Byline by M.J.Akbar: One Year Later
There is a fundamental law of Indian politics: you can reach Delhi from which angle of the ideological prism you like, but when you reach the Centre you must rule from the center. The BJP could not run a government on the three wheels on which it ran its populist campaigns: the construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, which it helped destroy; the abolition of Article 370; and the enactment of a uniform civil code.
There is no evidence yet that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is planning any anniversary parties to celebrate his surprise elevation to the top job in India. But there is plenty to indicate that the BJP has begun to mark a year of its funeral with a spectacular civil war.
We know that a year ago the BJP-led government died in the general elections. Was the death of natural causes? Was it suicide? Was it murder? These are the vital questions that the Hindutva Parivar has grappled with for twelve-odd months without finding a convincing answer. After much deliberation, RSS head Sudarshan, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the BJP’s criminal-justice system, has reached a verdict of suicide and wants the two men who have led the party for the last quarter century to retire. But there remains some confusion about the verdict. Are Messrs Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani being punished for having lost the election or having lost their teeth? Were they wrong? Were they disobedient? Or are they simply too old for Mr Sudarshan, no spring chicken himself? The options are intriguing.
The fact that their election strategy failed is an old story. It doesn’t take a year to figure out that they fell on their face when trying to expand the BJP space at the expense of allies like DMK in Tamil Nadu, Asom Gano Parishad in Assam, Janata Dal(U) in Jharkhand and Lok Dal in Haryana. But the younger men and women in the party were equally guilty. There is no record of anyone having suggested that the party was heading towards the pavilion rather than the three-century mark. Moreover, the two elders have learnt to get along with each other. That is not a quality that the BJP’s Gen Next can boast of. The middle-aged leaders may have lost the elections, but they have not lost their egos.
Which of the younger leaders would Mr Sudarshan put in charge? The answer goes to the heart of a supplementary: did the BJP lose because of Vajpayee or because of Narendra Modi and the indelible scar of the Gujarat riots? I suspect that the RSS wants the two elders to make way for Narendra Modi, although that is not being said quite so plainly yet. For him, Narendra Modi is the solution rather than the problem. Mr Modi’s problem is not the BJP: the party’s knees get wobbly the moment it enters the vicinity of Nagpur. But the BJP is not yet ready to fight an election alone. It needs allies and its allies don’t need Narendra Modi.
The anger against Mr Vajpayee stems not from age but from disobedience, for he attempted to use power to reshape the party. He was, in a sense, trying to remake the BJP into a mirror of his preferred kind of government.
There is a fundamental law of Indian politics: you can reach Delhi from which angle of the ideological prism you like, but when you reach the Centre you must rule from the center. The BJP could not run a government on the three wheels on which it ran its populist campaigns: the construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, which it helped destroy; the abolition of Article 370; and the enactment of a uniform civil code. You do not have to be a Chanakya to recognise that all three are issues that are hostile to the sentiments of Muslims. Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani, whatever the difference in nuance between them, could not run a government that was on principle hostile to Muslims. In six years of office, construction of a temple did not begin. The abolition of Article 370 was always an absurd idea, since it would sever the constitutional link with Jammu and Kashmir. And of course no one ever did anything more than pay lip service to the idea of a uniform civil code. The RSS is punishing Messrs Vajpayee and Advani for disloyalty to its agenda. It believes that prevarication cost the party power, and wants to retire them. But since political formations respect the social culture, such bloodletting will not be easy. Mr Vajpayee did not walk the plank after Mr Sudarshan’s fulminations. In a public speech he suggested that he might have lost his office but he had not yet lost his honour.
Confusion is the mantle of despair. Loss of government has turned the alleged swayamsevaks of the RSS into power-addicts. They can’t seem to survive without sniffing the glue of office each morning.
If the Opposition is fragile, the government is frail. Its principal redeeming feature remains the personality of the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, but while the goodwill generated by his integrity is fine, it is not good enough. The electorate has acquired a demanding voice. It expects a healthy government to deliver a child every nine months. So far the main things delivered to the people of India have been sermons in English. (It is a curious fact that all the leading lights of the Congress Party are far more comfortable in English than Hindi: Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, Natwar Singh, P. Chidambaram…) Sermons may be good for the soul but do very little for the stomach.
The principal achievement of the Manmohan Singh government has been the peace process with President Pervez Musharraf. So much of this process is atmospherics that there is always great danger of slippage over a stray phrase. Foreign minister Natwar Singh did indeed start off on a less than benign note, and it was not until Dr Manmohan Singh met President Musharraf in New York in September that stability returned, bringing back a whiff of promise.
There are facts, and then there are central facts. President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh have done more in a few months than has been achieved in decades. The buses that softened the rigidity of the Line of Control are central facts, for they address the heart of the problem. Peace has meant many things to many people in the complex maze of Indo-Pak relations but it has rarely meant anything to the Kashmiris. One bus in fifteen days may not sound very dramatic, particularly when it remains vulnerable to mischief or accident, but a principle has been established that could begin to melt the difference. One sign is already visible. Militants who attacked the passengers on the eve of the first bus to Muzaffarabad are being disowned. Syed Salahuddin, commander in chief of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, now says that he believes that "no ‘freedom-fighter’ will attack or fire a single bullet on the bus". He also adds that he is ready for peace talks if invited by Delhi. This is not sudden conversion. He is responding to the strong surge for peace in the valley. Kashmir is the problem. Could the Kashmiri become the solution? The thought is not without its virtues.
President Musharraf made a remarkable statement on the eve of his weekend cricket diplomacy. He said that the peace process was now virtually irreversible. "Virtually" was a thin safety clause. Dr Manmohan Singh promised that the sky is the limit, without lifting his feet too much from the ground. This momentum took a long while building. The question is whether it has developed critical mass or not. If it has, issues like the costly (in terms of lives more than money) confrontation on the Siachen glacier will be resolved with nothing more dramatic than an application of common sense; there will be a dozen crossing points on the Line of Control; a route will open up on the western seas; and even artistes like Shobha Mudgal might get a visa without a hassle. This is all part of the common-sense regime.
If there is an application of uncommon wisdom, then the neighbours will start thinking about strategies for the next twenty years. President Musharraf has said more than once that we need to think out of the box. The problem of course is not the theory. What is the practical content of life outside the box? Where are the ideas that hinge on known dimensions but have the strength to chart a way forward? Is there space enough in the mind to accommodate the other? If Indians and Pakistanis begin but to think without aggression, and plan without malice the world will suddenly seem a different place. Think differently and symbols of war, like nuclear arsenals, can turn into means of strategic cooperation. All you need is the will to change a won’t. Will that happen over dinner and cricket? I won’t rule it out.