Moderate Advani vs Hardliner Rajnath Singh
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has convinced itself of its excellent prospects in the next general election, it is not surprising that its two top leaders have spelt out their visions for the future. The enterprise would have been enlightening but for the fact that their prescriptions cancel out each other.
While party chief Rajnath Singh has signalled a return to the old majoritarian Hindutva formula with his preferences for scrapping Article 370 of the constitution that confers special status on Jammu and Kashmir, and the introduction of a uniform civil code, the party's former chief and current prime minister-in-waiting, L.K. Advani, has called for the BJP reaching out to the minorities. Not only that, Rajnath Singh also wants the concept of secularism mentioned in the constitution to be modified.
A further complication has been added by the comment of Jaswant Singh, external affairs minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet, that he felt "diminished" by the end of the Hindu monarchy in Nepal, which is now a secular state.
It is difficult to see how the two lines can run side by side. Rajnath Singh's agenda resurrects two of the three controversial points (the third being the construction of the Ram temple) which were put on the backburner by the party in 1996 when it wooed "secular" parties like the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamool Congress to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
As such, the party president's suggestion denotes a step backwards, which cannot be acceptable to many of its NDA partners. Nor will his views on secularism. It is not easy to understand, therefore, what exactly is Rajnath Singh's objective unless he is taking up the posture of the traditional hardliner now that the original hardliner, Advani, has seemingly vacated the slot to wear a moderate mask.
From this standpoint, while Advani is playing the role with which Vajpayee has long been associated, Rajnath Singh apparently wants to be the new Advani. Whether he has the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the paterfamilias of the BJP and the saffron brotherhood, is not known. But the fact that he was chosen by the RSS to replace Advani as BJP president when the latter showed signs of moderation with his praise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah has to be kept in mind.
Besides, the other hawk in the Hindutva family - Narendra Modi - is widely regarded as the BJP's man of the future in the post-Vajpayee, post-Advani scene. Rajnath Singh may have decided, therefore, to show that he is no less a hawk, as he is known to harbour prime ministerial ambitions.
But even as the BJP plays these internal games, it is obvious that the fallout will not be entirely beneficial to the party. Apart from revealing conflicting ambitions and a blurred party line, any sign of the party shedding even its current pretence of moderation will undermine the NDA's cohesion. This is Advani's main fear since any such development will ruin his chances of becoming prime minister.
As it is, at 80 years, he doesn't have age on his side. If he misses the bus this time, he will miss it forever. He probably now regrets having anointed Vajpayee for the post because he himself had become embroiled in the hawala racket involving the clandestine transfer of funds. However, Advani is also aware that, more than anything else, it is Vajpayee's moderate image which facilitated his rise to the top. Hence, his assiduous cultivation of a similar image.
But he also knows that he has a credibility problem in this regard because of his past when he rode a chariot in 1990 on a mission that led to the Babri mosque's demolition two years later. What is more, Advani has been unrepentant about the riots that followed, which he, in a recent interview, ascribed to the judiciary's delay in coming to a decision on the temple-mosque dispute.
He has also been unequivocal in his support for Modi notwithstanding the latter's dubious role during the 2002 Gujarat riots when Advani was home minister at the centre. It is in these respects that his show of moderation is different from Vajpayee's since the latter was against the 1990 rath yatra and was unhappy over the mosque's destruction. Vajpayee had also wanted to dismiss Modi after the Gujarat riots but was dissuaded from doing so by Advani, Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and others.
It is easy to see, therefore, that Advani's call for reaching out to the Muslims and Christians will not be readily believed. In addition, Rajnath Singh's and Jaswant Singh's observations will alienate them all the more. The BJP and the NDA cannot, therefore, expect an easy ride during the general election.
The party has other problems as well. The Gujjar agitation has put Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje on the defensive. Among those who must be enjoying her discomfiture is her party colleague, Jaswant Singh. Similarly, although Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi in Bihar has managed to survive a challenge from his partymen via a secret ballot, no one can certify that his position is secure.
Notwithstanding its Karnataka success, all is evidently not hunky-dory for the BJP at the moment.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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