NEW DELHI -- India balked at the sight of Sudheendra Kulkarni after he was accosted by Shiv Sena activists on Monday morning, and then hailed him for calmly going ahead with a press conference despite his face being plastered with black paint.
"I believe in democracy," he said. "Everyone has the right to protest, but within law."
So, who is this man being applauded for conducting himself with dignity in the face of humiliation, while condemning his attackers, and persisting with his plan to attend the book launch of former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri in Mumbai?
Kulkarni, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, who hails from Karnataka, currently heads the Mumbai-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. He worked for many years as a close aide to both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.
This week isn't the first time he has taken a stand in the face of opposition.
As a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party for 13 years, he has opposed the party line multiple times. He criticised Varun Gandhi's anti-Muslim remarks even when the party let it slide, opposed the expulsion of former Union Minister Jaswant Singh from the party, railed against Sangh Parivar's "interference," and ultimately resigned over "ideological differences" with the BJP in 2009.
"I want to have the freedom to express my views and be sincere to my convictions," he said while explaining his decision to leave the party.
Kulkarni, who was a journalist before turning politician, served as the deputy editor of the Blitz, which he described as the first weekly tabloid for "irreverent and investigative" journalism, founded by "legendary editor" Russy Karanjia.
To mark Karanjia's passing on Feb. 1, 2008, Kulkarni reminisced about how Blitz did "a journalistic blitzkrieg, week after week, with its sensational news reports. Free, Frank and Fearless. That's how Blitz described itself, and lived up to its self-description."
In a column in The Indian Express, Kulkarni recalled that one his "most satisfying works in journalism was a series of six articles on Dr Ambedkar's harsh critique of Pakistan."
When Karanjia became "disillusioned with communism and the Communist's anti-Hindu secularism," he replaced P. Sainath with Kulkarni as deputy editor to "give a new, pro-Hindu orientation to Blitz." "I did this with commitment and conviction as expected from my editor," he wrote.
While Sainath would go on to become India's most prominent reporter on poverty, Karanjia joined forced with L.K. Advani and became an enthusiastic supporter of the Ayodhya movement.
Kulkarni, once an IIT graduate espousing the diktats of Marx and Trotsky, would follow in the steps of his editor.
"It was around this time that I accompanied him to a meeting with L.K. Advani, along with R V Pandit, a common friend and another fearless publisher. Karanjia was so enthused after that meeting with Advani that he agreed to come as a special guest at the national council meeting of the BJP in Bangalore where he declared his support to the Ayodhya movement," he wrote.
After serving the BJP for almost a decade, Kulkarni, speech writer and close aide to Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, quit the party in 2009, citing "ideological differences."
Kulkarni resigned a few months after the BJP was trounced in the national elections in which he served as its campaign strategist. One major reason for its defeat was the party's decision to back Varun Gandhi, an estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, after his disturbing speech about cutting off the hands of Muslims if they rise against Hindus.
Kulkarni was critical of how Gandhi's remarks had been handled by the BJP, and in his essay for Tehelka on why BJP had "snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, in 2009," he advised the BJP to revaluate its approach to Muslims.
"The party’s collective mind is suffering from a prolonged confusion about how to deal with issues relating to Indian Muslims," he wrote. "Those leaders who want to think and act innovatively know that they are prone to be quickly accused of following a 'Muslim- appeasement' policy."
On the Sangh Parivar, he wrote, "Just as the BJP needs introspection, 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?'"
Many in the BJP were happy with Kulkarni's exit. He was linked to the BJP's "India Shining" campaign which failed to have any resonance with voters in the 2004 national election. As Advani's political advisor in 2005, he faced flak when the veteran leader described Pakistan's Mohammed Ali Jinnah as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity."
In an opinion piece in 2013, Kulkarni wrote, "To his abiding credit, he (Advani) has never withdrawn his remarks on Jinnah. Nor has the RSS, ideological master of the BJP, ever cared to explain why it thought his comments were wrong."
Kulkarni also described the expulsion of Jaswant Singh, accused by the BJP for praising Jinnah in his book 'Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence,' as a "graceless action."
"I don't see any essential difference between what Advaniji has written about Jinnah in his book and what Jaswant Singhji has written about Jinnah in his book. The only difference is that the entire book of Jaswant Singhji is a political biography of Jinnah but there is no essential difference between the basic arguments," he wrote.
Cash For Votes Scandal
Kulkarni was accused of masterminding a conspiracy in July, 2008, which involved him persuading three BJP lawmakers to accept Rs1 crore in cash, part of a Rs9 crore deal, to abstain from voting for then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to
survive a confidence vote in parliament.
Kulkarni, who was arrested in September 2011, said that he acted as a whistleblower to expose how the UPA government was willing to buy votes with cash.
"I believed and I continued to believe that if our members of Parliament... if our MLAs are purchased like this by giving them 10 crore, 20 crore... then India's democracy would be in grave danger," he said.
In 2012, Kulkarni appeared to have returned to the BJP, and joined forces with the party's then president Nitin Gadkari. But he withdrew again when Modi's rise within the party left little room for the old guard, including Advani.
Writing for HuffPost India, last year, Kulkarni urged Modi to adopt Vajpayee as his role model. "Atalji never endorsed the RSS view that India is a Hindu Rashtra," he wrote.