NDA DISARRAY

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The Bharatiya Janata Party's hidden agenda comes under sharp scrutiny again as its allies in the National Democratic Alliance rise in protest, albeit half-heartedly, against attempts to 'saffronise' education.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

WHOEVER thought of 'Panchvati' as the name for the newly constructed ultra-modern conference hall in the Prime Minister's Office block at 7 Race Course Road, might have wished to convey a profound sense of symbolism about Atal Behari Vajpayee's leadership style. Named after the spot on which Ram and Sita constructed their hut in exile in the Ramayana epic, the hall is symbolic of the internal exile of the Prime Minister. Since he established a renewed - if rather tenuous - peace with his resignation drama, Vajpayee has perhaps chosen to cocoon himself rather than deal with the ideologically riven party and the fractious alliance that he leads. The economy is running into choppy waters as Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha flounders for a policy response adequate to the circumstances (see separate story). Meanwhile, the ideological watchdogs in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) continue their rather hostile vigil over the direction of economic policy, ready to renew their demand for Yashwant Sinha's scalp at the next opportune moment. And Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi continues his quirky forays into the dim recesses of the past, convinced that the panacea for all contemporary ills lies in ancient Indian scriptures.

At a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, (from left) Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers S.S. Dhindsa (Shiromani Akali Dal), former Defence Minister George Fernandes (Samata Party), Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Home Minister L.K. Advani, Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal).-V. SUDERSHAN

Conventional methods of political leadership through established institutional processes have seemingly been abandoned. The Prime Minister's new style is to emerge from his internal political exile on carefully choreographed occasions, with announcements that are directed towards specific political ends. And yet, because of the multiple pulls and pressures that he is operating under, few people are able to place his frequent interventions in the political discourse in a coherent framework of strategy. The statement that discussions were under way towards a solution of the Ayodhya dispute by March 2002 was obviously motivated by the imminent general elections to the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly. But it seemed so totally divorced from the actual realities of the situation, that even those who claim some proximity to the Prime Minister were left rather befuddled. Murli Manohar Joshi was, meanwhile, called to account in the Lok Sabha for some of his recent initiatives in the domain of educational policy. And yet, after encountering almost uniform scepticism from both ally and adversary, he found little to apologise about. His abrasive response to the debate in the Lok Sabha, with a generous infusion of half-truths, evasions and misrepresentations, undoubtedly sets a new low in parliamentary decorum.

In the course of his reply, Minister Joshi read out a passage from a mid-19th century political polemic written by Marx and Engels, boorishly taunting the Marxist benches with the question whether they regarded it as a sample of authentic history writing. He quoted four authorities, among whom three were historians or archaeologists, in support of his argument that the Aryans were indigenous to India. He produced an extended list of universities from across the world, claiming that all of them offered courses in astrology, much as he proposed to do through the Indian university system. And he quite brazenly avowed that the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) on school education that he proposes to introduce is fully in consonance with the education policy guidelines enunciated in 1986 and subsequently modified in 1992. Indeed, since no changes in policy were involved, it was not thought necessary to refer the NCF to the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE).

A group of eminent academics pointed out shortly afterwards at a press conference organised by the cultural organisation Sahmat (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), that the Minister was being severely economical with the truth when he made these assertions in Parliament. To say that the NCF did not amount to a change in policy was a mere verbal artifice, and to deny the CABE its jurisdiction in this matter was contrary to the 1992 policy guidelines which clearly accord the body a "pivotal role" in educational matters. And as Professor Arjun Dev, formerly of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), pointed out, there was an inherent conflict between the educational policy guidelines of 1992 and the NCF. The latter speaks of religion as being the wellspring of all social values. In the policy guidelines of 1992, however, there are no references to religion except for a rather oblique one which speaks of education as a means of administering an antidote to religious extremism and fanaticism.

Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi: in line for the distinction of being the first to accord academic respectability to the dubious pursuit of soothsayers.-V. SUDERSHAN

Professor Romila Thapar, one of the historians cited by Minister Joshi in Parliament, pointed out that she had been grossly misquoted. Although she had indeed said that there was no evidence to indicate an "Aryan invasion" of the Indian subcontinent, she had said at various places that there was ample linguistic indication of a series of migrations into India from Central Asia. Likewise, two of the other authorities cited by Minister Joshi - Professors Mohammad Rafiq Mughal and George Dales - have if anything, been credited with broadly similar views. And the fourth person who the Minister thought it fit to quote, Bhagwan Singh, is a Hindi novelist whose credentials to make pronouncements on matters of historical interpretation are not exactly overwhelming.

Political scientist Professor Zoya Hasan pointed out that Murli Manohar Joshi's list of universities which supposedly offer courses in astrology is entirely fictitious. The list had obviously been drawn up after a hurried search of the resources available on the Internet. And although there may be a number of private institutions offering astrology as an option for students, no recognised university had yet begun instruction in this subject. Joshi in this sense was in line for the distinction of being the first to accord academic respectability to the dubious pursuit of soothsayers.

Vajpayee with RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan and BJP general secretary Narendra Modi at the release of a book on RSS leader Lakshmanrao Inamdar.-S. ARNEJA

The short-duration discussion under Rule 193 was initiated in the Lok Sabha by the Communist Party of India(Marxist). Certain of the crucial allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party took part in the debate and were extremely critical of the recent policy initiatives in education. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Trinamul Congress found little to commend in the furious pursuit of traditional values to infuse into young minds through school curricula. The DMK's S.S. Palanimanickam, who spoke during the discussion, called for the withdrawal of the controversial circular issued by the University Grants Commission (UGC), sanctioning university-level courses in astrology and vedic ritual. He was also critical of other measures suggestive of a political agenda, such as the subtle changes being introduced in the history curricula which sought to glorify the ancient period while disparaging the medieval period as an epoch of cultural regression. Similarly, the effort to derive an unbroken thread of Indian culture stretching back to the Aryans was deeply objectionable to the DMK, as was the stimulus being given for the study of Sanskrit, particularly in the spoken idiom.

As a party, the DMK remains somewhat reluctant to articulate outside Parliament its opposition to the saffronisation measures. And since it is not in power in Tamil Nadu, its ability to influence an oppositional course of policy is also limited. The TDP, which supports the National Democratic Alliance government without being part of it, stopped short of criticising the government's policy, though it was insistent that changes in school syllabi without proper discussion in the appropriate forums would not be acceptable. "Any change can be made only with the full consent of the State governments. Education is on the Concurrent List and we will not accept the imposition of any new education policy," said TDP Parliamentary Party leader K. Yerran Naidu. The TDP for the moment prefers not to go into the specific details of the NCF and the UGC circular, but the government in Andhra Pradesh, which it controls, clearly would not be initiating action on these documents for fear of the political backlash within their home constituencies.

Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference leader.-SHAJU JOHN

A similar attitude of opposition without risking confrontation was noticeable with other allies, namely the Janata Dal (United) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). While a BJD member in the Lok Sabha actually made bold to endorse the HRD Ministry's emphasis on the study of scriptures, the Janata Dal(U) leader, Devendra Prasad Yadav, confined himself to a feeble protest, seemingly merely for the record. Apparently because his party's application for re-entry into NDA is pending consideration, Trinamul Congress member Krishna Bose was content to issue a mild warning, urging that no colour be given to education since it was best to leave the job to "academicians and educationists".

None of the BJP's allies would like to squander their claims to the secular space in their home States. They cannot, for this reason, afford to be seen as endorsing the new proposals on education policy. Like the BJP's core agenda items - the common civil code, Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution - the new programme of social engineering through the educational system may also, for this reason, be banished to the lower rungs of the government's list of priorities. Another compelling reason for proceeding with caution is the rejection by no fewer than 10 States of the NCF and its inherent principles.

PRIME MINISTER Vajpayee remained curiously silent all through the debate on education. He did, however, make a major symbolic bow towards his ideological mentors at the first official engagement in Panchvati, which, curiously enough, was an RSS event. On August 18, at a function to release a book on Lakshmanrao Inamdar, a prominent activist of the RSS who was defence counsel for all the swayamsevaks indicted in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Vajpayee shared the dais with K.S. Sudarshan, the RSS Sarsanghchalak. As on other occasions when he has appeared on platforms with his right-wing confederates, Vajpayee's carefully cultivated mask of moderation seemed to slip. He paid his customary homage to the Sangh for all that it had done for him in his formative years, and then likened the dedication of the RSS cadres to that of the Christian missionaries who were fanning out in remote areas of the country, including the northeastern region. Then he added what was widely perceived as an unnecessary caveat: that the missionaries' proselytisation was an avoidable activity, though they were well within their rights in doing so.

Mamata Banerjee, Trinamul Congress leader and former Railway Minister.-PARTH SANYAL

Vajpayee's remark angered the Christian minority, especially since it came in the context of an upsurge of sectarian violence directed against them. Even as the real forces behind the murder of the Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his children in Orissa remain free, fresh attacks on Christian institutions were reported recently from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Thane in Maharashtra.

The Prime Minister's remark follows a pattern which he had himself set earlier, of implicitly holding the victims of sectarian violence responsible for their suffering. At the height of attacks against the Christian community and their places of worship in Gujarat in 1999, Vajpayee had, rather than insist on tough measures to restore order, called for a national debate on religious conversions. Faced with a storm of protest, he then clarified that what he meant was that the two communities should enter into a dialogue about their mutual concerns and grievances. Ironically, the Prime Minister's latest remark on conversions cast a long shadow over the dialogue between the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) and the RSS on August 21. Organised at the invitation of the CBCI, the meeting was held at the headquarters of the CBCI in New Delhi and was attended, apart from others, by Sudarshan and CBCI secretary Dominique Immanuel. Both sides described the one-hour meeting, intended to clear misgivings, as cordial. They agreed to meet again.

M. Karunanidhi, DMK president and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.-T.A. HAFEEZ

The BJP's partners in the NDA, which forced the withdrawal of the circular issued by the Gujarat government to allow the participation of State government officials in RSS-organised camps last year, have however, remained largely indifferent to the Prime Minister's latest remark on religious conversions. In a reference to the recent kidnapping and killings of four RSS workers in Tripura, Vajpayee has also lamented that the media remains curiously indifferent to the victimisation of the RSS while they are extremely attentive to the plight of Christian missionaries. Apart from its rather poor taste, the lament to most observers seemed most inappropriate - almost irresponsible - for a head of government. But the BJP's allies within the NDA and outside, are yet to take issue with the Prime Minister over this remark.

TO a large extent, the relative tolerance being displayed by the BJP's allies is a concession to Vajpayee's easily wounded sensibilities. The NDA partners are keen to see that there is no recurrence of the Prime Minister's resignation threat, which could endanger the ruling alliance and imperil their long-term interests. This has to be seen in the context of the allies' own compulsions in their respective States, which the Prime Minister, through the NDA mechanism, has promised to address in the coming days.

N. Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP leader.-K.R. DEEPAK

The DMK, for instance, would not like to rock the boat at the Centre because it provides the party a vital lifeline in the battle that has been joined against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on the home front. The DMK is far from satisfied with the Central government's response to the lawless midnight arrest of their leader, former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, and the violence that was unleashed against the protest rally it organised in Chennai on August 12. With the Madras High Court scheduled to hear Jayalalithaa's appeals against her conviction in three cases of corruption, the DMK senses that it can exercise its leverage at the Centre or political advantage in the State. This requires that it maintain a degree of prudence and not challenge the BJP too openly on its ideological agenda.

Similar factors seem to weigh with the Samata Party which has acquired a new energy since the sordid revelations that the news portal tehelka.com used the services of commercial sex workers to entrap three army officers during its investigation into corruption in defence deals (see separate story). Samata leader George Fernandes, who reluctantly left the Defence Ministry after the Tehelka revelations, now senses that he has an opportunity to make an early re-entry. With its attention focussed almost obsessively on this matter, the Samata Party has remained largely silent on the HRD Ministry's saffronisation agenda and the Prime Minister's rather imprudent remarks about the Christian community. The Samata Party faction led by Railway Minister Nitish Kumar is, however, reluctant to see Fernandes returning to the Cabinet till the K. Venkataswami Commission inquiring into the Tehelka affair has completed its probe.

The Prime Minister squashed any speculation over Fernandes' re-entry into the Cabinet by suggesting that the former Defence Minister himself was not willing to return to the Union Cabinet until the Venkataswami Commission completed its probe. The NDA Coordination Committee meeting on August 27 resolved to request the government to speed up the Commission's work.

Education Ministers from States ruled by parties other than the BJP and its allies, who walked out of the Conference of State Education Ministers and Secretaries in New Delhi in 1998. The walk-out was in protest against the singing of Saraswati Vandana, a hymn venerating the Hindu goddess of learning, at the meeting.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The government was not willing even to concede the demand voiced by a section of the Samata Party that it should prosecute the Tehelka team for violating the law on prevention of immoral traffic in women. The fear was that once it ordered the arrest of Tehelka team, it would be difficult to avoid similar demands being made by the Opposition for the arrest and prosecution of Bangaru Laxman, who was shown on tape accepting money from the Tehelka investigative team, and Jaya Jaitly. However, the government agreed for a probe by the Home Ministry into the veracity of the disclosures that the Tehelka team used sex workers to try and facilitate defence deals and possibly extract classified information. Such a parallel probe by the Home Ministry, particularly when the Venkataswami Commission is examining all the aspects of the Tehelka expose, might mean nothing substantial, but it was a small sop for Fernandes, in order to secure his silence over the growing influence of the Sangh in governance.

For the Trinamul Congress, which is still in a state of shock after its electoral rout in the West Bengal Assembly elections, negotiating an honourable return to the NDA appears to be a major concern. This would require that BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy should relax his demand that certain norms should be enforced for parties seeking to be part of the ruling coalition. Recognising the compulsions of the numbers game in Parliament, Krishnamurthy has reportedly conceded the Prime Minister's demand that the NDA should be inclusive rather than exclusive in its membership. The return of Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee to the Union Cabinet is now considered only a matter of time. While this delicate renegotiation of political equations is under way, the Prime Minister is likely to enjoy a little more latitude to pander to his ideological mentors in the RSS, since the Trinamul Congress is unlikely to make an issue of it.

The NDA Coordination Committee meeting re-admitted the Trinamul Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi into the Alliance, though the four-member committee entrusted with the task of evolving norms to govern the conduct of NDA constituents had not completed its work. Krishnamurthy had argued that it was necessary to evolve and follow such norms before a party could be re-admitted into the NDA. It appeared that Mamata Banerjee made it clear that she was not keen to get back into the Union Cabinet immediately. NDA convener George Fernandes said: "The Trinamul Congress has expressed a desire to strengthen the government and support the Prime Minister in every way."

The National Curriculum Framework for School Education, prepared by the NCERT, was released on November 14, 2000.-

AGAIN, Home Minister L.K. Advani's proposal for a ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations that it has links with the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, has not generated the kind of debate that it would normally have. None of the BJP's allies sought to engage seriously with the issue of extension of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act to Jammu region in the wake of militant violence in the State. Similarly, Advani's espousal of the case for a tougher anti-terrorism law to replace the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act - which was allowed to lapse after it was widely discredited as an anti-minorities device - has failed to stir the more secular and liberal constituents of the NDA into any form of activity. All these suggestions by Advani were made on his own initiative, without any discussion either within the Cabinet or the NDA, and his overriding concern appears to be to live up to the RSS' image of an ideal Home Minister, in the mould of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel. These rather extremist policy formulations, however, are escaping without serious challenge within the NDA for reasons connected to the individual compulsions of each constituent.

Vajpayee's gestures towards the RSS have not by any means gone unreciprocated. Many observers were quick to notice that the RSS has not been very aggressive on any of the issues that could be a potential embarrassment to the government - particularly the Unit Trust of India scandal. Again by giving the HRD Minister the freedom to pursue his antediluvian notions, Vajpayee seems to be conveying to the RSS that it is in its interest to allow his government to function. The RSS - despite the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's occasional belligerence - understands that in the prevalent circumstances Vajpayee may well be indispensable in safeguarding its long-term interests.

It is not without significance that Vajpayee used the debate in Parliament on the Agra Summit to have a gentle swipe at Advani. This was an effort to regain the ground that he had lost on account of the general perception that he was inclined to render major concessions to Pakistan in Agra and had only been restrained by Advani's circumspection. Vajpayee is now ardently seeking to undo the impression that Advani is the favoured leader of the Sangh Parivar. The RSS too appears to have got the message, as revealed by its friendly overtures towards the Prime Minister. The entente cordiale will last as long as the BJP's allies in the NDA relax their vigil over the course of policy. That will not be for very long, by all current indications.

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