POLITICS: ADVANI'S SHREWD GAMBIT: THE STRAITS TIMES: JUNE 22ND 2005: BY SALIL TRIPATHI.



It is one of the wonderful ironies of subcontinental politics that at the end of a nostalgic journey to Pakistan, India's former deputy prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani should face fierce attacks from his own party colleagues.

For Mr Advani is no ordinary politician, and in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations, the BJP is no ordinary party. In December 1992, Mr Advani led the campaign to construct a temple at the presumed birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, on a spot where the Babri Masjid used to stand. As for the BJP, some members have made careers out of demonising Pakistan.

So when Mr Advani praised Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for his vision and his secular outlook, all hell broke loose. The BJP's rank and file was livid. Although an uneasy truce prevails now, daggers are still drawn on both sides. This time, Mr Advani finds himself isolated. His speech in Pakistan, and its repercussions within India, in particular within the BJP, will have a lasting consequence on the kind of party the BJP wants to be.

In visiting Pakistan, Mr Advani probably had two overt objectives. At a personal level, he wished to return to Karachi, his one-time hometown. At the political level, he was trying to position himself as a moderate leader of a nationalist party that wishes to be trusted again as India's governing party. This is important, because its hardline attitude had cost the BJP significant support in last year's elections, leading to the defeat of the coalition it led.

After Mr Advani came to India in 1947, he developed his reputation first as a party apparatchik within the BJP (and its earlier incarnation, Jana Sangh), and later, as a leading hardliner. In the past, he had expressed sadness over the demolition of Babri Masjid. But this time it was in Pakistan that he expressed this, which was adding insult to the injury that hardliners were already feeling from his visit to the country.

Also, he praised Jinnah's vision. Mr Advani is not the first to recognise that Jinnah had a secular streak. Anyone who has grown up in India would know that Jinnah was a man of Western tastes, who married a non-Muslim. Indians saw that as a sign of hypocrisy, particularly when they compare him with their own austere, teetotaller, non-violent, leader Mohandas Gandhi.

To be sure, Jinnah had little time for the austerity and moral piety that Gandhi exemplified. But as historian Patrick French recently argued, Jinnah used communal antagonism as a political bargaining tool in his negotiations with the Congress, and he failed to foresee the bloodshed and migration that might follow from it.

But as Gandhi is rightly viewed as a hero in India, Jinnah is usually portrayed as the villain - rightly or not would depends on your political point of view. When Mr Advani singled out a pre-independence speech Jinnah delivered - in which he said Pakistan should be the home of people of all faiths, that faith should be a personal matter, and that people should be judged as the citizens of the state, and not by their faith - Mr Advani was trying to portray just how much Pakistan has deviated from that vision. He also wanted to remind Indians how much they may have misunderstood Jinnah.

Some pertinent questions

JINNAH'S exact words were: 'You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the state. You will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.'

These do not sound like the words of a fundamentalist. Stirring fresh thinking about Jinnah within India (and Pakistan, for that matter) is hardly a bad idea - it would also cast light on the role that Congress leaders, who agreed to India's division, played.

Thoughtful Hindu nationalists have claimed that the long dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family in Indian politics has suppressed and stifled any debate about Partition. Was Jawaharlal Nehru impatient to become premier, and hence agreed to Partition? Why was Gandhi powerless in preventing it? Was it simply Jinnah's intransigence and Lord Mountbatten's great sense of hurry that expedited independence and Partition, or were there other forces at play?

Asking such questions does not mean that the Congress would necessarily emerge in a poor light. It may indeed seem that Partition was inevitable. These are legitimate questions for historians. And if we are not to repeat history, we should try to learn from it. That seems to be Mr Advani's agenda.

There is also some shrewd political thinking behind Mr Advani's remarks. If the BJP hopes to return to power, it is clear that it cannot do so on the strength of Hindu nationalism alone. Saffron flags are good for rabble-rousing, but as the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen points out in his new book, The Argumentative Indian, the large majority of Hindus consistently vote against the BJP: its core support base is small.

This can have dangerous repercussions for hardline BJP nationalists. A more moderate BJP would need a different type of leaders. Towards this end, there is a pragmatic wing within the party, represented by those who would like to continue India's economic liberalisation and to take advantage of globalisation.

Sure, many ridiculed as 'hopelessly out of touch' the 'India Shining' campaign last year that celebrated economic progress. But even if the glass was only half full in 2004, it should be remembered that it was nearly empty in 1990. It was due to economic reforms, launched by the Congress in 1991 and continued by the BJP-led coalition, that India started to rise.

So if the BJP is to win elections again, it will have to appeal to voters far beyond the narrow band of nationalists. Mr Advani understands this, and his visit to Pakistan was part of that agenda to convince India's majority of voters that they can count on him.

If he succeeds in weaning the BJP away from nationalism, he would have performed a major service in establishing a stable polity in India. It would allow Indians to reassess Mr Advani, just as he wants the subcontinent to reassess Jinnah.