The ghosts of Ayodhya

Print edition : December 25, 2000

A NUMBER of prickly contradictions were inherent in the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the status of ruling party after it paved its ascent to power with the defiance of the writ of the institutions of the state. The moments of discomfiture that the A.B. Vajpayee Government recently suffered in Parliament on account of the Ayodhya prosecutions are perhaps only a foretaste of greater embarrassments to come.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani recently affirmed that the BJP took the position it did in the Ayodhya dispute only in order to expose the bankruptcy of the politics of religious vote banks that the Congress(I) had converted into an art form. The quest f or a temple to a revered hero of myth and legend was first raked up by the Congress(I) as part of its cynical game of pitting one variety of religious extremism against another. If the Muslim card had been played by overturning the verdict of the Supreme Court on maintenance for divorced women of that community, the overture to a supposedly monolithic political community of Hindus came with the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This effectively legitimised the trespass of 1949 which c onverted a Muslim place of worship into the putative site of Ram's birth in the dim recesses of history.

The Congress(I) as ruling party believed in retaining a veneer of neutrality so that the state as an arbiter of disputes would not lose its legitimacy. The BJP, in its campaign over Ayodhya, tilted so strongly in favour of one variety of religious extrem ism that it was impelled to posit a higher political virtue than civic loyalty to the institutions of the state. No executive, judiciary or legislature, said the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - the BJP's malevolent associate - could resolve a problem involving t he faith of millions.

This was a refrain which even Advani, as the master strategist of the Ayodhya mobilisation, was impelled to echo. Matters of faith, in other words, are above the normal problem-solving processes of a civil democratic order. In the euphoria of their campa ign, the BJP strategists evidently did not stop to think of the baneful consequences of this formulation. Effectively it meant that short of supernatural intervention, the brute force of numbers and the fury of the mob would be the final arbiter of matte rs involving a collision between two different compulsions of faith.

Under the rule of the Congress(I), as the party which was in word - if not in deed - committed to a doctrine of equal treatment of different communities, were registered the cases to bring the guilty of Ayodhya to book. Its infirmities of conviction, how ever, were so acute that it never quite managed to launch the prosecution. But the institutions of Indian democracy fortunately have their own inbuilt processes. These may frustrate with their slowness on occasion, but with a certain plodding perseveranc e they retain the capacity to inconvenience, embarrass and, in the final reckoning, even bring to book those guilty of challenging the processes of the law.

It is this sense of institutional memory that today is proving the greatest bother in the BJP's effort to reinvent itself as a responsible party of governance, which other respectable political formations can associate with. The imminent threat of prosec ution, which looms over two senior members of the Union Cabinet and one Minister of State, impels the Vajpayee Ministry to make a choice - it could either dispense with the services of these individuals or collectively reiterate that the BJP never deviat ed from the path of virtue in the course of the Ayodhya campaign. The former course would prove expensive for the BJP, since L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati are key figures in its internal balance of factional pressures. And the latter w ould be suicidal for many of the BJP's new-found allies, which like to believe that their association with a party which was until recently considered beyond the pale is only for the limited purpose of providing stable and effective governance. Among the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and the Samata Party in Bihar, none would like to compromise its claims to the votes of religious minorities by espousing the cause o f the law-breakers of Ayodhya.

The National Democratic Alliance is only one among the many theatres that the ghosts of Ayodhya will stalk. Ayodhya in the context of the BJP has enormous potential to cause deep fissures between pragmatists and ideologues, between the moderate and extre mist elements. And then there is Ayodhya in the context of Uttar Pradesh - the State that was pivotal in boosting the BJP's electoral fortunes in three successive general elections since 1991.

The BJP built its electoral gains in U.P. by consolidating some of the social forces that emerged from the disintegration of the Congress(I) coalition and adding on segments that remained impervious to the very distinct kinds of appeal that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram embodied. That social coalition is today a shambles, with Kalyan Singh having bolted and raised the prospect of the defection of a substantial political constituency from the BJP ranks. A new struggle for the vote in U.P. is clearly imminent, in which the symbolism of Ayodhya will be deployed in conflicting and often incongruous ways.

The recent Lok Sabha elections showed how sharply polarised the political context in U.P. is and how deeply entrenched are voter loyalties to the three big players - in descending order of vote share, the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Pa rty. The dramatic revival in the fortunes of the Congress(I), which could hope credibly to whittle away a section of the vote from all these parties, introduces a new dimension to future contests in U.P. It is this uneasy realisation that has impelled Mu layam Singh Yadav now to raise the pitch of his denunciation of the Congress(I) for its culpability in the Ayodhya disaster. Regaining the confidence of the religious minorities is a priority for the Congress(I), although there is little likelihood that either Mulayam Singh or Kanshi Ram will make the task any easier for it. Clearly, the ghosts of Ayodhya will cause still further political schisms and stresses before they are finally laid to rest.

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