India's Opposition Struggles With Past and Present

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Jaswant Singh looks on during the release of the party election manifesto in New Delhi.

For an ancient civilization with a rich and diverse heritage, India remains uncomfortable with the defining event of its modern political history — the cataclysmic Partition of 1947 that left a million people dead in fratricidal massacres and caused the largest-ever cross-migration in human history. Six decades after that bloody split which doomed India to seemingly eternal enmity with its conjoined twin, the state of Pakistan, Partition still defines the contours of Indian politics and some of its biggest challenges, from the festering dispute in Kashmir to Islamist and Hindu right-wing terrorism.

It also has led to conflict within India's political establishment. Last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist bloc that leads the opposition in Parliament, expelled Jaswant Singh, a former foreign minister in a BJP government and party stalwart. His crime? To have published a revisionist book on the history of Partition and, in particular, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Muslim Pakistan who Indians of all political stripes have often blamed for the violent sundering of the Subcontinent. Singh's Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence portrays Jinnah as a secularist and a great statesman, an image that would make members of India's ruling, secularist Congress party squirm, as well as Islamists in Pakistan. But Singh's book seemed to pose the greatest threat to the BJP, a party struggling to find its political relevance since its thumping defeat in a national election earlier this year.

Indeed, the spat over Jinnah has highlighted the profound crisis facing India's most prominent opposition party. Its rise less than two decades ago as a dominant force in Indian national politics coincided with the opening up of the country's economy and the emergence of a more confident, muscular middle-class. Its leaders were in power until a little over five years back, when the party lost the elections then by a thin margin. But those days seem long gone. The humbled BJP is now faced with serious questions over its leadership, seen to be out of sync with a fast-changing India as well as unable to control dissent within its ranks. Since the electoral defeat,there has been a string of high-profile resignations and infighting between party members has dominated headlines in recent weeks.

But the problem runs deeper — ever since an overwhelming mandate in this year's elections returned the centre-left Congress party to power, the BJP has been caught in ideological drift, unsure of its own identity and role as India grows into a world power. On Monday, BJP stalwart Arun Shourie urged the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP's mother organization and champion of Hindu nationalist orthodoxy, to "take over" the party, implying that the only way the party could get its act together is to go back to the lock-step discipline of the RSS. This, however, would also entail a return to that group's ultra-nationalist values which would alienate Muslims,low-castes and religious minorities. The party now finds itself faced with a lingering existential question: whether to return to its core base and whole-heartedly embrace the RSS, or continue to project a more centrist image by distancing itself from Hindu fundamentalist dogma. The repudiation of Singh and his open-minded reinterpretation of Jinnah and Pakistan has signaled, to some analysts, which option the party Mandarins have opted for.

Strident Hindu nationalism worked in the 1990s, channeling upper-caste Hindu resentment at the rising political power of the lower castes, and giving voice to urban middle-classes who backed pro-market, liberalizing reforms. Back then, the BJP successfully occupied a nationalist space ceded to it by a weakened Congress — staging events harking back to an idealized Hindu past, such as the theatrical "rath yatra" (literally, a chariot ride, but used here to allude to the mythical Lord Rama's quest to slay the evil Ravana) that motivated frenzied crowds of Hindus to demolish an ancient mosque in December 1992, sparking months of Hindu-Muslim carnage. When in power from 1998 to 2004, the BJP renamed popular cities with names they deemed more "native" and changed school syllabi to ingrain a "Hindu" version of Indian history among students, moving away from the greater complexities of India's diverse religious past.

Yet in elections this year, Indian voters seem to have rejected the politics of religious polarization in favor of stability and economic growth. "Hindu nationalism worked in the 1990s, but today, it is on the margins. It goes against the popular mood," says New Delhi-based political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. In terms of economic reforms, the BJP seems to have placed itself against a growing consensus. When in opposition, it has been an outspoken critic of the Congress party-led government's liberalization policies, seeking to speak for workers and small businesses perceived to have been disadvantaged by reforms. This marks a reversal from its own professed business-friendly politics when in power not long ago.

The only hope for the BJP, says Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of politicalscience at the University of Hyderabad, lies in becoming a more mature, modern conservative party espousing the Hindu cause but without the corrosive influence of radical ultra-nationalism. "They need to clarify their stand on a range of issues from liberalization and foreign policy, especially Pakistan, to their stance vis-a-vis religious and other minorities," he says. Sharma agrees that the BJP's current leadership is incapable of leading the party in this direction. Also, as many political analysts have pointed out, the BJP's sectarian agenda is often at odds with the spirit of India's pluralist democracy — an internal reckoning and re-branding is necessary, but not in sight.

Ironically, amidst the furor created by Jaswant Singh's pro-Jinnah remarks,the BJP top brass seem to have overlooked the fact that Singh lays the blame of Partition mostly on the Congress party and its leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, India's much-admired first Prime Minister. But it also serves as a reminder that the BJP is the Congress' only real competitor at the national level, and the only likely foil to Congress' national dominance. For decades, the Congress party was the lone player in Indian national politics, a status quo which led to political stagnation. Until the BJP gets its act together, India could teeter down that path once again.