The Art of Firing Blanks

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Jaswant Singh’s summary dismissal is a clear sign that the BJP is caught in the midst of an ideological crisis. Will the pragmatists prevail or will the party be claimed by the champions of insular Hindutva?

Swapan Dasgupta
Swapan Dasgupta
Senior Journalist
The Rebel Jaswant Singh has always ruffled feathers with his free thought
The Rebel Jaswant Singh has always ruffled feathers with his free thought
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

MEMBERSHIP OF a political party”, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party told me on phone from the venue of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chintan baithak in Shimla last Wednesday morning, “also involves personal compromises. You must be prepared to accept curbs on your individual rights.”

The suggestion that political activism is not merely a set of entitlements but also involves genuflecting at the altar of the “party line” is known to all those who take the plunge into public life. It is to the credit of Jaswant Singh that he could persist with his individualism and free thinking and, at the same time, climb to the top rungs of the BJP leadership. To a large extent this was due to the remarkable indulgence of his angularities by three BJP stalwarts: Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and, most important, Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was Vajpayee who persevered with him despite the misgivings of the RSS and the exasperation of middle-rung BJP leaders who could never quite fathom what he was all about. The cumulative effect was that Jaswant remained his own man, never afraid of undertaking voyages into either uncharted or potentially hazardous waters.

Since 2004, however, the party’s exasperation with his individualism had been mounting. The release of his autobiography A Call To Honour, was accompanied by huge controversies over his version of the Kandahar hijack of December 1999 and his suggestion that there was a “mole” in PV Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet. On both counts Jaswant caused a huge embarrassment to the party, something he disregarded with disdain. He added to his offence by attempting to become a faction player in Rajasthan and campaigning openly for the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s ouster. Then, following the defeat in this year’s Lok Sabha election, he took the injudicious step of teaming up with Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha to ask uncomfortable questions of the leadership. The points he raised weren’t entirely invalid but it prompted too many people to retaliate with the query: “When has he lifted his little finger for the party? For 29 years he has eaten the party’s cream.”

The accusation against Jaswant was that he viewed his privileged status in the BJP as an entitlement, sans obligations.

That Jaswant was undertaking a political biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was known since 2005. He had made that public during the row over LK Advani’s misadventure in Pakistan. At that time, he had also let it be known that he would resign his primary membership of the BJP if it failed to back Advani on the Jinnah issue. It never came to that because the Advani tangle was settled — or, more accurately, brushed under the carpet — through some face- saving compromises.

In January this year, when news of the imminent publication of Jaswant’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence broke, an alarmed party leadership pressed the author to delay publication till after the Lok Sabha poll. It was rightly calculated that the Congress would have a field day if the so-called “face of Kandahar” was now seen to be heaping lavish praise on the man who created Pakistan. Jaswant obliged. But never for a day did it enter his mind that the publication should be shelved for a time when he was no longer active in politics.

JASWANT’S ASTONISHING reassurance was not bravado; it was based on calculation. He was certain that the BJP faithful would take a dim view of any reappraisal of Jinnah that made him appear as just another canny politician. The demonization of Jinnah has, after all, become a part of the broad nationalist consensus, just as Jawaharlal Nehru always wanted. However, this storm, he believed, would be managed. The BJP, he believed, would dissociate from the book, perhaps drop him from the Parliamentary Board, but would then allow the storm to pass. Jaswant took solace from the belief that the BJP would not really like to resurrect the Jinnah debate because Advani too would suffer collateral damage.

In hindsight it was a colossal miscalculation. The first part of the script went perfectly when BJP stalwarts stayed away from the book release at Teen Murti and so did the second act when, first Sushma Swaraj and then Rajnath Singh dissociated the party from Jaswant’s views. But things had already started going wrong. Jaswant’s interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN on Sunday night and its reports in the next morning’s newspapers fuelled anger in the BJP ranks in much the same as when Advani uttered his praise of Jinnah at the mausoleum in Lahore four years ago.

The party faithful were incensed on a number of counts: the description of Jinnah as “secular”, the suggestion that Muslims were yet to be regarded as equal citizens in India and, most important, the inclusion of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel as a man also responsible for the Partition. That Jaswant’s view of the Muslim plight in India was actually a subtle indictment of a two-nation theory which had led to an unending spiral of minorityism was too subtle for ordinary comprehension need hardly be stated. Read in isolation and without reference to the arguments in the book, it seemed very much like an endorsement of religion-based fragmentation.

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