Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

VHP activists being stopped by the police in Ayodhya on October 17. They were arrested and later let off. - ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

VHP activists being stopped by the police in Ayodhya on October 17. They were arrested and later let off. - ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

The VHP's propaganda programme in Ayodhya, apparently part of the Sangh Parivar's pre-election mobilisation, fails as Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav takes a stern but tactful stand.

THERE was no hint of intended irony in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's suggestion that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was a responsible organisation, which should be trusted to function within the parameters of the law. Neither was there any impropriety seen in Minister of State for Home Affairs Swami Chinmayananda being allocated the responsibility of dealing with the VHP's most recent mobilisation over Ayodhya. Until he assumed his exalted office, the saffron-robed Minister was an activist in the cause of Ayodhya, fighting and winning elections around that single issue. Even if he is bound by the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, he cannot leave the ideological baggage of his past behind. And the VHP's insistence that the Constitution cannot be deemed an adequate basis to judge the merits of an article of faith is not the best advertisement for the faith that the Home Ministry's current incumbent invests in legal processes.

The recent mobilisation in the VHP's politics of ritualism over Ayodhya sneaked up on the country with relatively little advance notice. The die was cast with the announcement of the schedule for elections to five State Assemblies, including three in the Hindi-speaking region and the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Keen to ensure the strict enforcement of new norms of responsible conduct, the Election Commission (E.C.) evidently took many political parties by surprise. The announcement that the model code of conduct would be strictly applicable also could not have been good news.

In surveying the horizon for issues that could be used to gain advantage at the hustings, several of the political parties must have encountered a rather inconvenient fact. More than at any time in the recent past, the electorate today is inclined to go by real issues of accountability and quality of governance in making its choices. The power of polarising symbols and identity politics is now at a relatively low ebb. Parties that have flourished on the appeal of divisive symbols are unable to comprehend this uncomfortable reality or to adjust their political practice to it. And political mascots that have long been cultivated cannot be abandoned easily.

The Bharatiya Janata Party confronts no immediate threat to its status as the main element of the ruling coalition at the Centre. But the next round of State Assembly elections will be decisive. Prey to a degree of tactical confusion and factional turmoil within, the BJP faces the prospect of losing its rather limited toehold in the Hindi region. Sundered from its core areas of strength, the BJP would then face a tough climb to retain its pivotal position in the politics at the Centre. In a tight bind, the BJP and its wider Hindutva fraternity could not evidently resist one final probing mission to test the political appeal of its traditional themes. But with the application of the model code of conduct making such a test a risky proposition for a registered political party, the job had to be delegated to an affiliate that has never considered itself bound by law or the norms of political propriety.

A variety of themes and objectives have been the focus of VHP mobilisations over the last decade and more: chetna or awakening, balidaan or sacrifice, and shaurya or courage. Among the objectives sought, there have been shila pujan or exaltation of construction material for a temple, shilanyas or foundation stone laying, and shiladaan or the ritual donation of stones. But with all this done, the Hindutva fraternity found that the actions around which it could mobilise were circumscribed by the judicial writ, which insisted that the dispute should go through appropriate forums of redress, without which the territory in question could not be bargained away to any of the contesting parties.

The solution that the VHP has ingeniously worked out is to use the brute force of the religious majority - as expressed through the electoral process - to force legislation that will circumvent the judicial process, if necessary by undoing constitutional guarantees on equal treatment of all communities. The theme of the October 17 gathering was sankalp or determination. And its message was simple. The VHP would seek over the next few weeks to make enabling legislation for a temple at Ayodhya one of the issues in the forthcoming electoral contests. The BJP with its pretence of democratic scruples could avoid the risks associated with embracing the issue as its own. But the VHP would use its complete lack of accountability to any constitutional body to press ahead.

Perched at a sufficiently safe distance, the BJP can afford to wait and watch how the pieces fall. If there is any kind of a rustle of support in the political undergrowth, it could seek to capitalise electorally. If, in contrast, there is visible indifference or manifest opposition, it could seek the safety of dissociating itself from the VHP campaign. All the nuances of this strategy were on display as the VHP ramped up the pressure on Ayodhya. First, in an invocation of a strategy successfully deployed in defusing the tensions of the March 2002 mobilisation, the Central and State governments seemed to act in concert in denying all routes of access to the troubled city for VHP activists and volunteers. The response from the VHP was stinging, with its highly toxic general secretary, Pravin Togadia, excoriating Vajpayee for his complicity with the enemies of Hinduism and warning of a massive outbreak of communal violence were devotees to be denied their darshan of Ram.

This called forth an intervention from K.S. Sudarshan, the Hindutva paterfamilias and sarsangchalak of the RSS. After telephonic conversations with Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani, the RSS expressed its full support for the VHP campaign and urged the government to minimise the hurdles in the way. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav was unamused, and he singled out Chinmayananda as a singularly implausible go-between in his efforts to bring the recalcitrant VHP to heel. Advani's deputy in the Home Ministry, for his part, vowed that his job was merely to provide the State administration with the security forces it required. He would not be party to any effort to choke all routes of entry into Ayodhya. Later events seemed to suggest that the Central and State governments were keen to avoid a confrontation.

But, for the BJP, there is now ample evidence that various institutions of governance - including the E.C. and the higher judiciary - are now inclined to bring it to account for its quest of electoral reward even on the wrong side of legitimate political processes. Judicial interventions in the matter of bringing to book the culprits of the Gujarat riots last year are the most visible symptoms of the new institutional mood. The interrogation of the tardy progress of the trial in the Babri Masjid demolition case is still another index.

The BJP seemed to be banking on an unwritten norm of Indian electoral processes in its approach to the Assembly elections of December: that incumbent governments invariably begin with a disadvantage. That assumption though, is proving increasingly fragile, leaving the party of Hindutva with few props to lean on as it approaches the moment of reckoning.

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