Friday, August 28, 2009

Interpreting the oracle

Second-guessing the RSS has become a favourite media preoccupation. Those who believed that Mohan Bhagwat was going to crack the whip and lay down the line in a press conference were quite clearly barking up the wrong tree. Right or wrong, the RSS works far more discreetly.

Yet, even I must confess to being very surprised when the RSS chief chose to persist with his press meet in Delhi. The programme had been made much earlier, as part of the media interaction scheme planned in some 20 places across India. It had nothing to do with the present internecine conflict in the BJP. At the same time, once the BJP imploded, there was a feeling that it would be prudent to quietly drop the Delhi programme. The RSS chief was advised that the Delhi media is a pack of wolves, that it would make it into a political grilling on the BJP and wait for the smallest indiscretion or loose formulation.

It is to the eternal credit of Mohan that he kept his cool, wasn't forced into a rash statement. Despite constant needling, he stuck to the script that it is up to the BJP to decide its own future. The RSS exists in a purely advisory capacity, and that too when asked.

Mohan Bhagwat gave the media no masala. But he won a lot of admirers for his ability to withstand such intensive grilling. He even managed to explain his version of Hindutva without being rubbished. Full marks to him.

Now to the essence of what he said this afternoon and what he told Times Now earlier.

  • The RSS favours a generational shift in the leadership but it also favours a role for the elders.
  • It shuns attempts to project the RSS as a faction in the BJP--as Arun Shourie rashly demanded. It wants to be seen to be scrupulously neutral.
  • The principle of functional autonomy of parivar organisations was reiterated. This was as much to the outside world as to those in the Sangh who are bent on remote control of the BJP. Equally, it is a signal to politicians to stop second-guessing the RSS and acting in its name.

The relationship between the RSS and BJP is quite complex and dynamic. It is shaped by those who are at the helm in both places. Both Vajpayee and Advani used to be exasperated by K.S. Sudarshan's micro-management. Narendra Modi got involved in a full scale war with RSS pracharaks in Gujarat.

Today, there is considerable disquiet in the BJP over the intrusive style of the RSS functionary responsible for interacting with the BJP. It is suggested by many that the RSS has become a faction in the BJP. The competence of many pracharaks assigned by the RSS to the BJP have also been called into question. The outbreak of factional war is being attributed to the distortions in the BJP-RSS relationship.

Can Mohan Bhagwat redefine the relationship and put it on a mature plane? His utterances give considerable reason for optimism but even the RSS chief functions in a collegiate system. Will his functionaries keep a healthy distance from the BJP's day-to-day affairs?

It is going to be a challenging project to ensure functional autonomy. The spectacular turnout at this afternoon's press conference was a clear pointer that while the RSS is the core, it is the BJP where all the glamour resides.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How to create a hostile "martyr" by refusing to think

My apologies for not writing about the Jaswant Singh episode earlier--there were professional calls that I had to attend first.

I have spelt out my disquiet in an article published this morning in The Telegraph (Calcutta). Here I would like to reiterate a few points:

  • I do not subscribe to everything Jaswant Singh has written in his book. However, it is a sad day for the country if participation in public life through mainstream political parties is regulated by intellectual regimentation. His book was an honest scholastic exercise. He should not be punished for it.
  • Political parties must not become arbiters of historical interpretation. Their involvement can only shrink the boundaries of honest appraisal--just as it has done in the academic world where Marxists call the shots.
  • Criticism of towering Indian leaders should not be equated with disrespect. There are many facets of Mahatma Gandhi's political life the BJP may be wary of--his endorsement of pan-Islamism in the Khilafat Movement. That does not count as disrespect. The Gujarat Government's decision to ban Jaswant Singh's book can open the floodgates of intellectual intolerance. This is a problem that both the BJP and Congress faces.
  • The claim that Jaswant Singh assaulted a "core ideological belief" of the BJP, as claimed by Arun Jaitley in his press conference on Thursday afternoon, is untenable. If Advani hadn't assaulted that belief in June 2005, Jaswant's offence is far less. At least he has rubbished the two-nation theory. There is nothing "core" about beliefs that are introduced into the party four years ago.
  • The BJP is in favour of creating a broad church--what it calls inclusive Hindutva. Can you be inclusive if you cannot be accommodative towards an attempt to write history? Far from being a broad church, the BJP gives the impression of being a sect. Its factional wars are resembling battles for the control of a mutt (seminary).
  • There were very good reasons for displacing Jaswant Singh from a leadership role. He has embarrassed the party on numerous occasions. The BJP chose to ignore his real transgressions (the charge of a "mole" in the PMO, his resurrection of the Kandahar hijack controversy and his involvement in dissident activity in Rajasthan). They hanged him for thinking and writing. As a political move it was a public relations disaster. He has emerged as a martyr, enjoying full public sympathy.
  • Jaswant Singh has no profound political base but the disquiet resulting from his graceless expulsion will hinder the party's attempt to recover its middle class base. The BJP was, unfortunately, always derided by the intellectual elite; that derision, unfortunately, looks like getting a new lease of life.
  • The Jaswant episode may not have scarred the BJP so deeply if the chintan baithak had given some evidence of innovative thinking. As of now it would seem that it is more baithak and less chintan.
I had the occasion to read through the document the media is presenting as the Bal Apte report. Either Mr Apte did an extremely shoddy job and is unsuited to the task of inquiring into the 2009 election defeat or this document is a clear forgery. The document is a collection of homilies, supplemented with obvious statistics to make it look impressive. Even some tentwalla retainer could have written it based on press clippings.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

Guided democracy

What is happening to the BJP in Rajasthan is truly astonishing. As of now I am seeing TV images of some 56 of the 79 MLAs assembled outside LK Advani's residence demanding an audience. Earlier they met national president RN Singh to protest at the unilateral decision by a cabal to remove Vasundhara Raje as the Leader of Opposition. Raje, it is being said, is being made to pay for the BJP's rout in Rajasthan in the Lok Sabha poll when it secured just 4 of the 25 seats.

I gather that RN Singh was livid with the MLAs. He said that only 3 or 4 of them should have come to Delhi.

He is being disingenuous. His political adviser was the one who first announced the decision to sack Raje as LoP to media at a "source-based" briefing. The RNS group has tried to make out that the whole party is exasperated with Raje's style.

If that is the case, why are an overwhelming majority of MLAs supporting Raje?

Of course Raje is imperious and is prone to flights of whimsy. But she is the only mass leader the BJP has since Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. The others--particularly those who flaunt their RSS links--are by contrast absolute pygmies. Most of them don't have the courage to contest from the same constituency twice.

The Rajasthan episode brings out some of the problems that have gripped the party:

  • The process of post-defeat recrimination is woefully selective. Raje may be held guilty for losing Rajasthan narrowly in December 2008 but she can't be held responsible for the parliamentary defeat. By that logic, RNS and LKA are the ones who should be sacked first.
  • Factionalism in the BJP is being spread by those who perceive themselves as being close to the RSS. This is the experience of both Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. In both cases, the disruptionists and saboteurs are the ones who the central leadership wants to reward.
  • The prevalence of democracy in the BJP seems as tenuous as that which prevails in the Congress. How can the central leadership decide in Delhi to change a state leader without consulting MLAs. The unilateral change in Uttarakhand set a very bad precedent.

If this is the state of the present leadership, can we expect anything worthwhile to emerge from the truncated chintan baithak in Shimla next week?


Not directly related but not unrelated either, please have a look at a long-ish essay I wrote for Eternal India of August 2009. Since this journal is not on the web, have a look at the article "Politics beyond Hindutva"

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