WASHINGTON — The impossible occurred last month in South Asia. A conservative Indian nationalist leader praised the founder of Pakistan.
On a visit to Pakistan designed to improve relations between the two nations, Lal Krishna Advani, the leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, a "great, secular leader" who "created history."
As a key architect and proponent of Hindu nationalist policy in India, Mr. Advani has the credentials necessary to shift the BJP's hard-line approach and nudge India toward rapprochement with Pakistan. However, to move in this direction, he has had to directly confront India's most anti- Pakistani Hindu nationalists, miring himself and his countrymen in a high-stakes dispute that impinges on the core ideology of Hindu nationalism.
The issue is explosive because Hindu nationalists regularly blame Mr. Jinnah for partitioning the subcontinent along religious lines to create a separate, Islamic state - Pakistan - where Muslims would be "protected" from majority Hindu rule by India. The two countries - nuclear powers brought to the brink of war in 2002 - have since had a tenuous relationship at best.
Advani's comments so incensed the leaders of various groups in the "Sangh Parivar," the umbrella organization that represents Hindu nationalism in India, that some have publicly questioned both Advani's commitment to the ideals of the Sangh Parivar and his ability to serve as the head of the BJP. Advani, however, has refused to retract or revise any of the comments he made in Pakistan. (Though he did resign, he quickly resumed his post at the request of party leaders.)
Various motives have been attributed to Advani for making such a controversial statement. Some have suggested that a speechwriter added the disputed comments without being aware of the political consequences they would have in India. This explanation, however, seems unlikely. Advani certainly would have known that his comments directly contradicted the ideology of the Sangh Parivar.
It is more likely that Advani was motivated by politics, namely a desire to soften his hard-line image in India. This is significant because Advani has a long record of supporting Hindu nationalist ideals and goals. The BJP rose to prominence in the late 1990s, largely on the basis of its sympathy for the idea of India as a Hindu state.
In particular, the BJP capitalized on a public frenzy over the 1992 destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, a city in northern India. On a national tour prior to the event, Advani had campaigned for the destruction of the mosque, which was supposedly built on the ruins of a major Hindu temple.
More recently, Advani stood by Narendra Modi, the controversial BJP leader widely blamed for doing little to quell the violent riots against Muslims in his western Indian state of Gujarat. Mr. Modi allegedly called the 2002 riots - in which hundreds, some say thousands, of Muslims were killed - an "equal and opposite reaction"to what was then reported as the murder of nearly 60 Hindu pilgrims who were stopped on a train in Godhra, a small town in Gujarat.
Advani's praise of Jinnah, Pakistan's founder, appears to be an attempt to change the public perception that Advani is a hard-line hawk on Pakistan. He has presented himself as a statesman who can think rationally and independently about matters of central concern to the ideology of the Sangh Parivar. This is significant, given that he advocated hard-line positions on India-Pakistan relations in public speeches as recently as last year.
In a further effort to appear independent of Hindu nationalists, Advani opened his trip to Pakistan by claiming that the day the Ayodhya mosque was destroyed was "the saddest day" of his life. This presumably was meant to soften his image as an advocate for a hard-line approach to Hindu-Muslim relations in India.
The reasons for Advani's apparent desire to recast his image are not difficult to discern. The BJP lost the most recent national elections in 2004, and it is looking for a way to reorient the party for the next election.
While there are significant differences of opinion as to how to do so - both between the BJP itself and between the BJP and the Sangh Parivar - the general secretary of the BJP, Pramod Mahajan, recently speculated that both Ayodhya and the Gujarat riots "hurt" the BJP in the most recent national elections. Also, the ruling Congress Party's recent progress in improving India-Pakistan relations is beginning to overshadow what the BJP accomplished in helping to initiate the peace process.
What is certain, however, is that Advani no longer believes that his hard-line Hindu nationalist image is politically profitable, either for his own career or for the BJP. And while this certainly doesn't mean that the BJP will divorce itself from the Sangh Parivar, it does suggest that, in Advani's view, the Indian electorate is not currently poised to reward hard-line positions either on relations with Pakistan or on social policy toward India's Muslims. However, this has been difficult for the most strident Hindu nationalists to accept.
Advani's change in approach should be welcomed by American policymakers, since it suggests that an India-Pakistan agreement may be closer than previously suspected.
Such an agreement would benefit US interests not only because it would diminish the likelihood of a potential nuclear conflict in the region, but because it would also foster a regional security environment more conducive to America's growing relationships with India and Pakistan.
• John Nemec is an assistant professor of Indian religions at the University of Virginia and a special guest with the India/South Asia project at the Brookings Institution.