Things are at a bad pass for the Indian far right. Its political party, the BJP, is in disarray. At their last “chintan baithak,” (introspection meeting) in Simla, the leadership went at each other for their poor showing in the general election earlier this year. Expulsion followed expulsion, as formerly revered men and women were found guilty of one kind of infraction or another. A book by a former head-man of the party, Jaswant Singh (one time foreign minister and close confidant of Strobe Talbott), on Pakistan’s “father of the nation” Mohammed Ali Jinnah provided the opportunity for more blood letting. Singh gave credence to what the history profession already knew (from Ayesha Jalal’s useful biography of Jinnah), which is that Jinnah was hardly the clownish bigot so carefully portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s Greatest Hits of Gandhi (1983). Singh was shown the door. The Hindu right cut its teeth singing songs against Jinnah. He was always the “bad Muslim.” There are not many “good Muslims” in the Hindu Right’s cosmos.
With Jaswant Singh went Sudheendra Kulkarni, onetime Leftist and journalist turned intellectual bagman for the Hindu Right’s leader, L. K. Advani. A few days later, another former journalist who had done so much to burnish the credentials of the Hindu Right, Arun Shourie, went apoplectic on a television show. He accused the rump leadership of ineffectiveness, and went so far as to quote Mao, asking the cadre to “bombard the headquarters.” In the party of the far right, a call to arms is not made lightly. The fellows often take the thinkers seriously. Fortunately, Shourie’s writ runs in the chattering classes alone, and they were too busy locking up the silver to rush out and throw candelabra at the BJP’s citadel. Shourie is the former Minister for Disinvestment, a surreal post whose portfolio was blocked by massive protests. He was discomforted by the current boss, Rajnath Singh, whom he called Alice in Blunderland. Nothing in the ideology of the far right came under criticism from him, or from others who were on the way out.
The RSS, which operates as a sort of Reichsleitung (party directorate) of the Hindu Right, hastily tried to take charge of the collapse of its parliamentary arm. Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsangchalak or headman of the RSS, told a press conference that the BJP would “rise from the ashes,” an indication of how bad things had become for the movement. BJP leaders rushed to the RSS headquarters to get the blessings of Bhagwat and to prove their Saffron bonafides. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi played a crucial role at the Simla introspection meeting. Some accused his prime ministerial ambitions of scuttling the BJP’s electoral chances in this go-around. Modi has a terrible reputation as an extremist of the far right, which gives pause to a population that was fortunately distracted by matters of the stomach to concentrate on jingoism. The murmurs of the BJP dissidents were not taken lightly. Modi is ambitious and has built a strong following among both the RSS and the party’s base. They like his clarity: no wavering from the hard right’s aversion to Muslims. Few contemporary politicians in India have their face on t-shirts. Modi is the far right’s Obama.
As all this transpired before the television cameras, the investigative moles of the Indian State gathered up their paperwork and went before various high and supreme courts, seeking permission to open an investigation against Modi. In April, Mrs. Zakia Jafri, whose husband Congress Member of Parliament Ahsan Jafri was killed in cold blood during the pogrom of 2002, and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad moved the Supreme Court to investigate the Modi government. In June, the Court ordered the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to “take steps as required by Law.” The wheels of justice had finally been wiped of their rust. The BJP tried to stop the process in the Gujarat High Court, but the state court declined and moved the SIT to continue its work (which would include the registration of a First Information Report against those whom it would accuse, including, perhaps the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi). There is ample evidence of Modi’s role in that pogrom, engineered as it was by his state apparatus and party (Human Rights Watch has a very clear report on this, chillingly called We Have No Orders to Save You, 2002). Two thousand people were killed in this state-engineered campaign. A virtuous police officer, Rahul Sharma, at the Ahmedabad police control room taped the calls coming from local Hindu right leaders to the Chief Ministers’ office during the heat of the riot. Modi is said to have egged them on. Now the government has finally taken notice. The boiling oil of legality was set to pour on Modi.
To divert attention from all this, Modi went ahead and banned the book on Jinnah written by his erstwhile comrade-in-arms (or put together by him; my teacher, C. M. Naim wrote a piece in the Indian Express showing several instances of plagiarism). Once expelled from the BJP, Jaswant Singh has let loose. He revealed that after the Gujarat pogrom some in the BJP leadership wanted to remove Modi. They were overruled at that time. Modi had too much support in the party, and besides his views had been given credence by the BJP’s then leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (on April 12, 2002, when the pogroms fires had only just begun to simmer, Vajpayee told a gathering in Goa, that Muslims, all Muslims, “tend not to live in co-existence with others, not to mingle with others, and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats” – this is the sort of rude ideology of the far right, shared by its most eloquent and well-regarded leader, Vajpayee). Singh tried to hide behind Vajpayee in this, saying that the grand old leader had been distressed by the Gujarat massacres. No such evidence was given in public. At any rate, Singh’s breach of faith could not be tolerated. Modi struck back by banning the book in his state. The Supreme Court stepped in to prevent the banning, just as the RSS chief Bhagwat is to be in Gujarat to discuss the book and the fallout with Modi. The nadir for Modi is on the horizon.