Jaswant’s Obama-like interview on his Jinnah biography in CNN-IBN

Jaswant Singh’s discussion on partition was bold, balanced and mature; it was a public discussion of a kind we rarely expect with a senior Indian politician.

Jaswant Singh, a senior BJP leader, gave a two part interview in CNN-IBN on his recently released biography of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. The interview by Karan Thapar focused the role of Jinnah and Indian leaders like Nehru, Gandhi and Rajaji in the saga of partition. Majority of us Indians are used to considering Jinnah as the villain of the piece and sentiments about him are so strong that Advani was asked to step down as the BJP president for just making a statement that Jinnah was a great leader. In this polemic context, Jaswant Singh’s nuanced view of partition was both rare and delightful.

In this interview with Karan Thapar, Jaswant Singh argued that Jinnah used Pakistan as a bargaining tactic to secure more autonomy for Muslims in India. Jinnah’s position was appreciated by leaders like Gandhi and Rajaji, but Nehru with his vision of centralised socialist nation was not able to appreciate Jinnah’s demand. Congress in general was not able to come to grips with federalism and the majoritarian tendency with Congress at the helm made Jinnah uncomfortable.

Jaswant Singh took a strong stand that Jinnah was a (Indian) nationalist for most of his life, but was repeatedly not able to find a political space for Muslims. He also took a firm stand against the popular notion that Jinnah was a Hindu-hater. While he was critical of Nehru and Gandhi for certain things, Jaswant Singh displayed a rare sensitivity and balance in seeing their position as well. It was remarkable that on a polarising topic like Indo-Pak partition, he was able to criticise certain acts without villainising Gandhi or Nehru.

This was an unusually bold act for many reasons.  It was not long back that Advani was asked to step down.  If praising Jinnah would infuriate his colleagues, I wonder is in store for his praising Gandhi and Nehru, two people that BJP has grown accustomed to criticise.  Jaswant Singh is not going to win friends in Congress either for calling Nehru and Gandhi great statesmen and patriots; for Congress is a party accustomed to blind hero worship and will not have the guts to accept that some of its tallest leaders of the past did some mistakes.  I do not know what this book and the interview will do to Jaswant’s political future, but I atleast hope that he will win enough fans among the Indian public.

Many of us may have differences with Jaswant Singh on his reading of history (at least parts of it), or his position on certain issues like reservation policies; and we should disagree with him if we have a reason to. What is beyond my doubt is that if we have leaders who could perform this way on polarising issues, our democracy will have a reason to flourish.

The interviews can be found in CNN-IBN website under the programme “Devil’s Advocate”. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 of the interview here.

Ps. The joy of the interview was tempered by the inconsiderate and dismissive response by the Congress spokesperson. I guess I should not get carried away by the prospects for democratic discussion.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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