Can the BJP reconstitute itself as a sober, responsible, right-wing party, a party that respects tradition and order without necessarily advertising itself as ‘Hindu’? Put more directly, can it free itself of the RSS and the VHP? Or must it always, in the last instance, be hostage to the beliefs of the Parivar’s fundamentalist fringe?

These questions have come to the fore in the aftermath of Mr L. K. Advani’s visit to Pakistan, and the controversy sparked by his remarks there about M. A. Jinnah. In truth, these questions have been with us for the past twenty-five years. They come up every so often, are discussed and debated with great intensity, but never properly resolved.

Perhaps a little history will help answer these questions in a somewhat decisive fashion. The Jan Sangh was founded in 1951 by Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee as a modern version of the Hindu Mahasabha. Within two years of founding a new party Dr Mookerjee was dead. One cannot say what would have happened had he lived longer, but his going meant two things: first, the RSS became the power behind the party, providing it with key cadres as well as a core ideology; second, the Jan Sangh found its feet not in Bengal but in North India, in Delhi, Rajasthan, U. P. and M. P. in particular. From very early on, the party was biased in favour of adherents of a certain religion, and also speakers of a certain language. As one of its popular slogans went: ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’. What was it biased against? Principally, the interests and even the existence of India’s most important neighbour. The Jan Sangh was pro-Hindu and pro-Hindi, and it was also anti-Pakistan. True, there were some kinds of Indians it did not particularly care for either. For example, the RSS ideologue M. S. Golwalkar identified Muslims, Christians and Communists as three groups whose fidelity to Bharat Mata remained suspect.

Writing in 1968, C. Rajagopalachari remarked that the Jan Sangh ‘has quite a few good leaders… What is needed however is a broadmindedness that not just practices toleration but looks upon Mussalmans, Christians, Parsis and others as politically and culturally as good as Hindus’.

Rajaji could have added ‘South Indians’ to the list of people the Jan Sangh could not bring itself to wholly trust. For in the first three decades of its existence, the party had practically no influence south of the Vindhyas. One might make a partial exception for Karnataka, where a few intellectuals in Bangalore and Mysore, and the prosperous Brahmin community of the west coast, gravitated towards the party of the Hindu right.

The Jan Sangh might always have remained a regional party, confined by religion and language, had it not been for the Emergency of 1975-7. It was in Mrs Gandhi’s prisons that its leaders joined the leaders of other non-Congress parties to form the Janata Party. When the Empress released them and called a General Election, this new party, hastily cobbled together, demolished the Congress in northern India. Notably, one of the reasons for its success was the mass support of poor Muslims, who were among the main victims of the Emergency.

In retrospect, the Jan Sangh had much in common with the other elements of the Janata coalition. The Congress (O), the Swatantra Party, and the Socialists were all, like the Jan Sangh but unlike the Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, keen to limit the influence of the state on the economy, promote democratic decentralization, and align India with the West rather than the Soviets. In theory, these fragments could have buried their divergent histories and forged a common future, based on a common political and economic programme.

If such a fusion did not occur in practice, it was because of a fundamental feature that divided the Jan Sangh from the other Janata fragments—namely, the ideology of the RSS. Whatever their other weaknesses, men such as Morarji Desai and Ravindra Varma (Congress (O)), Piloo Modi (Swatantra), and Madhu Limaye (Socialist), were neither chauvinists nor bigots. They might discriminate between Indians on grounds of political ideology, but never on account of religious faith.

The same could not, however, be reliably said of Atal Behari Vajpayee or L. K. Advani. The Janata Party finally split in September 1979 on the question of ‘dual membership’—on whether a party member could also continue to be a member of the RSS. In refusing to give up membership of the Sangh, Vajpayee and Advani were in effect saying they would not disavow an ideology which held that Indian Christians were suspect, and Indian Muslims even more so.

The Jan Sangh was born afresh as the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its performance was poor in the 1980 elections, and disastrous in 1984 (when it won a mere two seats). Then, Rajiv Gandhi’s unlocking of the shrine in Ayodhya took the BJP along the low and bloody road to political renewal. Now, atavistic bigotry was married to instrumental politics. The creation of a glorious monument to Lord Ram would, it was hoped, not just bring a sense of pride to Hindus, but also create the mother of all vote-banks—of all Hindus, transcending the divisions of caste, sect, region, and language.

The Ayodhya movement helped the BJP expand its influence, to regions in the south and west where it scarcely had any presence before. But it still could not come to power on its own. Thus, on becoming Prime Minister in 1998 and again in 1999, A. B. Vajpayee sought to give the impression that he was a ‘national’ rather than a specifically ‘Hindu’ leader. Some of his policies—such as the Pakistan peace initiative, and the support to economic reforms—were certainly not to the liking of the fundamentalist fringe in his Parivar.

Still, Vajpayee could not bring himself to actually disavow the RSS. In a speech in New York he said that he was a swayamsevak before he was an Indian. However, the critical test—which he comprehensively failed—was the Gujarat riots of 2002, when he could not bring himself to condemn Narendra Modi, still less to sack him. In fact, he used far harsher words in describing the murder by a mob of 58 Hindus than in describing the state-sponsored pogrom of more than 2000 Muslims. In this he was indeed a true swayamsevak. As Rajaji had pointed out, for the Jan Sanghi the life of a ‘Hindu’ is somehow more valuable than the life of any other kind of Indian.

It is said that, thinking of international opinion, Vajpayee thought of dismissing Narendra Modi’s Government, but quickly resiled, when it became clear that the majority of his partymen were against it. Now, thinking of his own political future—specifically, the prospect of his becoming Prime Minister—L. K. Advani made some remarks in Pakistan that sought to rid his party (and himself in particular¬) of the taint of communal bigotry. His retreat has been as swift as Vajpayee’s, and as ignominous, with the ‘national debate’ he called for closed by the bosses in Nagpur.

Four times in the past quarter-of-a-century, the leaders of the Jan Sangh/BJP have been given the chance to remake—one might say redeem—themselves. Four times they have not taken it. In 1979, they broke the Janata Party on the orders of the RSS. In 1992, they permitted, indeed encouraged, the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya, and sat silently during the communal riots that followed. In 2002, the BJP-controlled Government of India did not act when a State Government persecuted its own citizens. Now, in 2005, the BJP President spoke in praise of secularism and Hindu-Muslim harmony; then withdrew his words within a week.

If many Indians have given the BJP the benefit of doubt all these years, it is because (as Rajaji remarked long ago) they do have some very good leaders. Despite their age, Vajpayee and Advani remain among the most intelligent and capable of Indian politicians. But I think it is time we stopped asking the questions posed in the first paragraph of this column. The BJP cannot, will not, rid itself of the bigots and bigotry of the RSS. It cannot, will not, remodel itself as a party that treats all Indians equally regardless of their personal faith.