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Teen Murti Bhavan, a classical stone-and-stucco structure in the handsomest enclave of New Delhi, has long been identified with its most famous former resident: Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and the architect of the Congress Party. It took a biting sense of irony, therefore, to organize the book release for Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence at Nehru’s old house this past August. Over the course of 650-odd pages, the opposition stalwart frequently pins the blame for the 1947 partition of India on Nehru (and, by extension, the Congress Party) and largely absolves Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, of responsibility.
As one of the house intellectuals of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Singh -- a former minister of finance and external affairs -- might have felt safe making such an argument. He was not. Two days after the release party, Singh was expelled from the BJP by a committee that, in all probability, had not even read his book. Where there had previously been only peepholes, his expulsion opened a whole window onto the most riveting political theater in India today: the precarious disarray of the BJP. And the disarray matters. For nearly two decades now, the BJP has been a contender, a semblance of a coherent alternative to the otherwise dominant Congress Party. A fragmented BJP would thus mean a tectonically different polity, one in which a single party would always form the core of the Indian government.
As a party, the BJP depends on a particular historical narrative to prop up its primary ideological precept: that India is, and always has been, a Hindu nation. This is why the BJP exerted itself while in power, from 1998 to 2004, to rewrite school textbooks, emphasizing Hindu victimhood and the rapaciousness of the Islamic invasions of India between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. This is also why the party vehemently objects to the Aryan invasion theory of Indian prehistory, which suggests that the basic tenets of Hinduism were formulated abroad and only subsequently carried by migrants into the Indian subcontinent. Thus, as Singh learned, to depart from the BJP’s chosen historical narrative is to depart from its very ideology.
It was not Singh’s faulting of Nehru in his book that got him expelled; that alone would have earned him accolades from his BJP colleagues. Rather, it was his declaration that Jinnah was actually a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, forced to call for a separate Muslim state only because Nehru’s blueprint for an India with a strong center and weak states might fail to protect the Muslim minority from the massive Hindu majority. Singh’s argument, despite having been asserted earlier by other historians, seemed to rub the BJP’s guardians of ideology the wrong way; they would prefer to project Jinnah as a narrowly communal leader who yearned for his own Islamic state. By the party’s facile arithmetic, this voluntary subtraction of Pakistan’s Muslims automatically made the new Indian state a Hindu one -- never mind the silent elision of Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Parsis, not to mention the Muslims who opted to remain in India, numbering nearly as many as those in the new Pakistan. “The BJP is not a party of logic,” Kashinath Singh, an author and a longtime political observer, once told me. “It is a party in which you take a stand, and then you stick stubbornly to that stand, whatever the arguments against it.”
But Jaswant Singh also suffered from a case of awful timing. Four years ago, when the BJP was feeling more secure about its ideology, Lal Krishna Advani, then the party’s president, visited Jinnah’s tomb in Pakistan and described its occupant as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.” For this, there was no expulsion; Advani was merely removed from the presidency, but he remained so close to the party’s power center that he was able to make himself the BJP’s candidate for prime minister during the general elections held last spring.
Mistakenly or otherwise, the BJP chose to run a campaign of personality; Advani’s presence on the ticket often outweighed the local issues in individual parliamentary seats. Having derided the 76-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a weak, aging leader, Advani, all of 82 years old, ran campaign posters of himself karate-chopping the air and promising to be a “strong leader” and provide “decisive government.” Flaunting his supposedly youthful decisiveness seems to have failed: the BJP won only 116 out of 545 seats, 22 fewer than it had squeezed from the 2004 elections.
When Advani refused to accept responsibility for the defeat and resign as leader of the opposition, mutiny began to brew. And like nearly every Indian political party, the BJP is not internally democratic, so the disagreements resulting from the electoral misadventure began to seep out through the media like smoke under the door of a burning building. In a letter circulated within the party, then leaked to the press, Jaswant Singh questioned the coordination and accountability of the BJP’s senior leaders -- an implied jab at Advani. Around the same time, another BJP member, Arun Shourie, wrote a serialized account of his party’s degeneration in The Indian Express, a major newspaper. “To each, the nearest neighbour is the greatest enemy,” Shourie wrote. “But the jostling, the ever-shifting alliances and ruptures among the courtiers break through the curtains of the court.” By the time Singh’s book was released, Advani and the BJP were tired of dissent. What might have only earned Singh a sharp rap on the knuckles five years ago resulted in his excommunication, delivered via a cold cell-phone call.
The fault line along which these various factions have emerged is a deep one, and it suggests a serious identity crisis within the BJP. The ideological wellspring -- and, some observe cuttingly, the puppet master -- of the BJP is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s foremost right-wing Hindu organization, which has been accused of helping to demolish a mosque in Ayodhya and of complicity in the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002. But after two successive electoral defeats, pragmatists within the BJP as well as external analysts have perhaps begun to realize that too much Hindutva -- too much of a focus on temple-building, for instance, or too much spurning of the Muslim vote -- is hurting the BJP. The RSS, on the other hand, insists that the BJP is floundering because it has diluted its Hindutva to appear moderate. For a party that is barely 30 years old, this is a midlife crisis that has struck much too early.
The BJP’s dilemma was best illustrated by what occurred in the northern Indian town of Pilibhit at the height of the election campaign. In late March, the BJP’s candidate from Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi, was charged with making viciously anti-Muslim statements at a rally; a video that he insisted was a fabrication captured him promising to cut the throats and hands of Muslims as his audience raucously cheered. Gandhi, the estranged grandson of Indira Gandhi, was arrested, and the BJP, torn between the demands of decency and the potential electoral profits of defending Gandhi and rousing its base, chose the latter. “Gandhi was only talking in abstract terms,” the BJP leadership’s rationalization went. “Gandhi was merely protecting Hinduism.”
In Pilibhit, the BJP’s strategy worked. Visiting the town a few days after Gandhi’s outburst, when riot-control vans still lurked on the side of a main road, the town’s Hindu residents repeatedly told me that, while they had never experienced any religious friction, they saw nothing wrong with Gandhi’s bellicose defense of his faith and said that they would certainly vote for him. The imam at Pilibhit’s biggest mosque was confused and wary. He thought Gandhi was saying these things “just to get elected,” adding, a little unsurely, “Well, that is the hope.”
Gandhi won in Pilibhit by the highest-ever margin for a new member of parliament. But the BJP, which had hoped to transmit the Hindu-chauvinist sentiment whipped up in Pilibhit across the rest of the state of Uttar Pradesh, ended up performing miserably in areas it had once dominated. Relying on Hindutva thus yielded a lopsided payoff: it was attractive in the short term but a liability in the long run.
The same model is now shaping the BJP on a national level. At the moment, because of the moral authority it exerts over the party, the RSS is the only power that can remove unpopular party leaders, repair rifts between feuding factions, and save the BJP from imploding. But in the long term, if India remains committed to secularism, the RSS’ imposition of extreme Hindutva on the BJP will only erode the party, turning it into a lumbering, inflexible, failure-prone outfit. The staunchest, most valuable BJP members may very well end up being the moderates who can reject the RSS’ constricted vision, rebuild the party, and rescue it from that dire fate.