Byline by M J Akbar: A Welcome Release from Politics
Has the BJP lost the plot or has a plot lost the BJP? Curiously, both might have happened, though successively, rather than simultaneously.
The BJP missed the central point of this year’s general elections. Its miscalculations began after the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November last year, when it misread the impact the carnage had upon people. Every section of India may have wanted Pakistan punished for that outrage, but that did not translate into an excuse for confrontations within India. A decisive section of the electorate did not want Indian Muslims punished for what some Pakistani Muslims had done. Obviously, the Indian Muslim voter did not want to be tried for a crime he had not committed and so mobilised against a BJP which began to get more strident by the month. But a decisive section of youth had no appetite for the politics of conflict creation; it wants conflict elimination, or at least conflict resolution.
The BJP, judging by the promotion of Narendra Modi as a future Prime Minister and Varun Gandhi as a rising superstar, was still investing in conflict, not resolution. That switched enough seats to leave the BJP far short of its intended tally. The Congress, abetted by some amazing foolishness on the part of the Third Front, went far ahead of its expected numbers.
It is a rare leader, and an even rarer party, that can avoid rebellion in decline and defeat. This of course is only true of parliamentary democracy. In a presidential system the leader swims until he sinks; there are no real midterm gasps for breath. Britain’s Gordon Brown was showered with adulation in his first three months; got carried away; turned too clever by half; and has faced nothing but rebellion and disdain ever since. Indian party politics is far more stable than its British mother-version.
Rebels come in three categories after a defeat. There are those who believe that their political careers are over, and therefore there is nothing much to lose. Age could be a reason, or simply the accident of personal proximity to the defeated leader. Who remembers a Congress politician called Bhubanesh Chaturvedi? The political class barely knew who he was when P.V. Narasimha Rao made him one of the most powerful men in Delhi. The meteor disappeared into a black hole the instant Narasimha Rao was defeated. But the BJP is also passing through a generational transition. It is not just Mr Advani who will not contest the next general elections; his peers will be too old as well. Since he has not been able to ensure that his peers spend their last years in politics in ministerial offices, they can risk the frisson of some controversy. I imagine Dr Murli Manohar Joshi might discover he has a few things to say if all the temptations that could keep him silent and patient get exhausted by December.
The second reason is less subtle. There are rebels who are, in effect, cheerleaders of an alternative leader. This is normal politics, and you can hardly grudge such activity. Those who feel they have been sidelined by any leadership will exploit the opportunity offered by change. It is obvious that some of those who were unhappy with loss, vented their spleen on Advani.
Jaswant Singh’s detractors [whose numbers must have multiplied since his expulsion; that is the culture of Delhi] will put both reasons in the charge-sheet against him, but they will be wrong. Obviously, he would have preferred to spend this term as MP in high office, rather than in a publisher’s office. But the reason he published his book on Jinnah was passion, not ideology. He is a liberal of the old school, and proud of both, liberalism and the old school. Values and honour mean much more to him than a mere dictionary can convey.
Pakistan is both physically and emotionally close to him, and the many contradictions of partition have affected him deeply, as they have so many others. He has relatives in Pakistan. The ruling clan of Umarkot, in whose custody the Emperor Akbar was born, is his kin. He has spent many years, in the silence of his impressive library, examining the depth, trajectory and implications of his roots. He may not have admitted it, but in his personal scheme of things books overtook politics as his principal priority. The evolution may even have been unconscious, for one does not measure change on a periodic basis.
Jinnah was an obvious attraction, for he wanted to know how myth had overtaken facts in Pakistan, and demonology had diminished Jinnah in India. It is not possible to invest many years of one’s life in a biography without being fascinated by the subject. On a few occasions, this fascination is akin to being entranced by the venomous power of a snake, as Hitler’s biographers were. But Jaswant Singh discovered, as many others have done, that Jinnah was in the hero-mould, and deserved admiration despite his mistakes, no matter how awesomely expensive those mistakes proved to be.
In his personal preferences, Jinnah was a liberal-intellectual that a fellow liberal-intellectual could empathize with. It may not be entirely accidental that Jinnah’s Indian grandson is a friend of Jaswant Singh. Any biographer fond of his subject will give him the benefit of any doubt, and the road to freedom in 1947 was cluttered with doubt, misdirection, accidents and betrayal as much as it was resplendent with vision, courage and sacrifice.
Jaswant Singh did not set out to change his party through his book. Neither did he expect his party to change him because of this book. He thought he had served his party with honesty and commitment; and the party would show the grace to give him his space as an author. It did not.
Perhaps it could not. You could not survive in the Shiv Sena after claiming that Shivaji had any flaw. And life would not be happy in the Congress if you carped against Nehru. Politics needs its certainties even when those certainties are historically uncertain. Politicians are wary of books, because they are aware that knowledge can be injurious to their health.
The world of books welcomes Jaswant Singh’s release from politics.