In Search of an Anti-Nehru

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Trying to reinvent themselves, two BJP leaders reinvent Pakistan’s founding father and their own political future

Ashok Malik
Ashok Malik
Senior Journalist

IN LITERATURE, myth, politics and perception, the principal faultlines of Partition have always been the ones that divided Punjab and Bengal. It is easy to forget that the Great Separation of 1947 also split Sindh from Kutch and contemporary Rajasthan, drawing, almost literally, a line in the sand.

The BJP descended from a party founded by a Bengali and initially dropped anchor among Punjabi refugee communities in Delhi. It is some irony then that the two BJP veterans who have produced revisionist accounts of Partition in recent years speak from (or for) either side of the Sindh- Rajputana/Kutch frontier.

LK Advani’s June 2005 family visit to Karachi is famous. Accompanied by a team of selected journalists, advised by three adventurous confidants and disregarding the counsel of at least two senior diplomats, Advani travelled to Pakistan, to the Jinnah Memorial and to his childhood. He was so emotionally influenced as to throw off his sobriety and enter into a Sindhi folk dance routine wearing a flamboyant red cap. It was a captivating journey, but one that crippled Advani politically.

Jaswant Singh’s remembrance of Partition came in a different form. In the evocative opening chapter of his memoir, A Call to Honour (2006), he wrote movingly of his maternal grandfather, Thakur Mool Singhji of Khuri – “a tall, imposing presence, big of bone, full beard, gruff voice, an example of desert manhood, epitomising the values of this harsh, hard, desiccated, incomparably beautiful land,” patriarch of a Hindu-Muslim community that stretched well into Sindh.

Then came Partition: “What in living memory or history (for even the topography of the land was not different) had not been alien territory suddenly got labelled so. We were divided by time, by circumstance and by events and forces way beyond my grandfather’s world.” Both experiences are touching. It can be argued, of course, that a million refugee or Partition- affected families can recount two million such stories, many more tragic and emotionally wrenching.

Also, despite the melodrama, the fact is Advani and Jaswant were among the luckier ones. The refugee from Karachi came to India on a BOAC flight, not, like countless others, on foot, on a cart or on the roof of an overcrowded train. The grandson of Khuri was at Mayo College on August 15, 1947, living as sheltered a life as could be. Whether it is the relative detachment of the hour or the distance of time, Advani and Jaswant have both sought to re- imagine Partition using the same prism: the life and words of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Whose hero? Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Whose hero? Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah

Advani’s Jinnah and Jaswant’s Jinnah are equally unacceptable to the BJP – and to a the larger body of public opinion in India, irrespective of voting preference. Yet, it is crucial to recognise the two Jinnahs are not always identical.

Advani’s Jinnah was born of a twisted reading of Indian politics. As far back as the 2004 election campaign, Advani had begun to believe – or had been so convinced by some intellectual weathercocks – that Muslim voters were flocking to the BJP. That they would not make the same mistake they did in the 1940s when they deserted the “Hindu” Congress for the Muslim League. As the inheritor of the Congress’ pan-nationalist robustness, the BJP would now win the trust of the Muslim electorate. It was engaging nonsense, good enough for the odd op-ed article but clearly far from real-life politics. The point is, Advani bought the line. A mix of political desperation, individual ambition and the addled nostalgia that inevitably accompanies anecdotage confused him.

Advani was convinced that an India-Pakistan rapprochement was essential for resolving Hindu-Muslim tensions in India and for making the BJP more acceptable to electorally hostile segments as well as reinventing himself as a moderate, Vajpayee-style leader acceptable to a broader constituency. This was not hard politics; it was a soft head at work.

The mechanism Advani chose to fulfil his complex aspiration was appropriating Jinnah. In presenting him as the mascot of Hindu-Muslim unity – which he was in the first quarter of the 20th century – and cheering his speech to the Pakistani Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, in which Jinnah foresaw a Muslim nation but a secular state, with freedom of worship for minorities, Advani felt he could use the Quaid-e-Azam’s words to persuade one section and his religious identity to court another.

As a political gambit, it was always a non-starter.

How would one classify Jaswant’s Jinnah, the subject of a new biography subtitled “India-Partition Independence”? Is this an Advani me-too? Is it contrariaism for the sake of contrarianism, an uncritical absorption of the ideas of Ayesha Jalal or the unquenched desire to be recognised as the thinking man’s politician? These elements play a part but, above all, Jaswant’s Jinnah is personal. In his book, he paints his hero as a wronged, misunderstood patrician. Is that Jaswant’s self-image?

At the height of his “nationalist” phase, Jinnah was an auxiliary of Bombay’s westernised public intellectuals – Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the Congress Moderates and the Parsi constitutionalists. These groups, along with the Banglo-Indians in Calcutta, comprised the early, pre-Gandhi Indian elites.

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Contributing Editor

Ashok Malik has been a journalist for 20 years and is contributing editor at Tehelka. He focuses on Indian domestic politics, foreign/trade policy, and their increasing interplay. In 2011, Ashok co-authored a paper: India’s New World: Civil Society in the Making of Foreign Policy, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney. It looked at the influence of Indian business, news media and overseas communities on the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi. In 2012, Ashok’s book, India: Spirit of Enterprise (Roli Books) was published. It encapsulates the story of the growth of India’s leading private sector industries since 1991, and their role in the Indian economy.

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