Print edition : August 31, 2002

A mounting list of omissions and commissions, and consequent controversies and embarrassments, is haunting the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre, forcing even its apologists to concede that it is facing a crisis of credibility.

'NO comment' was the terse response of M. Venkaiah Naidu, although his one-time predecessor as Bharatiya Janata Party president, Murli Manohar Joshi, was all decorous hand-wringing. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee roused himself to issue some perfunctory words of deprecation. But his deputy Lal Krishna Advani, once again confronted with evidence of the extremism that flourishes behind his facade of cultivation, chose to evade the issue.

From afar, Advani condemned the recent carnage in Gujarat as "outrageous and indefensible" before an audience in London. His decisive words, which made no concessions at all to the notion of just retribution for the Godhra outrage, were, as commentators in London observed, the minimum required by political decency. But upon arriving back in India, Advani was to prove rather more indulgent towards his proteges in Gujarat.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee flanked by BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu and former president Murli Manohar Joshi at the party's election committee meeting in New Delhi on August 21.-PRAKASH SINGH/ AFP

For those who imagined that they had already seen the worst, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has proved that he has the miraculous ability to plumb newer and unsuspected depths. Frustrated in his bid to seek an electoral triumph in an environment surcharged with fear and vengefulness, Modi has directed his ire at the constitutional processes that govern the conduct of elections itself. And he has done so in a manner that focusess public attention on the religious identity of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), suggests a collusive intent on the basis of this identity, and crudely urges the "majority" who share a different religious affiliation to thwart this intent.

Modi's utterances earned him the swift condemnation of parties and individuals more sensitive to the proprieties of politics. While any personal attack on the CEC for his "official conduct" would be "unconscionable", to target him on the basis of his religion was "intolerable" said the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The episode, it continued, exposed "Modi's fascist mentality towards the minorities and should enable the entire country to understand what is at the root of the problem in Gujarat today". The silence of the BJP leadership on the issue was, in this connection, "revealing" of its true intentions.

Deputy Prime Minister and a former president of the BJP, L.K. Advani.-RAVEENDRAN/ AFP

Congress spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy condemned Modi's comments as "fascist and indecent", and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh reacted in like vein. The target of Modi's vituperation, meanwhile, disdainfully gave the "party with a difference" the back of his hand. Modi's outburst about his supposed religious affiliations was "despicable", said CEC J.M. Lyngdoh. Politicians with a minimal exposure to liberal values could not appreciate the fact that he was an atheist, for whom religion was immaterial in personal and public matters. And the criticism that had been levelled against the Election Commission's unanimous decision not to conduct elections in Gujarat in accordance with the BJP's convenience, was the "gossip of menials", added Lyngdoh.

The relatively low-profile CEC has a reputation for being a good listener. He speaks little but is known to use his words with telling effect. Nobody with any good sense has questioned his right to defend his honour against the vicious slander unleashed by Modi. But in the limited moral horizons of the BJP, his riposte, which has been reasonable and dignified in comparison, has been rendered into a retrospective justification of Modi's outburst.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam with Chief Minister Narendra Modi during a tour of Gujarat.-SIDDARTH DARSHAN KUMAR/ AFP

Thus Murli Manohar Joshi characterised some of Lyngdoh's statements as being hurtful to political sensibilities, and the BJP's senior parliamentarian Vijay Kumar Malhotra interpreted the Prime Minister's admonition as applying equally to both Lyngdoh and Modi.

The silence of the BJP and its very grudging concessions to propriety are not out-of-character. The party is today embarked upon a trajectory in the abuse of power that has had few parallels in the past. Apologists concede that the BJP is facing a crisis of credibility today, though they insist that this is just a temporary loss of direction. That plea may have been halfway convincing till about mid-July when the party went through a highly touted change of guard. That was supposed to mark a turning point in the BJP's fortunes, bringing a new dynamism to its functioning as a political organism, while imparting a fresh resolve and purpose to the government machinery. What has happened in fact is that the reshuffle was only the signal for the knives to come out, for dormant factional animosities and jealousies to surface with a fresh vengeance. And even as the BJP plumbs the depths, the top leadership is uneasily aware that further organisational and ministerial changes may be necessary in the near future - in key northern States in particular - which could further aggravate the internal turmoil.

Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Ram Naik.-PAUL NORONHA

That party president Venkaiah Naidu should be oblivious to the crass conduct of the Gujarat Chief Minister is perfectly understandable in this context. He has been preoccupied with extricating himself from allegations of a most indecorous land grab in Hyderabad. Clearly, he was highly discomfited, proving rather obtuse about his larger responsibilities even after he made a belated effort to regain the pretence of moral righteousness by returning five acres (about 2 hectares) of land originally meant for distribution among the poor and the landless.

Murmurs of disgruntlement continued for days after Venkaiah Naidu renounced all title to the land that he had illicitly held for over two decades. Within his local party unit in Andhra Pradesh, unflattering contrasts were drawn with the swift justice that was meted out to Bangaru Laxman after he was played for a dupe by investigative journalists from the web-based newsmagazine It was hardly the best advertisement for a party seeking to project its sensitivity towards the weaker sections that Laxman, a Dalit, was denied the wide latitude that Venkaiah Naidu enjoyed to cover up evidence of the abuse of power.

The revelations about Venkaiah Naidu were only one among a torrent that emerged in mid-August about irregular allotments of land to individuals and institutions from the larger Hindutva family (story on page 18). Factional animosities within the ranks were unmistakable in the authorship of the media leaks in this regard. But there was little ambiguity about the beneficiaries of the large-scale parcelling out of prime real estate, particularly in the national capital - Vijay Goel, Ananth Kumar, and other figures recently risen to prominence within the BJP's higher councils. And the artifices involved in obtaining the benefits were also surprisingly transparent and limited, reflecting a certain poverty of imagination. The cause of advancement of culture and education, particularly when qualified by the "Bharati" touch that is characteristic of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh front organisations, was adequate to obtain large tracts of land in Delhi at knocked down or negligible prices.

Union Petroleum Minister Ram Naik, another BJP luminary to see his moral halo vanish recently, was meanwhile seeking to spread public opprobrium thin. Though only called upon to account for gross irregularities in the assignment of petroleum products distribution agencies under his tenure, he seemed intent on subjecting the entire process of allotments since 1983 to an inquisitorial probe. The moral escape hatch was being readied even as the government equivocated over its early resolve to cancel all such agencies allotted under Ram Naik: irregularities in the past warrant their continuance into the indefinite future; the BJP, as a late entrant to the portals of governance, deserves equal opportunities for illegal aggrandisement; and the abuses of the system that evolved gradually over the preceding five decades will be replicated and multiplied within a concentrated time span by the "party with a difference".

Alongside the assertion of this determination, the BJP is recycling an old strategy of political mobilisation that served it well in the quest of power. Blending wounded Gujarati pride, majoritarian religious disquiet and the BJP's moral crisis into a lethal cocktail, Modi is set to start a motorised odyssey, titled the "gaurav yatra", early in September. It is of course a part of received tradition that individuals in junctures of moral confusion and uncertainty undertake journeys of introspection, often to centres of religious piety. But there is little that is introspective about Modi's yatra of intimidation.

In the midst of this clamour of extremism, the man who pioneered the yatra as a tactic of mobilisation and intimidation, maintains an enigmatic silence. And if his more substantive political statements of the last few months were to be documented, they would amount to a formidable litany of double-speak, even by his standards. Just a few weeks before decisively condemning the Gujarat events before an audience in London, Advani had in Parliament commended Modi for the speed and dispatch with which he brought the situation in that State under control. The people of Gujarat, he asserted in the Rajya Sabha, would reward Modi with a suitable mandate when they went to the polls to elect a new Assembly.

Just days before he left for his London visit, Advani had rallied the faithful in their hour of crisis, denouncing the vile conspiracy by Opposition parties to undermine the image and the internal solidarity of the BJP, and asserting that the BJP was indeed the "party with a difference". A ticklish new problem had been posed for him just a few days earlier, with the wife of the principal accused in the 1999 murder of a Delhi-based journalist, levelling accusations of culpability against his senior Cabinet colleague Pramod Mahajan (story on page 20). And included in his broad sweep of condemnation were the criticisms of the Gujarat Chief Minister that had been voiced not merely by Opposition parties but even by constitutional bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the E.C., and by a host of concerned citizens' groups.

Former Minister for Power Suresh Prabhu.-

It has long been evident that without Advani's patronage, Modi could not have survived so long as Chief Minister and gone about his campaign of calumny against constitutional bodies with quite the same degree of impunity. It is in this context that Advani's silence within domestic forums about the events in Gujarat - indeed, his endorsement of Modi's practical and verbal excesses - acquires menacing dimensions.

IF the reshuffle of organisational and ministerial responsibilities in July signalled the rapidly receding Vajpayee, subsequent events have shown him to be the rapidly diminishing Prime Minister, in terms of both moral and political authority. This was underlined when the Shiv Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray from distant Mumbai contrived to force the resignation of the Union Minister for Power, Suresh Prabhu, and virtually dictate who his successor should be. Ministerial performance was clearly not the criterion in this switch. Rather, it was quite transparently the financial utility of a ministerial post to the party that sponsors the incumbent.

Dissensions within the larger National Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, continue to simmer. Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamul Congress, is devoid of options and knows not where to go. But she would clearly like to be elsewhere and may be waiting for an opportune moment to renew her overtures to the Congress. Her persistence in confronting Railway Minister Nitish Kumar over his proposals for a reorganisation of the railway system is yet to yield dividends. But her pressure has clearly forced Nitish Kumar to yield ground elsewhere. Mamata Banerjee has for long been arguing that the NDA's quiescence in the face of Nitish Kumar's proposals is directly attributable to his role in covering up the true story behind the Godhra outrage in February. Late in August, after a suspicious and unexplained delay, the Railway Ministry released the list of passengers who had been booked on board the S-6 bogey of the Sabarmati Express that was burnt at Godhra that day.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.-A. ROY CHOWDHURY

After the report of the forensic science experts which indicated that the fire on board the S-6 compartment could not have been set off after pouring incendiary material into it from outside, the passenger list has once again fuelled speculation. It is now learnt that of the 52 passengers who were reserved to travel by S-6, 41 survived the blaze and in fact, 32 boarded other coaches. Most of the passengers in S-6 were booked to board not from Faizabad, where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was mobilising its forces for an assault on the site of the Babri Masjid, but from later points in the journey.

AS the sporadic information about Gujarat begins to fall in place, the intermittent attacks by the BJP on the Constitution and its principal trustees begin to acquire the character of a systematic campaign. And as the BJP begins to brazen out its desperate moral crisis, the Opposition parties have started formulating their common strategies. A rare assertion of consensus across the political spectrum was witnessed recently when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam returned an ordinance drafted by the Law Ministry, amending the Representation of the People Act in certain crucial respects. The President acted on the basis of sound advice proffered by constitutional experts sensitive to the public interest. But the Union Cabinet reiterated its advice to the President without offering any of the clarifications requested, on the grounds that there was broad political consensus over the provisions of the ordinance (story on page 8).

There followed a rather feeble protest by the Congress that this was not really the case. But clearly, the time for the Congress to step up to the challenge is rapidly approaching. The pretensions of the "party with a difference" have crumbled irretrievably. But it can still do considerable damage to the political fabric as it goes down. No longer can the Opposition afford the paralysis that comes with knowing that the BJP could always divert attention from its rampant misdemeanours today by pointing to similar abuses in the past.

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