The rumpus over Advani's remarks provides an occasion to reflect not only on the future but on India's past. How he interprets his party's future is closely tied to the idea of India and the movement he has espoused for much of the last century.
Writing in December 1947, only weeks before the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, an astute observer in Lucknow was struck by the 'very impressive' rallies of the RSS among the youth. Given the central role she was to play on the stage of India's history, her subsequent comments in a letter to her father are worth recalling.
'The growth of this organization,' wrote Indira Gandhi, 'is so amazingly like the Brown Shirts of Germany that if we are not very quick on our toes, it will grow beyond our control'The recent history of Germany is too close for us to be able to forget it for an instant. Are we inviting the same fate to our country'
She went on to argue that people of sanity were inclined to believe such a movement would die a natural death. But it was easy but unpardonable to ignore that the threat to democracy could grow and engulf it.
Indira Gandhi's own later life, especially the Emergency and her dalliance with soft saffron in the Eighties, obscures her early heroic work against such elements. In particular, as a young mother in her thirties, she worked with Subhadra Joshi with Muslim refugees in Delhi's Purana Qila.
Were L.K. Advani to reflect on his own past, it would provide a clue to where he was in those momentous years. The Australian historian, Ian Copland, uncovered the answer. Advani was the prant pracharak or chief ideologue of the princely states that now make up a large part of Rajasthan. These included Alwar, where some of the most horrific 'ethnic cleansing' took place before the term had even been invented. As was the case with Hindus and Sikhs in large swathes of Pakistani Punjab, the Muslims who had lived in this land for ages were subject to state-sponsored atrocities.
There is no evidence linking him to such atrocities. But there is little evidence of the sangh or its allies ever condemning the massacres. After all, it was not Narendra Modi who invented the logic of action-reaction in 2002. He was only repeating the logic of the sangh and Hindu Mahasabha of the mid-20th century.
Just as Mohammed Ali Jinnah was to declaim about the need for a secular state, so too Advani would affirm then, as now, his belief in such a state. But his semantics disguises two inescapable facts.
One, such rational practising politicians, more at ease with statecraft than religious dogmas, have have a central role in playing the sectarian card in our history. It is not religion as much as the colouring of politics by drawing on it that has enabled them to do so much damage.
Further, they are not spared the ghosts that they have helped create. Jinnah, before the end of his lifetime, was to endorse the invasion of Kashmir by the tribal levies. Its key lynchpin, Major Akbar Khan, was to attempt the first military coup in Pakistan's history. Similarly, the very Jinnah who affirmed religious pluralism in his speech to the constituent assembly of the new nation state sang a different tune in Dacca. He asked the students there to adopt Urdu in place of Bangla as the lingua franca. The fact that he spoke in English did not deter him.
Yet, Advani, unlike Jinnah who died in 1948, has lived most of his life in a vibrant democracy. Few can disagree that the Ram rathyatra did more than any other single event to popularize the idiom of his parent organization. It became respectable among the middle class and vast sections of the underclass to bemoan how 'oppressed' Hindus were under the Congress raj.
Though he regretted the demolition, Advani let loose the forces that celebrated it then and now. Even as he expressed himself in no uncertain terms that it was unfortunate, he disavowed any responsibility for it.
Unlike Jinnah, who in his early life was a liberal, Advani's entire political life has been in the sangh. Its iron discipline, which struck the young Indira Gandhi in the Forties, has been a feature that remains striking to this day. This very discipline in deed is also carried over to the world of thought.
The difference between the Pakistan movement of the Forties and the Hindutva currents then and now is crucial. Jinnah wanted and got a Muslim state. He was not dissimilar to the Jewish nationalists under Ben Gurion, who got the state of Israel the following year, 1948. Jinnah's roots were in liberalism and Ben Gurion's in socialism.
Advani is correct in invoking the liberal beliefs evident in Jinnah's speech and similar strands would be evident among the founders of Israel. Jinnah was not Maulana Maududi with his call for a society based on the fiqh and sharia law. Ben Gurion had little in common with Jewish religious zealots.
But there should be little doubt that such men opened the door to such elements. Advani went several steps further. His parivar or family played a key role in unionizing such groups and giving them a popular platform. Having let loose such forces, he now has to face the bitter truth that they have no idea how to conduct a debate. They are used to settling debates with the stick, not parleying about ideas and ideologies.
A critical feature about Hindutva is that it speaks to a Hindu rashtra or nation, not a Hindu state or sarkar. It is perfectly possible for an Advani or a Vajpayee to exist in a secular state. Their aim and objective is to transform the polity, the terms of debate and discussion. Once everyone speaks only in terms of majority and minority, it will not be relevant what kind of law or constitution we live under.
The reality is that a plural polity can allow for a kind of dissent and debate that groups that subscribe to a narrow ethic cannot. Indira Gandhi was right in comparing the sangh to the Brown Shirts of Germany. Their methods and techniques may differ, but their narrowness of thinking has not progressed beyond that of the groups so prominent in Europe in the Twenties.
As a child of the parivar, the party has so far been unable to break its apron strings. There is room for debate in India. But not in the parivar, even for one of its most famous sons.