Debating India

BJP

The war within

Saturday 13 February 1999, by VENKATESAN*V.

The struggle for supremacy in the Bharatiya Janata Party has intensified, with the hardliners, supported by the rest of the Sangh Parivar, striking an aggressive posture.

in New Delhi

THE tug-of-war between the moderates and the hardliners is intensifying in the Bharatiya Janata Party as the party finds itself faced with turmoil within it as well as vis-a-vis its coalition partners in government. The hardline Sangh Parivar ideology may have met with widespread condemnation for the Parivar’s recent campaign of hatred against Christians, but within the BJP it is the ’liberal’ voice that is being stifled. With the hardliners striking aggressive postures in order to retain their hold on the party, the BJP moderates are worried about the erosion of their support base.

The resignation of two middle-rung Muslim members from the party dealt the first serious blow to the moderates. Abrar Ahmed from Rajasthan, who had joined the BJP recently, quit the party and returned to the Congress(I) last year. Aslam Sher Khan, former Congress(I) Member of Parliament from Madhya Pradesh and former captain of the national hockey team, followed suit. When Ahmed and Aslam Sher Khan joined the BJP, they were projected as symbols of the party’s secular image. Now Khan has accused the BJP of ignoring the minorities. Although he is yet to return to his parent party, he said that he was pleased with the corrective steps taken by Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi to win back the support of the backward classes, the minorities and the weaker sections.

By contrast, former Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Tourism Madan Lal Khurana, whose dramatic resignation in January spelled much more trouble for the BJP, has been no stranger to the ways of the Sangh Parivar. A BJP heavyweight, Khurana was removed from the chief ministership of Delhi in 1997 after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) decided to charge-sheet him in the Jain hawala case. Khurana was peeved by the fact that the party did not reinstate him after the court dismissed the charges against him. The faction feud between Khurana and his successor, Sahib Singh Verma, forced the BJP to install a compromise candidate, Sushma Swaraj, as Chief Minister on the eve of the elections to the Assembly last year.

Although Khurana longed to return to the hurly-burly of Delhi politics, where his roots lie, he was left occupying an uncomfortable berth in the Union Cabinet. He proved a misfit in the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry; it is rumoured that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee planned to shift him to a low-profile Ministry in the next Cabinet reshuffle.

It is widely believed that Khurana’s punctuated fall was engineered by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Even when it had become apparent that Verma could not steer the BJP to an electoral victory in Delhi, the RSS resisted attempts to unseat him. Staunchly opposed to Khurana, the RSS was eager to neutralise the powerful Punjabi lobby that stood by Khurana. Eventually Sushma Swaraj, an "outsider" to Delhi politics, was brought in at the eleventh hour. Clearly, Khurana’s return as Chief Minister of Delhi would have made him too powerful for the Sangh Parivar to feel comfortable.

Since Kushabhau Thakre took over the reins of the party from L.K. Advani, Khurana found himself at greater odds with a new dispensation that danced to the RSS’ tune. The party’s rout in the Assembly elections apparently created in Khurana the fear that his continuance in the Union Ministry would lead to the loss of his support base. He decided to air his fears at the BJP National Executive meeting in Bangalore, but he was not given a chance to speak. His undelivered statement, a copy of which was obtained by Frontline, revealed that he had prepared for a no-holds-barred attack on the Sangh Parivar.

Upset that the Sangh Parivar had diminished the credibility of the Government, he wrote: "The Parivar has declared war against the policies of the Government." He referred to statements made by some prominent Parivar members such as Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh leader Dattopant Thengdi on the insurance and patents bills. He quoted some of them as saying that this Government was selling the nation; this Government was coming out with anti-national policies; history would remember the Finance Minister as the ’Wrongful Policy Minister’. He denounced the statement made by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) president Ashok Singhal that the award of the Bank of Sweden Prize to Amartya Sen by the Nobel Committee was part of a worldwide Christian conspiracy and that the money would be used to convert Hindus to Christianity.

Lamenting the power struggle in the organisation since the formation of the Government, he wrote: "The members of the Sanghatan and the top leaders of the BJP were always available for advice. Today where do we go with our grievances and problems?...Today, we are feeling the loss of a guide, a mentor." Khurana also seemed quite aware of the consequences of his actions. He wrote: "Perhaps I have to pay a price for... stating certain... hard truths but I am ready to do so."

Party sources said that Vajpayee had granted Khurana permission to read his speech at the National Executive meeting and that it was Thakre who prevented him from doing so. Sources said that the sight of a senior leader being denied an opportunity to speak at the party forum had embarrassed several delegates. Khurana is known to be a Vajpayee loyalist.

Although Khurana eventually resigned at Vajpayee’s behest, it seems that he has some regrets. Lately, he has been more circumspect about linking the Bajrang Dal to the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Steward Staines and his sons in Orissa (see interview). He has also denied that he claimed that the Vajpayee Government would collapse in the near future. He now says that he would not have resigned had the Coordination Committee of the BJP and its allies resolved earlier to ensure that the cohesiveness and prestige of the coalition would not be affected by the activities of the BJP’s fraternal organisations. Thakre and Advani signed a resolution to the effect on February 2.

CLOSE on the heels of Khurana’s exit came the resignation of Mohan Guruswamy, adviser to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. His action was reportedly in protest against the Government’s failure to implement the party manifesto and the attacks against Christians. The BJP’s choice for the post, Guruswamy was close to Advani. However, Yashwant Sinha accepted Guruswamy’s resignation, which was sent from the United States where he was on a visit. Sinha was reportedly provoked by Guruswamy’s meddling in matters that were not under his purview. The BJP, which had relied on Guruswamy to draft its election manifesto, now prefers to disown him.

Guruswamy was appointed Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the Finance Ministry and enjoyed the same status as his predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, who was adviser to P. Chidambaram when he was Finance Minister. The convener of the BJP’s economic cell, Jagdish Shettigar, claimed that Guruswamy had pursued a personal agenda from the beginning. He said that Guruswamy used his friendship with S. Gurumurthy of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and journalist-turned-BJP member of the Rajya Sabha Dina Nath Mishra to gain Advani’s trust. Advani in turn got him the coveted post for which, on record, Guruswamy was paid a monthly salary of just one rupee.

It appears that Guruswamy was asked to put in his papers on January 22. However, he requested Yashwant Sinha to permit him to attend the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (VSNL) road show in the U.S., Shettigar said. He also sought help for medical treatment in the U.S. But he sent a "nasty" resignation letter from the U.S., a copy of which was released to the press. The Prime Minister’s Office intervened and the Finance Minister ousted him on February 3. Shettigar said that Guruswamy had no links with the pro-swadeshi groups. The official organ of the SJM, Swadeshi, had criticised his appointment as OSD in the Finance Ministry in view of his "U.S. links". SJM convener Muralidhar Rao even questioned Gurumurthy for recommending Guruswamy’s name to Advani. Shettigar said that Guruswamy did not hold any party post and had ceased to be a member of the party after he had accepted the government appointment.

Party insiders say that the BJP lacks a mechanism to sort out internal dissent. Some party persons say that the present schism has been aggravated by the cold war between Vajpayee and Advani, although publicly both of them deny any differences between them.

Advani, who generally enjoys a good rapport with the other organisations of the Sangh Parivar, has been unable to stop the shrill Hindutva rhetoric that has embarrassed the Government on several occasions. One such organisation, the Adivasi Van Kalyan Ashram, has announced plans to reconvert 2,000 Christians in Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh on February 14. Dilip Singh Judev, BJP member of the Rajya Sabha who hails from Raigarh in M.P., and Baburao Paranjpe, BJP MP from Jabalpur, have expressed their support for the reconversion plan.

THE VHP’s three-day Dharma Sansad, which concluded in Ahmedabad on February 7, deferred plans for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya by two years. Senior VHP leaders, however, voiced their opposition to Vajpayee’s desire to normalise relations with Pakistan and his disinclination to introduce legislation banning conversions.

The Dharma Sansad appealed to the BJP to return to the Hindutva agenda that had enabled it to emerge as the single largest party. The VHP has outlined a 40-point "Hindu" agenda and announced plans to mobilise opinion and create a "Hindu vote bank" in order to free the BJP from its "crutches". International vice-president of the VHP Acharya Giriraj Kishore said that the BJP was currently unable to implement the 40-point Hindu agenda as it was dependent on the support from its allies for survival in power. He declared that when the agenda was implemented, the country would become a Hindu nation. Another VHP leader, Acharya Dharmendra, ridiculed the Prime Minister’s symbolic gesture to normalise relations with Pakistan; he suggested that Vajpayee ride a tank to Lahore instead of going there by bus.

The pressure from the VHP was evident from the statements of Advani and BJP vice-president J.P. Mathur. Advani clarified that there was no softening of India’s approach to Pakistan. Mathur said that the party had no "illusions" that the bus ride and the cricket matches would prevent Pakistan-instigated terrorism on Indian soil. Although he described Dharmendra’s remarks as irresponsible, it was not clear whether the BJP would condemn the general thrust of the deliberations at the Dharma Sansad.

In response to the call to implement the 40-point Hindu agenda, Mathur said that the Government would pursue only the goals mentioned in the National Agenda for Governance.

VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia declared that the VHP had no objection to Christians if their loyalties did not lie outside the country. He said: "If Christians and Muslims remember that they were of the same ethnic stock as us and did not deny the historical fact that we shared common forefathers, all problems will be solved."

All told, it is indisputable that elements of the extremist fringe within the Sangh Parivar have an agenda beyond keeping the BJP in power. The message of the Dharma Sansad to the BJP-led Government at the Centre seems to be: let us have our way, or you step down. There is no evidence as yet that the rhetoric of the Parivar will become less shrill in the near future.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Vol. 16 :: No. 04 :: Feb. 13 - 26, 1999

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