On September 27, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, L.K. Advani, found himself in the town of Moradabad, in western Uttar Pradesh; two days later he was at the other end of the country, spending the night in the capital of Meghalaya, Shillong. Naturally, he was obliged to deliver speeches in both places.

In Moradabad, Advani said it was “his wish that a temple was constructed in Ayodhya”. According to one news report, he then “claimed this was also the wish of majority of the citizens”. In Shillong, Advani said of the attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka that “I strongly condemn these acts of violence and vandalism which cannot be condoned or justified”. Then he added: “Let the people belonging to all religious communities consciously strengthen the bonds of Indianness that tie us together in the larger interest of national community”.

These statements are considerably at variance with one another. But each made ‘sense’ in its particular context. In UP, where the BJP once enjoyed power and hopes to do so again, Advani appealed to the baser, more extreme elements in the Hindutva community. Speaking at a rally of party workers, he urged them to once more raise a deeply divisive issue. In so doing, he made a spurious claim, a claim perhaps necessary to spur the cadres, but a bogus one all the same. Even in UP, where Ayodhya is located, the BJP has never managed to gain more than 40 per cent of the vote. In other states, their standing among the electorate is even lower. There is no proof that a ‘majority’ of Indians support the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, and plenty of evidence that suggests that, in fact, the contrary is true.

Had Advani not embarked on that ill-advised march, there may never have been an ‘Indian Mujahideen’. Had Advani not encouraged Hindu goons to carry weapons and use them, there may not have been that pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, or, indeed, these more recent attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka.

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Shillong radically differs from Moradabad in its religious composition, as well as in its political profile. The BJP has no presence in this state, but still, Advani needs to persuade the Christians of the North-east that he is a ‘responsible’ man, who can be trusted by them as prime minister. Here, in speaking as he did, he was being truthful to the facts — since India will not survive if we put sectarian affiliations above the common bonds that unite us. However, he was being untrue to his own self. If Advani really believes in the arguments of his Shillong speech, I invite him to Bangalore, and urge him to repeat in those same words that condemnation of violence against Christians.

Politicians need to cultivate different audiences, and politicians speak in multiple voices all the time. I suppose I could dismiss this conjunction of dissimilar statements by Advani as the typical hypocrisy of a normal politician. But since this man is the leader of my country’s major opposition party, and since he may be the next prime minister of India, I (and we) need to take it more seriously than that.

In the demonology of the liberal Indian, Narendra Modi occupies a special place. In fact, Advani has done much greater damage to the idea of India. In the spring of 2002, the Gujarat chief minister violated his constitutional oath of office and permitted (and perhaps even encouraged) attacks on the minority community. Advani has permitted and encouraged attacks on Muslims for almost 20 years now.

On September 25, 1990, L.K. Advani left the temple town of Somnath, in Gujarat, on a 6,000-mile journey through eight states that he intended to complete, five weeks later, at Ayodhya. Along the way, Advani made many speeches aimed at tearing asunder the bonds of Indianness and promoting discord among different groups. At each stop, he was welcomed and sent off by activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, brandishing swords and trishuls.

Advani’s sectarian views were of long origin — they dated to his schooldays in Karachi, before Independence and Partition. But this muscular brand of mass politics was a recent preference. For much of his career, Advani had been an organization man, who worked in the party office, preparing briefs and training cadres. It was only in 1989 — less than a year before his yatra — that he had fought and won his first Lok Sabha election.

I do not know whether Advani knows or will admit it, but there are striking parallels between his political career and that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In August 1946, Jinnah launched Direct Action Day, a project aimed at fomenting violence between Hindus and Muslims. The ‘direct action’ was at odds with his personal political style, which was more suited to conversations in court-rooms and mansions. Likewise, a roadshow with many speeches to mass audiences was more suited to the temperament of Advani’s colleague, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, Vajpayee was a reconciler who was never really reconciled to the divisive agenda of the Ayodhya campaign. Besides, his speeches usually contained more humour than hate. So Advani offered to abandon the back office for the public stage and lead the movement to set Hindus and Muslims at each other’s throats.

The fall-out of Direct Action day — bloody riots in eastern Bengal, then in Bihar, still later in the Punjab — vindicated Jinnah’s position that Muslims would not be safe in a ‘Hindu dominated’ India. Likewise, the fall-out of the Somnath to Ayodhya march — riots across northern and western India —made enough Hindus suspicious of and full of hatred towards Muslims to propel the BJP to national prominence. However, they could not win enough seats to rule in New Delhi on their own. So they brought back the moderate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to head a coalition of many parties of which all except one wanted power without subscribing to a hardline Hindutva agenda.

Now Vajpayee has retired from politics, and his colder, more calculating counterpart has become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Thus we once more hear talk of the importance of Ayodhya. I think I speak for a majority of Hindus when I say that Ram lives in my heart; my love for him does not depend on a large white structure built by the fallible hand of man. However, because of Advani, millions of Indians were made to focus, for years on end, on the fate of an obscure medieval building, when they could have been better occupied asking for better schools and hospitals and for more dignified employment.

Among the poison fruits of the Ayodhya movement has been homegrown Islamic terrorism. Their homes burnt, their existence denied, some angry young men have sought refuge in extremism. Had Advani not embarked on that ill-advised march, there may never have been an ‘Indian Mujahideen’. Had Advani not encouraged Hindu goons to carry weapons and use them, there may not have been that pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, or, indeed, these more recent attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka.

Already, too many lives have been lost because of the Ayodhya campaign. Battled by Islamic terrorism, challenged by Hindu fundamentalism, the last thing the country needs is for a politician to stoke the flames further. But perhaps Advani has judged that the first thing he needs to achieve his life’s ambition is to stir trouble again. Just as Jinnah abandoned constitutional politics in order to achieve the nation whose government he would head, so his fellow townsman shall cynically and systematically set one group of Indians against another in order to become prime minister.

Is Lal Krishna Advani the Hindu Jinnah? Some would argue that the comparison is unfair — to Jinnah. After all, the Muslims were a minority in British India. Perhaps they had more reason to be threatened. Again, the riots provoked by Jinnah’s call for ‘direct action’ ran for about a year and a half. In contrast, the riots and divisions engendered by the property dispute in Ayodhya have now extended for more than two decades. And the main leader of the BJP, the face past and present of the Ayodhya movement, wants more riots and divisions yet.