Debating India

BJP

Ayodhya Agenda

Saturday 25 December 1999, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The ghosts of the past come to haunt the BJP as the Babri Masjid demolition case comes up yet again. The compulsions of alliance politics conflict with the party’s commitment to a hardcore Hindutva agenda, and internal pulls and pressures compound the crisis.

in New Delhi

IN October 1999, when Atal Behari Vajpayee began his third prime ministerial innings as the head of a coalition of two dozen parties, it seemed that the new government would be far more stable than any that had taken office in recent years.

After all, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had greater strength of numbers in the 13th Lok Sabha as compared to the 12th and was not excessively dependent on smaller parties within the coalition for its survival. The alliance, which had been engin eered prior to the election, also seemed a lot more cohesive than the post-election arrangement of 1998: erstwhile allies such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which had exhibited an unacceptable degree of truculence and made unt enable demands on the government, were not on board this time. Further, as a concession to realpolitik considerations, the Bharatiya Janata Party had committed itself to refraining from raising contentious issues such as the demand for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and the implementation of a uniform civil code. It had even contested the election without a manifesto of its own, subsuming its hardline identity in an attempt to present a more acceptable face to its allies. There was also the consideration that the Opposition, whose ranks stood depleted since 1998, would find it difficult to forge unity, in view of political and ideological differences.

The "greater stability" theory had its merits, but it appears to have failed to factor in the possibility that the ghosts of the BJP’s past deeds would visit the government and create problems within the Ministry and, more seriously, within the BJP itsel f. The theory also appears to have taken for granted the solidarity within the larger Sangh Parivar, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and comprising organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.

Barely three months into its new term, the Vajpayee Government faces turbulent weather on account of the failure to account for these factors. And developments within the BJP and the broader Sangh Parivar are beginning to have an adverse impact on the BJ P’s relations with a few of its alliance partners (see separate story). A storm cloud of instability appears to be gathering over the Government, and although BJP leaders are seeking to disperse it, there is a real prospect of inclement weather ahead. On e of the BJP’s allies in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has even sounded a warning.

LOOKING beyond the immediate political tremors and repercussions of recent events, it is clear that their long-term consequences will be the active pursuit of the Hindutva agenda by the RSS and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. The sequence of recent events underline, as has happened so often in the past, that there is no change in the Sangh Parivar’s fundamental adherence to hard-core Hindutva issues, even if they are for the present put into cold storage for reasons of electoral expediency.

Acharya Giriraja Kishore, VHP president, told Frontline that the basic socio-political objective of the Sangh Parivar was to drive home the demographic advantage of a Hindu society in Hindustan. No individual, however big, could stop that, he said . Giriraj Kishore pointed to the experience of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, who was once seen as a mascot of the BJP’s temple campaign but was recently expelled from the party, to emphasise the fact that the pursuit of a Hindutva age nda was a concern larger than the priorities of individual leaders. Sounding a warning, Giriraj Kishore said: "Others too could face Kalyan Singh’s plight if they deviate from the path of the Parivar."

THE events began unfolding on December 6, the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Opposition members in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha criticised the Government for the tardy progress in the case relating to the demolition, in which thr ee Union Ministers - L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati - had been charge-sheeted. Both Houses witnessed angry scenes as Opposition leaders accused the Government of "shielding the guilty". An attempt by Advani, Union Home Minister, to resp ond to the charges evoked a fresh burst of protests from Opposition members, including Sonia Gandhi, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Advani, these members said, had no moral authority to speak on the subject since he himself was one of the accused.

With the Opposition parties pressing for the resignation of the three Ministers and the Government showing no inclination to oblige, parliamentary proceedings came to a standstill for two days. The Opposition pointed out that the Prime Minister had set a precedent of removing Ministers who faced criminal charges: in 1998, Union Ministers Sedapatti R. Muthiah and Buta Singh, who faced charges in separate corruption cases, had to leave the Ministry.

The Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, had political compulsions to launch an onslaught against the BJP on the Ayodhya issue. Following its decision to support legislative measures that advanced the "second-generation economic reforms", the par ty had been branded the "BJP’s B team" and forced on the defensive. Its arguments in support of its demand for the deletion of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s name from the charge-sheet in the Bofors payoffs case had been effectively countered by th e Government. By taking up the Ayodhya issue aggressively, the Congress(I) hoped to get even with the BJP and simultaneously step onto a platform that would bring together the Opposition parties, including the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.).

The BJP leadership’s inept handling of the issues raised by the Opposition only added to the Government’s discomfiture. Speaking in the Lok Sabhja on December 7, Vajpayee rejected the demand for the resignation of the three Ministers on the ground that u nlike the Ministers in the precedent cited, they had not been involved in cases of corruption.

Stepping out of Parliament House, Vajpayee told newspersons that Advani and Joshi had offered to resign from the Ministry, but that he had turned down the offer. This "disclosure" created another controversy: Opposition members alleged that Vajpayee’s fa ilure to inform Parliament about the Ministers’ offer (while announcing it outside) amounted to breach of privilege. Vajpayee maintained that he had not informed Parliament of the resignation offer because it was made orally, not in writing; in any case, he said, he had merely responded to queries from mediapersons. Opposition members criticised the "resignation offer" as a drama enacted to project the BJP as a party that adhered to high standards of public morality.

HOWEVER, there is another aspect to the developments of December 6 and 7, and this shows up a power struggle in the BJP and in the larger Sangh Parivar. Many members of the BJP and some other constituents of the NDA have reason to believe that throughout the two days of uproar in Parliament, a section of the BJP, including Ministers and MPs close to the Prime Minister, actively encouraged the Opposition parties to persist with the Ayodhya issue. A number of BJP MPs who belong to the VHP-Bajrang Dal scho ol say that this was intended to turn the heat on Advani and Joshi and render their position in the Ministry untenable. According to one MP, a large section of the party believes that Vajpayee wants the two leaders out of the Council of Ministers and tha t Advani and Joshi, in turn, enacted the resignation drama in order to force the Prime Minister to reject their offer on record. But by referring to the resignation offer outside Parliament, Vajpayee sought to keep the resignation issue off parliamentary records, so to speak.

It was then the turn of sections opposed to Vajpayee to use the issue to get back at him. On December 8 and 9, MPs considered close to Advani encouraged Opposition MPs to raise the issue of alleged breach of parliamentary privilege by the Prime Minister. Vajpayee was thus compelled to talk in Parliament, and on record, about the resignation offers.

A sizable section of MPs from the BJP and a few other parties in the NDA believes that the power play is far from over. An MP closely associated with the VHP told Frontline: "It will continue at various levels inside and outside Parliament." The n ext stage was expected to unfold on December 22, when the special sessions court looking into the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) case on the demolition framed charges against the 49 accused, including the three Ministers. The court had given the o rder to frame charges as early as September 9, 1997 and since then it has held nearly two dozen sittings, but no progress has been made. On each occasion, either the accused were absent or stay orders had been obtained from the High Court against the pro ceedings.

IN the meantime, another flank on the Ayodhya front was opened on December 12 when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta said during a visit to Ayodhya that the construction of a Ram temple was very much on the BJP’s agenda, even if it was not o n the NDA’s agenda. Informed sources in the BJP said that the septuagenarian leader had made this statement without considering its consequences; nevertheless, it served to accentuate Vajpayee’s embarrassment in Parliament and within the NDA. Vajpayee wa s compelled to say on record that the temple issue was not on the BJP’s agenda. This displeased the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar, who wonder how Vajpayee could say so when the issue had figured in all the election manifestos of the party. A senior VHP leader told Frontline: "It is a different matter that the BJP does not have a separate manifesto this time. That does not mean we have given up our issues. Vajpayee is definitely in the wrong." Party general secretary K.N. Govindacharya subsequen tly clarified that the BJP did not pursue the temple agenda within the NDA framework but would take it up when it was in a position to come to power at the Centre on its own.

These clarifications notwithstanding, post-December 6 developments have intensified the sense of unease within the Sangh Parivar over the realisation that since the general elections of September-October 1999, Vajpayee has become more powerful than even the RSS top brass. The RSS had, in fact, seen this coming even last year: in December 1998 and in early 1999, the RSS had looked for ways to cut Vajpayee down to size.

At that time, the Parivar leadership faulted him on several counts, including policy aberrations and the pursuit of private agendas by leaders close to him. In the Parivar’s assessment, Vajpayee was looking to increase the BJP’s dependence on alliance pa rtners (to whom Vajpayee was the moderate face of the BJP) so that his own position would be strengthened.

The exercise to enfeeble Vajpayee’s standing started with a five-day Chinthan Baithak (Introspection Meet) in Nagpur in December 1998. This was followed by a series of meetings involving the RSS top brass and representatives of all Sangh Parivar organisa tions. At these meetings, RSS joint secretary K.S. Sudarshan stated with uncharacteristic candour that the Parivar "is not happy" with the functioning of the Vajpayee Government. Hardliners opposed the move to open the insurance industry to private and foreign investment. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), led by Dattopant Thengdi, a top leader of the RSS, launched an agitation against the move.

What started with the Chinthan Baithak culminated in an Akhil Bharatiya Prathinidhi Sabha (National Executive) of the RSS in March 1999. According to sources in the Sangh Parivar, the undercurrent at these meetings was in favour of the replacement of Vaj payee with a more amenable candidate. Advani’s attempts to project a moderate image for himself must be seen in this light: he even termed the Babri Masjid demolition an "unfortunate event". Among the other leaders the RSS top brass considered as possibl e replacements were Joshi and even Samata Party leader George Fernandes: Fernandes was more acceptable than Vajpayee to many top RSS leaders.

However, before this exercise could be completed, the AIADMK withdrew its support to the Government, prompting fresh elections with Vajpayee remaining as caretaker Prime Minister. The Kargil incursion, and the successful military and diplomatic action to push back the Pakistan-backed terrorists, contributed to a perceived boost to Vajpayee’s stature. This undermined the RSS’ plans, and the election results demolished them totally: the BJP’s parliamentary strength remained much the same, while those of i ts allies improved marginally.

Sources in the Sangh Parivar say that the best testimony to Vajpayee’s growing strength vis-a-vis the RSS is the manner in which parliamentary approval for the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Bill was secured without so much as a wh imper from the BMS and the manner in which Kalyan Singh was eased out - first from the office of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and later from the party. In Kalyan Singh’s case, Vajpayee evidently brushed aside opposition from Advani and others with just o ne sentence. He is reported to have told a meeting of senior BJP leaders: "It is either the C.M. or the P.M." This clinched it as there was no way the BJP would forsake Vajpayee for Kalyan Singh.

Evidently, Vajpayee’s confidence stems from the fact that there is no alternative leader in the party who is acceptable to the BJP’s allies, whose support is crucial for the Government’s survival. He is believed to have won over the support of Pramod Mah ajan, Arun Jaitley and M. Venkaiah Naidu from rival camps in the party. A leader who was once considered to be a mere "mask" with popular appeal but with no real clout in the organisational structure is gaining a hold on the party. However, VHP affiliate s in the BJP believe that Vajpayee may be pushing his luck with statements that "the Ram mandir construction is not on the agenda of the BJP". One such leader said: "If the Prime Minister goes on in this vein, the sant samaj could throw a challenge by em barking on the temple construction course."

FROM all accounts, the sant samaj is getting a bit restive and is eager to assert its "authority". Mahant Sri Ramachandra Paramahans, chairman of the Sri Ramajanmabhumi Nyas, the trust designated by the VHP to oversee the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, told Frontline that he was not in the least affected by the Prime Minister’s statement.

In a telephone conversation, he asserted: "No Constitution, no laws, no government and no Prime Minister can stop our work... We are not bound by any of these. We are committed only to the dharma and the dharmacharyas. We will complete the construction of the temple as and when the dharma and the dharmacharyas ordain."

Paramahans said that prefabrication work in connection with the temple had been on since 1990 in the karyashalas (factories) and would continue until the temple was constructed. The Prime Minister and the Government could say whatever they wanted, he said, but for the sant samaj the construction of a Ram temple was not a matter for adjudication. Paramahans said that the base of the mandir and 68 pillars for the nrithya mandap (a part of the proposed temple) had been completely pre-fabricat ed; he added that 154 more pillars were required and that work on them would be completed in two years.

It seems fairly clear that the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar can raise the stakes merely by giving a little more publicity to the ongoing work. Whether they will do so or not will depend to some extent on the judicial progress of the demolition case. I f the proceedings reach a stage where Advani and Joshi are forced out of office, hardline Hindutva organisations could start their game anew in Ayodhya.

In the midst of all these projections, there is one opinion among BJP and Sangh Parivar observers that both the Vajpayee and anti-Vajpayee groups are being manipulated by the RSS and made to work in tandem. According to them, if the Sangh Parivar fears t hat it is at risk of losing the support of the Other Backward Classes following the expulsion of Kalyan Singh, it could play its Hindutva card. There is also the possibility that the perceived power tussle between the two groups is merely a ruse to distr act the BJP’s partners and press ahead with its real agenda.

In any case, the power games within the BJP have taken on a new dimension with the advent of the ghosts of Ayodhya. The next stage may hold ominous portents for the country if it spurs a revival of a hardline Hindutva agenda.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Vol. 16 : No. 27, December 25, 1999 - January 7, 2000.

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