Debating India

Strains in the alliance

Saturday 25 December 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The articulation of a hardline Hindutva agenda by sections of the BJP and their attempts to revive socially divisive issues have led to strains within the National Democratic Alliance.

THE stirrings of serious dissonance within the National Democratic Alliance are beginning to manifest themselves, and the issue that engendered them seems certain to test the limits of the NDA’s endurance. Some of the allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party , which had agreed to come on board the NDA only after BJP had assured them that contentious and socially divisive issues would be kept out of the NDA’s agenda, have reasons to be wary about certain moves within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar. Thes e moves point to an attempt by some sections to place firmly on the agenda of governance one or more of the three contentious issues - the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, the introduction of a uniform civil code, and the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution which confers "special status" on Jammu and Kashmir. Although the initial response of some of the BJP’s allies was perhaps not as forthright as would have been expected from parties that profess an unswerving commitment to secular value s, there is reason to believe that any attempt by the BJP to pursue an exclusivist agenda will face challenges from its alliance partners and perhaps raise questions about the government’s long-term survival prospects.

A meeting in Chennai on December 18 of the General Council of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the BJP’s principal ally in Tamil Nadu, adopted a resolution stating that the DMK "will give no quarter to the BJP or any other political entity in the NDA to pu rsue its exclusivist or individual agenda". This was the first categorical statement from a constituent of the NDA warning the BJP against pressing ahead with a "hidden agenda" and raising issues that are central to the Hindutva identity. It came a full week after uproarious scenes were witnessed in Parliament, with an invigorated Opposition subjecting Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and others in the Treasury Benches to close questioning about the perceived moves by the BJP to revive the campaign for the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid.

Up until the DMK General Council came out with the forthright statement, the NDA’s non-BJP constituents that profess commitment to secularism were seen to have failed to enunciate a clear position on the developments on the Ayodhya front. A few of them, in fact, appeared to be in a dilemma because of the contradictory signals from the Sangh Parivar. On the one hand, Vajpayee held out the assurance that the construction of the temple was not on the BJP’s agenda and that the Government’s commitment to sec ularism remained firm. On the other, Union Minister Uma Bharati and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta emphasised that the BJP remained committed to the temple construction campaign, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders such as Acharya Gir iraja Kishore and Ramachandra Parama-hans raised the pitch by stating that "no force on earth" could stop them from fulfilling their objective of building "a beautiful mandir for Ram lala".

The Ayodha issue came up in Parliament on December 6, the anniversary of the demolition. Opposition members referred to the "tardy progress" in the demolition case and pressed for the resignation of the three Union Ministers who were accused in that case - L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati. constituents of NDA, such as the Janata Dal (United), the Telugu Desam Party, the Trinamul Congress and the DMK, seemed easily swayed by Vajpayee’s assurance that the Government would not deviate from the National Agenda for Governance (NAG). Although leaders from these parties conceded in private that propriety demanded that the three Union Ministers resign, they did not go public with their views. The Trinamul Congress and the TDP sought refuge in s uch obfuscatory generalities as "the law should take its own course" and "nobody should be deemed guilty unless proven so".

In fact, even after Ram Prakash Gupta and Uma Bharati announced that the temple was still on the BJP’s agenda, some leaders of the NDA went out of their way to offer alibis for Vajpayee. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee told Frontline that the statements of these leaders did not carry weight in the light of the Prime Minister’s clarification in Parliament that Gupta had been "misquoted". In any case, she added, the Trinamul Congress’ stand on the Ayodhya issue was clear: "We want all part ies to abide by the court verdict on the dispute." Telugu Desam leader Yerran Naidu echoed these sentiments. Evidently, both these parties believed that the Prime Minister’s word had settled the issue within the Sangh Parivar.

However, developments in Parliament following the uproar over the perceived move by the BJP to revive the Ayodhya campaign seem to have triggered a change in perception among the non-BJP component of the NDA. Central to these developments was the introdu ction on December 17 of two private members’ bills in the Lok Sabha by Yogi Adityanath, BJP member from Gorakh-pur. Adityanath is the successor of Mahant Avaidyanath at the Gorakhpur temple (Avaidyanath was once the president of the Hindu Maha Sabha). Th e bills took up two issues that are of particular interest to the Sangh Parivar - the implementation of a uniform civil code and a ban on cow slaughter. In fact, the demand for a uniform civil code finds a place in the BJP’s election manifestoes in all b ut the last Lok Sabha election (in the September-October 1999 elections, the BJP did not present a manifesto of its own).

What appears to have particularly upset the non-BJP constituents of the NDA was the way in which BJP members conducted themselves when the bills were introduced. The Opposition pressed for a division at the introduction stage, and members belonging to th e Janata Dal(U), the DMK, the TDP and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) supported this demand. Many of these members pleaded with the BJP not to support the private members’ bills in the interests of the NDA and the NAG.

Their appeals went unheeded. The bills were allowed to be introduced by a 48-46 vote. According to non-BJP constituents of the NDA, the behaviour of BJP MPs went against the grain of an appeal made by the Prime Minister at a meeting of the BJP Parliament ary Party: he had asked party MPs not to rake up contentious issues.

In the background of this development, many NDA constituents have developed doubts about the real intent of the new see-saw game on Ayodhya. A senior leader of an NDA constituent, which has a strong base in a southern Indian State, told Frontline: "There could be a deeper stratagem in the whole business: it could be related to the power struggle within the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar." Leaders of non-BJP parties in the NDA recall that leaders of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the Rasht riya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are known to advance their cause by acting on several fronts. A senior DMK leader pointed out that the RSS had in 1977 tactically directed the Jan Sangh to merge itself with an entity like the Janata Party, which had a sizabl e strength among socialists and Congress(O) activists. The merger advanced the Sangh Parivar’s political goals in the short and medium term. Non-BJP parties in the NDA wonder whether they are now being used in the same manner as the Janata Party was used in 1977.

It is in the context of these doubts that the DMK’s warning acquires significance. Other NDA constituents, such as the TDP and the Janata Dal(U), are likely to go with the DMK’s stand; there is, however, no certainty about the positions of the Samata Par ty and the Trinamul Congress. Many leaders of the Samata Party, including president George Fernandes, are considered to be closer to the RSS than even Vajpayee. During the recent debate on the Ayodhya issue in Parliament, Samata Party MP Prabhunath Singh went to the extent of saying that the "need of the hour is to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya". Similarly, there have been wide-ranging discussions between the RSS top brass and Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee in the not-too-distant past, on the basis of which many RSS activists have started calling her a neo-convert to their cause.

According to an informed source close to the DMK leadership, the Dravidian party is ready to stand steadfastly by Vajpayee and take on the hardline Hindutva organisations - "that is, if he is keen to do this". The DMK leadership is of the view that Vajpa yee should drive home the point that the coalition government is dependent on parties that were ideologically opposed to Hindutva politics and that they had come closer to the BJP essentially on account of its assurance that it would not take up socially divisive issues.

According to informed sources in the DMK and the TDP, there is a perception among leaders of these two parties that Advani is the original champion of the Hindutva agenda in the BJP and that he and Vajpayee have always waged a personal power struggle. If Vajpayee shows an inclination to take this power struggle forward, these parties might be able to help him. But given the track record of the Sangh Parivar and Vajpayee, these calculations may not come right. Especially because, when it comes to vital i ssues Vajpayee has shown a ready inclination to succumb all too readily to the RSS bosses.

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