Advani was often credited with sufficient reflection before taking a step or stating a view. This image has now taken a beating.
THE Jinnah controversy seems to have added a new dimension to the personality of Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani. Until now both his admirers and his critics were united in the assessment that Advani as a leader measured his words and was never one to let his impulses guide his actions. He was often credited with sufficient reflection before taking a step or stating a view. He has never had to retract his declared stance, unlike most other politicians. Advani was always conscious of the import of his utterances and actions. The correctness of his political assessment often surprised observers.
These personal attributes have, however, taken a beating since the general elections in 2004, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was voted out of power. It was Advani, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, who advised a reluctant A.B. Vajpayee to recommend the dissolution of the Lok Sabha eight months before the completion of his government's tenure and opt for early elections. Advani and the BJP have never been able to figure out conclusively what caused the party's debacle.
Among the various factors Advani identified for the party's poor performance was the NDA government's failure to cater to the BJP's core constituency comprising its ideological Parivar. But his remarks during his recent visit to Pakistan and the adverse reaction they provoked within the Sangh Parivar have raised the question whether he really felt this was the case.
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan's demand that Advani should make way for younger leaders within the party probably convinced him that the RSS was not impressed with his lip-service to the core constituency made time and again at party fora and that it expected something more substantial of him. His current term as party president is generally seen as being lacklustre, with none of the BJP's programmes as an Opposition party making a mark within or outside Parliament. The party has been in complete disarray under his leadership, with second-line leaders making public display of their differences. It was difficult to erase from public memory the spectre of former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati publicly questioning the fairness of Advani in treating her alone as the symbol of indiscipline.
Put in this context, Advani's statements in Pakistan and the reaction to it within the Sangh Parivar seem to be inexplicable. It is not the first time, however, that Advani has taken a stand that conflicted with his ideological family. In November 2002, Advani, as Deputy Prime Minister, asserted in Parliament that India can "never be a Hindu state". The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had then accused him of practising pseudo-secularism and minority appeasement.
The RSS, however, came to Advani's rescue, with its spokesperson Ram Madhav clarifying that "the concept of Hindu Rashtra is cultural and not political and Advani was perhaps referring to it in the political sense". Ram Madhav also expressed the RSS' belief that India would never become a theocratic state.
Advani must have, therefore, assumed that this time too the RSS would consider the context in which he eulogised Jinnah and understand the distinction between Jinnah's 1947 speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly and an assessment of his role during the years before Partition. However, the RSS was clearly not inclined for a debate on Jinnah and was more concerned with the public perception following Advani's praise of Jinnah as a secular and great man.
This was a great disappointment to Advani, who thought that at least his trusted loyalists, such as Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and M. Venkaiah Naidu, would defend him and clear the confusion caused by the misinterpretation of his stand on Jinnah. But in the face of the RSS' ire, the second-line leaders preferred discretion to defence. His resignation was thus a decision taken on an impulse. He was more hurt by what he believed was a betrayal by his loyalists than by VHP leader Pravin Togadia's reference to him as a traitor.
Did Advani visit Jinnah's mausoleum consciously in order to trigger a debate on Jinnah? Apart from the necessity to show courtesy by a visiting dignitary, there was also a Karachi connection to what Advani did. He had spent 20 years of his life in Karachi. He left Karachi after Partition in 1947. Swami Ranganathananda was the head of the Ramakrishna Math in Karachi from 1942 to 1948. Advani used to listen to his discourses on the Bhagavad Gita every Sunday. The discourses and the personality of Swami Ranganathananda made a deep impression on a young Advani.
Advani explained that when he saw Swami Ranganathananda last at Belurmath in Kolkata last year they reminisced about their days in Karachi. Swami Ranganathananda had asked Advani if he had read Jinnah's speech in the Constituent Assembly. Advani told him he had read it but had only a vague impression about it. Swami Ranganathananda asked him to read it again and told him that it was a strong espousal of a secular state. The Swami said he did not have the full text and requested Advani to send the full text to him. On his return to Delhi, Advani got hold of the full text, read it again, and was highly impressed by the contents of the speech.
Advani referred to this conversation with the Swamiji at a meeting called in Delhi in May to condole his death in April. Advani mentioned Jinnah there in the presence of the Prime Minister. It was at the back of his mind when he visited Karachi. It was perhaps understandable that he recalled the words of Swami Ranganathananda when he visited the Jinnah mausoleum.
Did Advani want to promote India-Pakistan relations through what he believed to be a proper appreciation of the role of Jinnah? Jinnah spoke not only about India but about his vision for Pakistan, that Pakistan should become a non-theocratic state, with equal rights for the majority and minority communities. Advani reminded Pakistanis about Jinnah's vision.
Some Advani-watchers are of the view that an image makeover was very much on his mind when he went to Pakistan with his family members, who shared his perception that he was unnecessarily being derided as a hardliner, even when he consciously kept a distance from the vituperative statements of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal on the Hindutva agenda. He agreed with his immediate family members that the promotion of India-Pakistan relations provided the right opportunity to bridge this gap between his image and the reality and also to increase substantially his political appeal in the coalition era. Only that the constituents of the larger Sangh Parivar, to which he belongs, were not so convinced, even as he left his colleagues in the party guessing about his intentions in raising the Jinnah issue.