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The real agenda on test

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The conflicting signals from the Sangh Parivar on the Ayodhya issue point to a deliberate design to blunt the opposition from within the ruling coalition to its agenda.

IN December 2000, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was responding to what appeared to be an annual ritual. On the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, the Opposition parties were agitating within Parliament for some form of accountability from the three Union Ministers who had been charged with culpability for the act. Vajpayee rejected the demand, though he insisted that the law would take its course. But then as Parliament went into one of many adjournments over the issue, he departed from this script in certain offhand remarks made to the media. The movement for building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, he said, was an "expression of national sentiments", and a task that had, regrettably, "remained unfinished".

Vajpayee did not consider it necessary to withdraw his remarks even in Parliament during a subsequent debate on a Congress-sponsored motion seeking the removal of the three Ministers. The Bharatiya Janata Party's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) then had been persuaded in numerous offstage confabulations to vote against the motion. They had then made it clear that they would not be amenable to a resurrection of Ayodhya as an issue in national politics. The National Agenda for Governance (NAG), a set of guidelines for political conduct and a mutually agreed programme adopted by the NDA before the formation of the present government, is silent on Ayodhya. But the document committed the BJP and its allies to "national reconciliation" and to a moratorium on raising contentious issues. It promised "genuine secularism" and equality of all religions, besides efforts to create a riot-free order and follow a consensual mode of governance.

Working within the constraints of coalition politics, which was a necessity for the BJP once it hit a phase of electoral stagnation after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP had to suspend its open espousal of three issues that were regarded as distinctive of its political identity: temple construction at Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which governs the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union, and the constitutional mandate for the enactment of a uniform civil code. These issues had to be kept out of NAG, not through explicit disavowal but through eloquent silence.

The BJP, for its part, has made no formal move to distance itself from the resolution adopted at its National Executive meeting in Palanpur, Himachal Pradesh, in 1989. This resolution, which records that the Ayodhya dispute cannot be resolved through judicial determination and hence must be settled either through negotiations or through legislation, still remains the formal position of the BJP.

The VHP fixed the March 12 deadline - coinciding with the Sivratri festival - in January 2001 during the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. This was of a piece with its earlier strategy of setting ultimatums, partly to give the government time to react and partly to mobilise its own forces.

Unwittingly perhaps, when he visited his Lok Sabha constituency of Lucknow in September last year, Vajpayee was drawn into an implicit assurance that this deadline would be honoured. He was also influenced undoubtedly by the imminent elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, when the BJP was expected to be queried by its faithful over the continuing default on a promise of over a decade's vintage. But, having made this concession, Vajpayee did seek to deliver. Talks were initiated with various groups with an interest in the land at Ayodhya, and the Ayodhya Cell, which had been functioning within the Prime Minister's Office since the tenure of P.V. Narasimha Rao, was revived.

Both these steps were seemingly designed to test the allies' reactions. NAG was drafted on the implicit understanding that the government would not succumb to the politics of ultimatums on Ayodhya, and would leave the matter to be decided either through the judicial process or through negotiations between the two communities. Faced with the prospect of a testing round of elections, this understanding was effectively breached by the Prime Minister with his assurance that some other procedure was being initiated to settle the longstanding dispute.

The allies, by and large, remained indifferent to this rather transparent violation of NAG. Some of them reasoned that there could really be no objection to the government's efforts to facilitate a peaceful settlement that would not offend either community. The attitude generally was that it was not necessary for the allies to handle the hot potato if somebody else was willing to do so in a manner that would not cause great political damage. Again, in October, the NDA partners' response to the VHP leaders' attempt to break the security cordon at the Ayodhya complex and take control of the makeshift shrine erected there after the 1992 demolition was also muted.

The VHP undoubtedly was keenly reading the signals emanating from the camp of the BJP's allies. When he met the VHP-led delegation in New Delhi on January 27, Vajpayee made it a point to invite NDA convener and Defence Minister George Fernandes into the discussions. Briefing the media on the outcome of the talks, Fernandes conveyed two conclusions: first, that the allies were solidly behind the Prime Minister; and second, that they concurred with the decision to refer the VHP demand for the transfer of the so-called "undisputed land" at Ayodhya - now in the possession of the government - to Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley. Although the legal position is fairly clear, the NDA partners did not ask the Prime Minister to reject summarily the VHP's demand.

THERE is an ominous similarity between the VHP's moves on Ayodhya now and what it had done in 1992, as a prelude to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was engaged in organising negotiations between the representatives of the VHP and the Babri Masjid Action Committee to resolve the deadlock. The first meeting between him and the VHP leaders took place on July 23, 1992, after which the VHP unilaterally gave him three months to resolve the dispute in much the same manner it fixed the March 12, 2002 deadline last year.

Narasimha Rao, as the White Papers on the demolition published by the government and the BJP testify, wanted four months' time. He had assured the VHP that efforts initiated by the previous government for a negotiated settlement would be revived and that, if necessary, the pending litigation on this issue would be consolidated and considered by a single judicial authority whose decision would be binding on all parties. According to the government's paper, on October 29, 1992 each side had given the government its statement of case and comments on evidence furnished by the other. In consultation with the two sides, the next meeting was scheduled for November 8, 1992 and crucial decisions were expected.

Meanwhile, however, the Kendriya Margdarshak Mandal of the VHP met in New Delhi from October 29 to 31 and called for the resumption of kar seva from December 6. There was no further retraction from this, despite a frenetic round of last-minute negotiations.

Narasimha Rao's failure to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government under Article 356 of the Constitution was considered a factor that led to the demolition. Faced with the intransigence of the Hindu Right, the Central government then sought to buy time by organising negotiations, which for the VHP were no more than a pretence since it had no intention of settling for anything less than its maximalist demands.

Today, the Vajpayee government does not seem to reflect even the limited sincerity displayed by the Narasimha Rao government in resolving the dispute in a transparent manner. Mystery surrounds the functioning and role of the Ayodhya Cell, headed by Shatrughan Singh, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer of the U.P. cadre. The government has not planned any negotiations between the two sides, even though the deadline fixed by the VHP is fast approaching. During the January 27 meeting with the Prime Minister, the VHP made two main demands - the 67 acres of undisputed land should be transferred to it for construction, and all the obstacles in the way of temple construction should be cleared by March 12.

Vajpayee's mild admonitions against the VHP for raising this issue when the nation was facing threats from across the border and the U.P. Assembly elections were just round the corner, did not convince it. Indeed, he even threatened to quit, if pushed to the wall by the sants. One of the sants asked Vajpayee what he had done for the temple, when governments led by adversarial parties had done much more. The temple, they pointed out, was formally inaugurated during Jawaharlal Nehru's tenure as Prime Minister. And the shilanyas to construct a worthy temple commemorating the Janmabhoomi was done during Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership. And the demolition of the offending structure was achieved during Narasimha Rao's tenure.

This narration, of course, is partly a travesty of the truth since Nehru consistently opposed the surreptitious introduction of idols into the Babri Masjid, which had transformed a mosque into a disputed structure. But the sants' rhetoric appears to have forced Vajpayee to seek the temporary expedient of asking Arun Jaitley to examine their main demand today - for the title of the 67 acres of undisputed land. Vajpayee, perhaps feigning ignorance of the VHP's stated position on the judiciary, appears to have understood the delay in the Allahabad High Court's hearings on the long-pending title cases as the main obstacle to the construction of a temple. The VHP has never given any indication that it would abide by the court's ruling on this issue. And yet Vajpayee has asked Jaitley to examine how the High Court could be requested to expedite the hearing of the case.

Two weeks after the Prime Minister referred the issue to Jaitley, the Law Minister conceded that he had not examined the matter. The government's apparent indifference only heightened the VHP's stridency, which bordered on hostility. "We are ready to sacrifice even 10 governments, but no compromise on the Ram temple is possible," senior VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore said. VHP president Ashok Singhal made it clear that the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya would begin any time after March 12 irrespective of the government's decision on handing over to it the acquired land. "Faith is not justiciable and VHP is not prepared to abide by any court decision," he said.

Indeed, a sense of helplessness is already evident in the ruling party. BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy (see interview) admitted that he did try to persuade the VHP not to take out the Sant Chetavani Yatra, which culminated in New Delhi on January 27. The decision to proceed with the yatra was taken at a meeting in Andhra Pradesh on January 2 and 3, which was attended by, among others, Krishnamurthy, Ashok Singhal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan. Krishnamurthy's plea for caution fell on deaf ears. "We can only advise them, not prevent them from doing something," he explained later.

At the VHP's rally at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi on January 27, the mood among the sants was belligerent. Dharmendra, a prominent member of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, launched a diatribe against Vajpayee, reminding him that he reached his present exalted position only on account of the VHP's campaign on Ayodhya. He chided Home Minister L.K. Advani for describing December 6, 1992 as the saddest day of his life. Advani, he said, would not be the Home Minister today had he not climbed on his Ram rath. Not stopping short of personal vituperation, he advised Vajpayee to get his eyes operated as well, if he could not appreciate the sentiments on the ground. And this entire tirade was delivered in the presence of BJP general secretary Pyarelal Khandelwal.

The VHP's abuse has since continued unabated. On February 9, Ramchandra Paramhans, chairman of the Ram Janambhoomi Nyas, a Trust floated by the VHP, said in Lucknow, in ironic reference to the Prime Minister's promise to resolve the Ayodhya issue by March 12, that he had become a teacher of a school for the visually and aurally handicapped. He alleged that both Vajpayee and Advani indulged in sweet talk but harboured unsavoury thoughts.

The VHP's invective against senior leaders failed to provoke the BJP. Although he warned the VHP that it would face legal consequences if it went ahead with its temple plans, Krishnamurthy thought the demand for the handing over of the undisputed land at Ayodhya was a logical one. Although he did not specify what these consequences would be, observers tend to believe that he might perhaps have in mind the token single day's imprisonment that the Supreme Court imposed in 1994 on former U.P. Chief Minister Kalyan Singh as punishment for violating a commitment made to the Supreme Court that no harm would be caused to the Babri Masjid.

SYED SHAHABUDDIN, convener of the Babri Masjid Coordination Committee, visited Ayodhya recently and was alarmed by the hectic preparations by the VHP to start temple construction. He has demanded that the government ban kar sevaks from entering Ayodhya, confiscate stone engravings and other materials meant for temple construction and hand over the Ram Janmabhoomi complex to the Army. The Centre is unlikely to accept any of these demands as long as the BJP is in power in Uttar Pradesh. Its next move will depend on the outcome of the U.P. Assembly elections.

Whoever forms the next government in U.P., the Centre's neutrality and objectivity, as indeed its commitment to the rule of law, will be critically on test. The stand of the secular parties, both within and outside the NDA, on the VHP's proposed construction plans after March 12 will also be watched keenly.

THE BJP's and the NDA government's reluctance to take on the VHP stems from the ambiguity within the BJP about the likely impact of another round of kar seva on the party's prospects in the Assembly elections. This is because the Ayodhya issue, which may have contributed substantially to the BJP's growth in electoral terms at one stage, turned a negative factor later.

Some observers attribute the increase in the BJP's strength in Parliament and the State legislatures between 1984 and 1991 to the Ayodhya campaign. The BJP's vote share increased from 7.4 per cent in 1984 to 11.5 per cent in 1989; in terms of Lok Sabha seats there was a big jump - from two in 1984 to 86 in 1989. Its vote share increased to 20.1 per cent in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, with its strength in the Lok Sabha going up to 120.

Logically, if the Ayodhya issue helped the BJP mobilise the Hindu vote in the period before 1992, it should have continued to do so after the demolition too. But since it authored that dark deed, the Hindutva brigade has suffered from fluctuating fortunes. In some elections, the opposition to the BJP has been better consolidated than before, stopping it in its tracks. In others, it has proved unable to expand beyond its core constituencies, since prospective partners have been unable to associate themselves openly with a party with such a dubious track record.

Rather, the BJP began to grow in a slow and erratic fashion, as a result of a mix of diverse factors. Today the BJP is seeking to distance itself from Ayodhya as an issue. Sanjay Joshi, the BJP's general secretary, recently explained to Frontline that Ayodhya has never been a political issue for the BJP. "It was other parties that played up the issue during the elections, and we had to respond to it," he explained.

It would perhaps be naive to assume that the BJP is under the illusion that the VHP's campaign could help revive its sagging fortunes in this month's Assembly elections. The VHP, rather, is seeking to justify its own existence and its own recent record of political interventions. If the public spat between VHP and BJP leaders on the Ayodhya issue is any sign, then the VHP's high-pitched rhetoric could actually end up hurting the BJP in the elections. Some would be inclined to view this public display as a facade meant to project a simultaneous appeal to different sections of voters. But the more persuasive explanation, perhaps, is that the new round of provocations by the VHP signifies a rising tide of restlessness and impatience within the hardcore Hindu Right. The BJP and the NDA government, it appears, are inclined to indulge in this public display of rancour if it does not endanger the government's survival at the Centre. But how long this uneasy disengagement will continue is quite another matter.