Turbulent times

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

The ruling coalition at the Centre survives the Ayodhya crisis on March 15, but questions about its longevity still haunt it.

ON March 20, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee achieved a unique political distinction: he became the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete four continuous years in office even though it includes his previous short-lived term and a few months as head of a caretaker government in the run-up to the General Elections in 1999. The distinction, apart from finding a passing mention at the regular press briefing by the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson V.K.Malhotra, hardly invited any celebration within the party or among its partners in the National Democratic Alliance, probably because of the political turbulence facing the ruling coalition.

Vajpayee's professed source of strength during his second term has been stability, on which he has often expressed satisfaction. "People no longer ask how long this government will survive," he exulted when he presided over the merger of the MGR-ADMK led by S. Thirunavukarasu, MP, with the BJP in New Delhi recently. But the events at Ayodhya on March 15 have created their own dynamics within the ruling coalition, and this will determine the nature of the relationship between the BJP and its allies in the coming days.

For long, it appeared as if the BJP's secular allies would compromise on anything except secularism. Thus, when Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee told the Supreme Court on March 13 that a limited-scale puja could be allowed on the undisputed acquired land at Ayodhya without violating the 1994 Supreme Court judgment, it seemed as if the Prime Minister had taken his NDA partners for a ride. Before the Supreme Court intervened on March 13 to ban puja or any religious activity on the undisputed land Vajpayee was hesitant to exercise his powers or even discuss with the allies what he should do in the wake of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) threat to hold shila puja or shila daan at the undisputed acquired land on March 15.

Instead, he found the Supreme Court's decision to hear on March 13 a public interest petition seeking a ban on the proposed puja on March 15 a blessing. "If the court allows the puja, then there could be no objections. If the court disallows it, then its order will be implemented in letter and spirit," he said.

The government delayed a decision on a letter from the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, seeking permission to perform a symbolic puja on March 15 on the acquired undisputed land as a part of its 100-day purnahuti yagna. The government received the letter on March 8, but the Nyas had announced its plan for a puja much earlier. Besides, it was on the basis of his discussions with the sants on January 27 that Vajpayee referred the matter to Law Minister Arun Jaitley for his opinion whether the undisputed acquired land could be returned to the Nyas.

"The Nyas is a permanent lessee of 42 of the 67 acres of acquired land adjacent to the disputed site in Ayodhya. It is also the owner of an additional one acre out of this acquired undisputed land," Vajpayee told both Houses of Parliament on March 13, thus indicating that the Nyas may be correct in asking that its land be returned to it.

The mere filing of a petition by Mohammed Aslam Bhure seeking the court's direction to prohibit puja on the acquired land did not incapacitate the government from taking a decision before the court heard the petition on March 13. Clearly, the government assumed that its decision would be in conflict with that of the Supreme Court. The Prime Minister reiterated his government's stand, made clear through the President's address to the two Houses of Parliament on February 25: "The Government of India, being the statutory receiver, is duty bound to maintain the status quo at the disputed site in Ayodhya." He, rather conveniently, avoided any reference to the maintenance of the status quo at the undisputed site, even though this has a bearing on the maintenance of the status quo at the disputed site.

After the Supreme Court's interim orders, Vajpayee promised Parliament that the orders would be adhered to but added an important caveat: it was an interim order and was subject to further orders, which may be passed on the pending writ petition. The hint was that the court was yet to take a decision on the Nyas' demand - to return the undisputed land to it before June 2 - and that it was yet to interpret whether the Supreme Court's majority judgment in 1994 on the Ayodhya Acquisition Act would permit such an action. Arun Jaitley favours returning the undisputed land to the Nyas and believes that the 1994 judgment does not prevent it. But the Government fights shy of taking this stand even though the Attorney-General endorsed this view before the Court.

The Prime Minister's statement in Parliament was a fine balancing act: he kept a distance from what the Attorney-General said in the Supreme Court, by saying that it was his constitutional duty to interpret a law or a judgment of the court when he was asked to do so by the Court. But Vajpayee did not indicate whether his government agreed with the Attorney-General's interpretation of this issue. Nor did he say that he disagreed with the Attorney-General's view, thus satisfying the Sangh Parivar.

His balancing act was in response to the sharp criticism of the Attorney-General's submissions by the BJP's allies. The Telugu Desam Party politburo made it clear that the Attorney-General's stand was not in conformity with the National Agenda of Governance (NAG), on the basis of which it had extended support from outside to the Vajpayee government. "The Government of India should take all measures to implement the Supreme Court order in letter and spirit," the politburo said in a statement. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee not only boycotted the NDA Coordination Committee meeting but complained against the BJP's lack of consultation with its allies on this issue.

After their mild protests the allies were back to square one and continued their support to the government. There is no question of threatening to withdraw support on every mistake committed by the government, TDP Parliamentary Leader K. Yerran Naidu said. The allies would act as a pressure group to correct the government's mistakes and force it to adhere to the NAG, he added.

However, despite pressure from the allies it was clear that the Vajpayee government was not keen to observe the Supreme Court's order in letter and spirit. Vajpayee told the Rajya Sabha on March 14: "A very strange question has been asked about the locus standi of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The VHP is an organisation of representative nature. When there is so much excitement in the name of the VHP, then there must be some locus standi for that organisation. In a vast country like ours, it is not necessary for every organisation to prove its popularity by contesting elections. However, non-governmental efforts have to be encouraged for solving the Ayodhya dispute."

Observers were quick to point out that Vajpayee's observations might have been prompted by Justice B.N. Kirpal's remark in the Supreme Court on March 13 questioning the locus standi of the VHP. Why should the Prime Minister seek to defend the VHP, close on the heels of the Bench's observations? Union Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie could not perhaps be blamed for violating the collective responsibility of the Cabinet when he wrote two articles in The Indian Express criticising the Supreme Court's observations while delivering the interim order. After all, he was echoing the Prime Minister's views.

If the government's intention was to honour the Supreme Court's orders, Vajpayee could have asked Arun Jaitley not to give his opinion on the question of returning the undisputed land to the Nyas because the three-member Bench of Justices B.N. Kirpal, G.B. Pattanaik and V.N. Khare had referred the matter to the Supreme Court's five-member Bench on March 13. Vajpayee could also have appealed to the VHP to defer its June 2 deadline until the Bench decided the issue. Instead, he gives the impression that the Law Minister is still considering the matter referred to him in January, even as the VHP appears unrelenting on its deadline.

In his reply in the Lok Sabha on March 16, Jaitley revealed that in his view the 1994 Supreme Court judgment favoured the return of the undisputed land to its erstwhile owners and that he indeed endorsed the Attorney-General's stand.

THE BJP's allies did not seem to mind Jaitley's or Vajpayee's enthusiasm in defending the VHP's view even though the Supreme Court was yet to deliver its final verdict on the issue. They were relieved that the March 15 function at Ayodhya went off peacefully. They did not also object to the government sending a senior Indian Administrative Officer in the Ayodhya cell, Shatrughan Singh, to receive the carved pillars from the Nyas outside the undisputed land. "To maintain peace and to reduce tensions, the government took such a decision; it is all right. But after that the VHP claimed that it was an endorsement by the government for the construction of a temple. What is the government's stand on this?," Yerran Naidu asked in Lok Sabha on March 16.

Vajpayee disagreed with the VHP's claim and said the shilas would be used for the construction of a temple only if the court verdict went in favour of Hindus. Vajpayee's reply did not displease the VHP; it knew that he was under coalition compulsions to take such a public stand. Meanwhile, the Nyas has said that it will forcibly acquire its land at Ayodhya and begin construction this year, without waiting for the Court's verdict.

The BJP's allies seemed helpless, beyond expressing their displeasure at the government's pro-VHP stand, notwithstanding Vajpayee's disapproval of the VHP's claims. Had the allies been serious about their protests they could have insisted that their demand for a ban on the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, following the attack on the Orissa Assembly on March 16, be met. The Trinamul Congress, the Janata Dal (U) and the Samata Party joined the Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha on March 18 in demanding a ban on these organisations. The TDP, too, demanded exemplary punishment for those involved. However, the demand by individual MPs belonging to the non-BJP alliance partners did not worry the government, which did not take it seriously. For the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, a mere condemnation of the VHP's vandalism in Parliament was sufficient to calm the allies.

The VHP's proposed asthi yatra (procession carrying urns containing ashes of the Godhra victims) threatened to snowball into a major confrontation between the BJP and its allies. The Janata Dal(U)'s Devendra Prasad Yadav and VHP leader Vinay Katiyar verbally clashed on the issue in the Lok Sabha when Yadav chided the VHP for defying the Prime Minister. Sushil Indora of the Indian National Lok Dal, another ally, also questioned the bona fides of the VHP in championing the cause of Hindus. Alarmed at the allies' growing anger, the government appears to have persuaded the VHP to drop its plan.

The National Conference, which abstained from voting on the POTO Bill in both Houses of Parliament, however, decided to vote in favour of the Bill in the joint session. The Trinamul Congress, which stuck to its decision to abstain during the joint session, came under intense pressure to fall in line with the rest of the allies. On the eve of the joint session, the five independent MPs in the Lok Sabha, led by P.C. Thomas, decided to join the NDA and support the POTO Bill. The result of this merger is that no ally will henceforth be indispensable to the BJP. The Bahujan Samaj Party had abstained from voting on POTO, clearly suggesting that it was not with the rest of the Opposition on the issue. Whether or not the BJP supports BSP leader Mayawati's bid to become the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the BSP's move to keep a distance from the rest of the Opposition may well help the Vajpayee government stem the opposition within the coalition to its stand on contentious issues.

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