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Jinnah was not the issue

August 19, 2009

Jaswant Singh has been expelled from the primary membership of the party. Jaswant Singh is a former external affairs minister and later the finance minister in the Vajpayee government. He is one of the senior most leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his expulsion has come as a surprise to many. Jaswant Singh has written a book, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence in which he has said that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan was a ‘great man who has been demonized by historians in India’. He goes on to say that Jinnah wanted a united India and it was with reluctance that he accepted the two nation theory. Before the book was released, he gave an interview to one of the TV channels and said this very forthrightly. The ruling Congress could not hide their discomfort and their spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi retorted that the BJP should be called Bharatiya Jinnah Party, obviously referring to the 2005 trip of L.K. Advani to Pakistan where the BJP leader had called Jinnah a ‘secular leader’, pointing to his August 11, 1947 speech.

The fact is that the BJP had little to lose if one or two of its top leaders called Jinnah a secular leader and heaped praise on the man. While this is in conflict with the Hindutva agenda of the rightist party, yet they had everything to gain by hailing Jinnah, because in effect they could then say that they are not communal while pointing a finger at Nehru and the Congress leadership for the partition of the country.

Here I would like to mention that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was in fact not a rabidly orthodox Muslim as many would like us to believe here in India. In that Jaswant Singh is right when he says that Jinnah has been ‘demonized’ in India.  Jinnah came from the Ismaili Khoja faction of Shia’s who are a small minority among Muslims and came under the Hindu personal law. His grandparents were Hindus. Like Gandhi, his mother tongue was Gujarati and he was not too comfortable with Urdu. He was a lawyer, and a very successful one at that and practiced law at the Bombay High Court. He was an Anglicized man, educated in Britain and did not mind eating pork. He loved smoking his pipe and had married a Parsi girl almost half his age. Jinnah’s concern was the welfare of Muslims in a largely Hindu India. He wanted to make sure that the rights of Muslims were not marginalized once the British were gone. He did not want a separate state for Muslims initially, and many believe that he played the Muslim card to get as much as he could from the Congress for his community. This was also a very shrewd man who was aspiring for the highest office of the land and Gandhi and Nehru found his logic and his sharp retorts difficult to handle. Nehru was as ambitious as Jinnah and his aspirations were no less. Jinnah, perhaps never believed that partition of the country would be accepted by the Congress. He underestimated Nehru’s thirst for power and he was left with no choice but to carry out what he was threatening all along, a separate state for the Muslims. Gandhi is on record saying that Jinnah be made the Prime Minister, in an effort to avoid the division of the nation. Jaswant Singh in his book has mentioned this fact, I understand.

The British had their own interests. An India whose borders would be touching Afghanistan and Iran on the west and Burma and the Bay of Bengal in the east was a threat to British interests in the Middle East. Britain would have had to compete for the strategically important Iranian and Iraqi oil wells which would be at a stone’s throw distance from the Indian border. India would have been at the mouth of the Caspian oil cache. The British therefore found the creation of a smaller state of Pakistan a safer option than leaving India intact.

Lord Mountbatten had been given the 1948 deadline to withdraw from India by Attlee. The impatience of Nehru and Jinnah hastened the ‘independence’ of India and the creation of Pakistan. Ideally there should have been a planned transfer of population but that was not to be. Jinnah had personal compulsions. His deteriorating health was something that was making him anxious. He was suffering from tuberculosis and later cancer and few within the Congress including the top leadership knew about it. It could well be that Jinnah’s ill health finally gave him the courage to accept the creation of Pakistan, which he was trying to avoid till then. He knew that he would have to lead a largely Sunnite Muslim nation that he had been proposing for sometime till then. There was no other Muslim leader of his stature and erudition and he would have had to take the burden of leadership of a Muslim Pakistan. He accepted the unthinkable as an afterthought in the belief that this was the best deal for the Muslims of the sub-continent, and for himself too. If not the prime minister of the whole of India, the next best thing was to become the chief of a truncated part called Pakistan. The British pushed him hard to go along with this unsavory solution (from Indian point of view) and he had few options by then. What followed is well known.

Jinnah was surely not the reason for Jaswant Singh’s expulsion from the BJP. L.K. Advani had also praised Jinnah as a secular man on his trip to Pakistan and the BJP could live with it. Neither was Mr. Singh’s criticism of Nehru’s brand of politics something new. It is what he has had to say about Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel in his book that has raised the hackles of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Jaswant Singh in his book, it appears has castigated both Nehru and Patel for the debacle that was the partition of the country. Nehru’s avaricious politics has been discussed many a times in many forums. What became unpalatable for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar was the criticism heaped on Sardar Patel and his being one of the architects of India’s partition as per Mr. Singh’s book, that the rightist outfit found absolutely unfathomable. Sardar Patel is seen by most Indians as the architect of modern India and the man who ‘united’ India. The police action in Hyderabad and Junagarh are a case in point. Kashmir and timely Indian intervention is another.  BJP is ruling in the state of Gujarat and any criticism of Sardar Patel by one of the top most BJP leaders would have been political suicide for the future of the party in this western Indian state. The BJP has been decimated in the last elections and their dreams of getting back to power in Delhi have been shattered. This was a big blow for the rightist party. What would have been hara-kiri for the party was the slur at Sardar Patel from one of the foremost leaders of the party. One must remember that Patel’s are a very powerful caste in the state of Gujarat. Keshubhai Patel, who is also a former chief minister of the state and who has now been sidelined in favor of Narendra Modi is sitting on the sidelines, fuming. Any criticism of Sardar Patel endorsed by the BJP would have meant that the Patel’s would have been offended which is politically suicidal. The Congress has already made inroads into the bastion of the BJP that is Gujarat. The last parliamentary elections have seen a resurgence of the Congress in Gujarat. Jaswant Singh was sacrificed at the altar of Gujarat politics.

Jaswant Singh comes from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. BJP was the party that was ruling in Rajasthan. In the last elections the party has been jolted and could win only four Lok Sabha seats and was routed out of power from the state. A lot is being said about Jaswant Singh and how he played a negative role in Rajasthan politics. Critics have gone to the extent that Mr. Singh helped Congress by undercutting votes and therefore the BJP did not do quite as well as they were expected to, in spite of the fact that Vasundhara Raje government had done a lot on the development front. Jaswant Singh did himself no favor by deciding to fight the Lok Sabha elections from the safe Darjeeling constituency once the local Gurkha political outfits decided to support the BJP. He should have stuck with his home state and tried to support the efforts of Vasundhara Raje who was already on the back foot after the Gujjar agitation. Jaswant Singh was left high and dry once the party did poorly in Rajasthan.

Lastly,  Jaswant Singh was dispensable because he does not have a mass base. He is seen as a Vajpayee loyalist and an intellectual. Few would argue his effectiveness as the foreign minister of the country. He had a very good rapport with his counterparts in the west and carried out his duties admirably during his tenure. In fact he was so effective and had worked things out so well with various allies that Pakistanis were feeling stifled. He was shifted to finance because of external pressure. Let us not forget that it was Jaswant Singh who had gone to Kandahar and got back the passengers of the hijacked IC 813 Indian Airlines flight. It was critical that passengers got back safely as there were some hostages who could have been used by the hijackers to extract a lot had they come to know their identities. At that time few had the guts to undertake such a delicate mission. Jaswant Singh went and got back the plane and the passengers safely.

For Jaswant Singh the book may have been an intellectual exercise. Perhaps he had got tired of politics as he saw it. He had been relegated to the back benches in the Lok Sabha. By now, I think he did not care less. Jaswant Singh may withdraw from politics altogether now. It will be a loss not only to the BJP but to the Indian polity and the nation.  The regret is that a man of such talent was not used as he should have been. This could be a signal to others in the BJP top hierarchy that it is time to pass the baton. I hope others are not eased out quite so unceremoniously as has been done with a man of the stature of Jaswant Singh. I can’t help but think of a scenario where Jaswant Singh is appointed the Foreign Minister by Manmohan Singh, now that he is no more with the BJP and also because the present foreign minister S.M. Krishna is proving ineffective. It would be good for the country and may hasten the demise of a party that has lost its moorings – both ideological and political. It would be a magnanimous gesture and one which may see an exodus from the rightist party – something that will warm the cockles of many a hearts in the Congress.

Update 19.08.2009: As I finish writing this the news comes that Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah and partition has been banned by the Gujarat government. It is clear that the BJP is ready to go to any lengths to stay in power, as is the wont of most parties. It could well be that after so much of effort the party still fails to retain power in Gujarat in the next state elections, because the BJP is not addressing the key issues: infighting and highlighting the grievances of the people, especially when the economy is in a bad shape and there has been a deficit in rainfall. Jaswant Singh’s book could have been handled differently without marginalizing the chances of the party in the coming state elections. This expulsion and the way it was carried out has boomeranged on the party. This has shown that the party is totally out of depths and has lost its way.

Update 20th of August, 2009: There is an eerie silence in the BJP after the expulsion of Jaswant Singh. One needs to understand that the decision to expel Jaswant Singh could not have been an educated one, for the simple reason that it is impossible that anyone in the BJP’s parliamentary board had read the 600 page tome in that short period of time. The book was released on the 17th afternoon and the decision to expel Jaswant Singh was made on the 19th morning. It is clear that Jaswant Singh was given the boot without any real knowledge of what he had actually written about Sardar Patel. At best the decision was based on hearsay. Lord Meghnad Desai of LSE has called Jaswant Singh’s expulsion ‘foolish’.

Update 25.06.2010: Jaswant Singh has been taken back into the BJP by Nitin Gadkari at the behest of Lal Krishna Advani. There could be many reasons for taking back Jaswant Singh. Jaswant Singh was one of the founding members of the BJP. He gives an intellectual dimension that the party badly needs. Advani wanted Jaswant Singh back because he wanted his old comrades around, so that he does not become totally irrelevant himself. Besides party members like Jaswant Singh are the pillars on which the party stands. The man must get his due. It is also likely that other former BJP stalwarts like Uma Bharati and Govindacharya come back and find prominence as they had a niche in the party that remains vacant.

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