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Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 20:01 UK

India's opposition in disarray

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC News, Delhi

Jaswant Singh (L) attends a press conference with party leader Lal Krishna Advani (C) and party president Rajnath Singh (R) in 2008
The days of unity are coming to an end as the BJP descends into factionalism

If it was not happening for real and if it had not concerned India's principal opposition party and one of its most senior leaders, the rather unsavoury dismissal of Jaswant Singh would have been seen as a kind of a political farce.

Mr Singh's book (Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence), released earlier this week, was in the news because of praise it lavished on the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In his book, Mr Singh described Jinnah as a great man who has been "demonised" in India.

This praise for Jinnah was unacceptable to some senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders who disagreed with his assessment.

Verging on blasphemy

But regardless of the controversy, hardly anyone predicted that praise for Jinnah would lead to such an unceremonious outcome for the former defence, finance and foreign affairs minister.

Nationalists burn an effigy of Jaswant Singh in Delhi
Fury at Jaswant Singh has sparked protests by some on the right

Mr Singh was not given even an opportunity to explain himself.

It is not the first time the founder of Pakistan has come to torment the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP.

In 2005, the then party president Lal Krishna Advani saw his political career almost coming to an end after he described Jinnah as a secular leader who stood for Hindu-Muslim unity.

For the BJP rank and file, such comments from their leader were unacceptable and almost blasphemous.

The reason is simple.

Partition is an emotive issue for many Indians and a majority of them - not just the Hindu right - have grown up believing that Jinnah was the architect of two-nation theory based on religion.

For right-wing nationalist organisations like the RSS - which provides ideological moorings to the BJP and wields considerable clout in it - issues like partition and Jinnah's role in it are an article of faith.

They blame Jinnah and his Muslim League for the partition.

By the end of 2005, Mr Advani was forced to quit his BJP post and though he did manage to claw his way back to the top rungs of the party leadership (he was the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in parliamentary elections earlier this year) he never fully regained his stature and clout.

'Thought policing'

Jaswant Singh has not been so fortunate.

While he will retain his parliamentary seat, his expulsion from the BJP could mean the end of the road in terms of power politics.

BJP supporters
The party is plagued by infighting

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, Mr Singh ruled out the possibility of apologising to the BJP leadership and regretted that they did not even bother to seek an explanation from him.

He was also critical of the manner in which BJP leaders resorted to what he described as "thought policing".

But for the BJP top brass - which began a "chintan" or introspection meeting in the salubrious climes of the hill town of Shimla on Wednesday - the Jaswant-Jinnah issue is perhaps the least of their worries.

Maybe that is why they have been able to take such quick and arguably not very well thought-out action.

The other issues confronting India's principal opposition party are far more challenging, serious and fraught with far-reaching implications.

Having lost two successive national elections in 2004 and 2009 the BJP is desperately trying to refocus, rejuvenate and reinvent itself.

It needs to focus on issues which help it play the role of an effective opposition and win back the support of the people.

Instead it is a house divided.

'Party of the past'

The party is being pulled in different directions by the ambitions of its leaders. The joke is that the BJP which once prided itself on being a "party with a difference" is now seen as a "party with differences."

BJP leader LK Advani
Many say the party leadership needs young blood

It also faces an identity crisis both in terms of leadership and issues.

While the governing Congress party undergoes a generation shift with 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi increasingly asserting himself, the BJP is still being run by the 82-year old Mr Advani.

The results of this year's general elections also showed that India's youth - who make up the bulk of voters - are no longer enamoured by the part-nostalgia, part-revivalist and part-Hindu nationalist slogans of the BJP.

The young want to look ahead.

So far the BJP is offering them the past.

The dismissal of Jaswant Singh over his book on a man who died more than 60 years ago is yet another indication of the party's refusal to leave yesteryear behind.



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SEE ALSO
Senior Indian politician expelled
19 Aug 09 |  South Asia
India's BJP disowns Jinnah book
18 Aug 09 |  South Asia
Uncertain future for India's BJP
18 May 09 |  South Asia
How Indians see Jinnah
07 Jun 05 |  South Asia
Advani stays on as BJP's leader
10 Jun 05 |  South Asia

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