Red flags to saffron scarves - what next for Sudheendra Kulkarni

June 12th, 2009 - 6:28 pm ICT by IANS  

Sonia Gandhi New Delhi, June 12 (IANS)He was once a diehard Communist preaching against Hindu communalism and then key advisor to the BJP top brass strategising on policy and plans. Now, as he finds himself at the centre of a raging storm in the party and questions its Hindutva ideology, Sudheendra Kulkarni’s friends wonder if he is reinventing himself one more time.
The 58-year-old IIT graduate-journalist-political backroom boy, who was close to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and played a vital role in L.K. Advani’s prime ministerial campaign in the 2009 general election, has created a flutter in the usually regimented BJP with his criticism of the party’s leadership and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

No wonder, he has come under attack from within the BJP, with sections of the party questioning how a former crusader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the BJP’s sworn foe, has come to wield so much clout.

The otherwise communicative Kulkarni politely declined to speak to IANS about the latest controversy surrounding him, flowing from his advice that the BJP cannot be wedded to a hardline Hindutva ideology.

Writing in the Tehelka magazine, he urged the party to introspect on its humiliating defeat and said: “The RSS needs it no less. Its leaders must ask themselves, and answer the question honestly and earnestly. Why is the acceptability of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad limited in Hindu society itself?”

He said the party “did nothing” while its allies started moving away because of the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat that left over 1,100 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

He also said the RSS did not back Advani in a way that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi backed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

His opinions were denounced by the party leadership, including Advani who distanced himself from it.

From Left to Right, from Marx to Hindutva, Kulkarni has indeed come a long way.

Kulkarni’s former friends remember him as a former committed Communist who saw salvation in Karl Marx.

CPI-M members say Kulkarni began as an activist of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the CPI-M student wing, before joining the party.

While in the CPI-M, Kulkarni even visited Moscow, when it was capital of the former Soviet Union.

“We were all shocked at his conversion from Marx to (Lord) Ram, but no longer so,” says a former friend with whom Kulkarni used to paste stickers in Mumbai’s suburban trains promoting secular values.

“Probably he is reinventing himself all over again,” the friend added.

A 1980 graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, Kulkarni helped build several anti-communalism campaigns.

A founder-member of Journalists Against Communalism, Kulkarni and his former friends, journalist Javed Anand and peace activist Teesta Setalvad, used to put up anti-RSS and pro-secularism posters in Mumbai. Kulkarni then worked for The Sunday Observer in Mumbai.

“I remember one Sunday when we carried 10,000 posters and pasted them in every compartment of the trains,” recalled Javed Anand. “Sudheen was very much a part of it.”

This was before Teesta Setalvad formed the group Sabrang, which later played a key role in rehabilitating victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

By then, Kulkarni had travelled in the opposite direction, attracted by the increasing appeal in the early 1990s of the Hindutva ideology.

Once he joined the BJP, Kulkarni impressed everyone with his hard work and commitment. And he soon found himself close to the party’s ideological star, Advani.

In 1998, he became a director in the Prime Minister’s Office when Vajpayee was prime minister. He was named BJP national secretary in 2004, and later became secretary to Advani.

This is not the first time Kulkarni has courted controversy.

In 2005, he accompanied Advani on the latter’s first visit to Pakistan where he called Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, a secularist -comments that angered the party and the RSS no end.

Kulkarni was blamed for this and he even offered to resign. Even then, sources close to him say, he maintained that “there should be a delink of the BJP from RSS”.

Journalist Mayank Chhaya, who was Kulkarni’s contemporary in Mumbai when the latter worked for Blitz, told IANS: “His attraction to BJP could be because both (BJP and Left) have a regimental ideology and structure. But he was never a hardline Hindutva person. He is a thinking rightwinger.”

“You could also call him a ‘closet liberal,’ a city-bred BJP man,” Chhaya said. “But I don’t think he was driven by the BJP’s hardline ideology and would not mind re-inventing himself. He could well join the Congress.”

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