asked that Babri Masjid be demolished even as he made it a central issue in mobilisation. He rode this wind but found ingenious ways to disown its effects. He has often described December 6, 1992, as a tragic occasion but blamed the politics of appeasing minorities for the denouement.
Unlike in the past, his manoeuvring space is limited. The party is not riding a crest of popularity as in the nineties. For much of his tenure as leader, it confronted a defensive Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao, an astute leader who lacked a mass base of his own. The roles are now reversed, with the Congress in power, with a younger, sprightlier leadership under Sonia Gandhi.
The BJP, in contrast, has never quite settled down after K.S. Sudarshan’s call for grooming a younger leadership. Out of power, the party is more dependent than ever on closer co-ordination, not only with the RSS but other fraternal organisations that staff its campaigns.
The spell in power has generated a reverse kind of pressure. Advani has seemed keener than ever to assume the posture of a Prime Minister in waiting. A high-profile trip to Pakistan seemed the best place to give shape to this strategy. It also could mend the perception in that country that he wrecked the Agra summit.
The problem is that a peace dividend usually works to the advantage of the party in power in a democracy. For a party whose self-image is that of a strong guardian of strategic interests, it can hardly work wonders for rank and file dispirited by successive setbacks.
Far from unifying them around a statesman in the making, it has led to a major crisis. The fallout of the resignation has been on expected lines.
Despite his insistence, the efforts to bring him back as party leader have not run their course. Should he walk away, that will open up another question. The key will then be Advani’s ability to have a say on who his successor will be.
The truth is that barring Advani and Vajpayee, no one has been able to walk the tightrope for any length of time. The rumpus over his remarks illustrates a second point. The most difficult times in a leader’s life are not those when he grapples with ideological adversaries. It is in managing the conflicts and fissures within.