Ghosts from Past Continue To Haunt India's B.J.P. Party

Activists from Rastrawati Sena, India's right-wing Nationalist Army, shout slogans against Bharatiya Janata Party senior leader and former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh during a protest in New Delhi on Aug. 19. (Photo: Raveendran/ AFP-Getty Images)

India and Pakistan celebrated their 62nd Independence Day (National Day) in August, but it is the partition of the Indian sub-continent by the British colonial rulers in 1947 that has come to haunt the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), which ironically was not even in existence when the two nations were born.

A book on Mohmmad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, by a retired major of the Indian Army who was also one of the founding member of the B.J.P., is now at the center of a raging controversy that threatens to consume India's main opposition party.

Feuding among the top members of the B.J.P. comes at a time when the nation is facing its worst drought conditions—with more than half of the country under its grip—global recession, job losses and zooming prices of essential commodities.

It also coincides with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government just completing its first 100 days of its second term, but unfortunately there have been no sharp comments from the opposition on its mixed-bag performance.

The other opposition party on the left, the Communists, are also fighting their ghosts with diminished returns after the April-May parliamentary results, which saw its three-decade hold over the electorate in West Bengal state cut substantially by the regional Trinamool Congress Party.

The ruling left combined, headed by Marxists, is on the ropes, although elections to choose new Senators to the West Bengal Assembly are scheduled to be held in 2011 with the Trinamool snapping at its heels. The Marxists have been in power in West Bengal since 1977.

The book "Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence" by Jaswant Singh, an Army man turned-politician, has stirred up such controversy as to have had him expelled from the B.J.P., of which he was one of the founding members. The book has been banned by the B.J.P.-ruled government in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Jaswant Singh held the ministerial offices of finance, foreign office and defense in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet from 1998 to 2004 when a B.J.P.-led coalition government was in power.

The book, which has been topping the bestseller list since its release two weeks ago in India, is selling faster than face masks that Indians are wearing in large numbers to ward-off swine flu. It is also eagerly sought after in Pakistan.

The book praises Jinnah for his secular credentials while "denigrades" India's first home (internal security) minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and also the country's first prime minister, Padit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Jaswant Singh says, "In the U.S.A. nearly 50-60 books are written each year about their Civil War, but in India if you write one book on Jinnah, you are expelled from a political party. There must be something wrong with a system that chooses to demonize someone like this."

No member of Parliament in either India, Pakistan or Bangladesh has ever attempted to write about Mohammad Ali Jinnah—a man Gandhiji (Mahatma Gandhi) called a great Indian. "We do not have to demonize Jinnah the way Pakistan does Gandhiji and [Pandit Jawarlal] Nehru. He did, after all, spend his entire life in India, except for the last 13 months of his life," Singh said, defending his work.

"For the B.J.P., Patel is India's Iron Man who played a historic role in the unification and consolidation of India amidst serious threats to its unity and integrity. The entire country remains indebted to and proud of the profound vision, courage and leadership of Sardar Patel," B.J.P. Party Leader Venkaiah Naidu said.

"The important role of Jinnah in the division of India, which led to lots of dislocation and destabilization of millions of people, is too well known. We cannot wish away this painful part of our history," Naidu said.

Jaswant Singh is the second B.J.P. to be attacked by the Hindu party for praising Jinnah. The first was the Hindu party's founder and leader Lal Krishna Advani who, during his visit to the Pakistani port city of Karachi in 2005, praised Jinnah's secular credentials in an attempt to tell the Pakistanis that they had deviated from their leader's ideals.

Soon after that statement, all hell broke lose in B.J.P. Advani was forced to resign as B.J.P. president. The party passed a resolution reaffirming its opposition to Jinnah. Advani later apologized but later returned to lead the party.

The only difference between what Advani said then and what Singh is saying now is that Advani was part of the decision to expel Jaswant Singh.

This has led to sharp differences between the two leaders, with a bitter Singh airing some of the controversial cabinet decisions, including one that freed three dreaded terrorists from Indian jails—including Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mustaq Ahmed Zargare—in a swap for the release of 176 passengers from a hijacked Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Delhi that was taken to Kandahar in December 1999.

The B.J.P. was not in existence at the time of the 1947 partition. Its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (R.S.S., National Volunteer Corps), although born in 1925, played no role in the political and constitutional processes and turmoil that preceded India's independence and Pakistan's birth.

The partition saw nearly a million killed and 5 million made homeless by the Hindu-Muslim lines. However, its two principal votaries, Jinnah and Nehru, were British-educated modernists who were not exactly exemplary adherents to their respective faiths.

Just four days before he unfurled the Pakistan flag for the first time, Jinnah propounded the theory of a secular nation. He told his countrymen, "You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State. You will find that in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state." His successors deified him and went on to establish an Islamic state.

Both India and Pakistan have lived in mutual distrust and fought four wars. Over the years, people have lived with their respective versions of the history of partition.

The Jaswant Singh episode occurred two days before the party was scheduled to hold a three-day chintan baithak (brainstorming session) in the hill city of Shimla last month to discuss the party's future, causes and reasons for its loss in the April-May parliamentary polls. So overwhelming was the after-shock that the B.J.P. is still feeling the ripple effects.

The expulsion of Jaswant Singh has opened a can of worms in the B.J.P. with charges and accusations being hurled at him and another rebel, Arun Shourie, who called the party leadership "humpty-dumpty" and "Alice in blunderland," saying the party was adrift like a "kati patang" (kite on a loose sway). Shourie, unlike Singh, has been asked to explain his statement by the party in a bid to control the bloodletting.

Since the early 1950's, Vajpayee and Advani were at the head of the party even in its earlier format of Jana Sangh (People's Party). They were its tallest leaders, and no one would dare question them in terms of power and prestige. That era is coming to an end.

Vajpayee is too ill and Advani, 81, is witness to ascendancy among the second rung of leadership as the older group gives way. The struggle is to establish the pecking order in the post-Advani era.

After the April-May parliamentary election defeat, Advani said he would give up his post as leader of opposition in parliament. But according to analysts, he was prevented from doing this by a group of spin-doctors who said there would be chaos if he gave up office. For some odd reason, Advani agreed to stay in office until 2014 when the next federal polls are due.

Indian newspapers say that if Advani had struck to his earlier decision, he would have become an undisputed father figure to guide the party over the years. They cite the example of Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party and leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance Coalition.

The Italian-born Sonia said no to prime ministership after the 2004 win despite public pleadings by her supporters. Instead, she named Manmohan Singh to the post, then and again in 2009.

For a man who branded himself as the new Iron Man of India and was B.J.P.'s prime ministerial candidate during the last federal polls, the fall has been sharp for Advani.

The problems in the B.J.P. have become a problem for its ideological parent, the R.S.S. Its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, made it clear last week during his interaction with the B.J.P. leaders, including Advani, that a "generational change" is a must, due to compulsions of demographic changes that are occurring on India's electoral map.

As the May-June polls showed, the B.J.P. was out of sync with the thinking and attitudes of the youth—the road of modernity and progress that India has to take in the years to come.

Forty percent of India's 1.25 billion voters are under the age of 35. This segment forms 15 percent of voters in each 545-member Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament).

Bhagwat's line is that the Congress Party will choose Rahul Gandhi, 39, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family and one of the general secretaries of the Congress Party to lead the party in the next elections. Rahul has become the face of the party in the polls and was able to attract a chunk of new voters.

Prime Minister Singh says the instability in the B.J.P. is not good for the country. But a hard look at history will show that the Congress is also critical of Jinnah's role in the partition of the country while praising Nehru as the architect of India's freedom struggle.

The freedom struggle generation is on its way out. For millions of young people, the struggle and travails of the older generation is like a long turned-over page of history.

As author Chetan Bhagat wrote in a newspaper article, reflecting the views of the new generation, "The younger generation fails to understand why our politicians become so passionate defending these relics of the past? Why don't they have a fanatical debate about how fast we will make roads, colleges, bridges and power plants? Why don't people get expelled over current non-performance rather than historical opinions? Why don't we ban useless government paperwork rather than banning books about dead people?"

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