THE UNMASKING OF VAJPAYEE

Print edition : December 23, 2001

In seeking to force-fit judicial findings on the Babri Masjid question to the sectarian politics of the Hindutva brigade, Prime Minister Vajpayee lets his mask of moderation slip - to reveal the visage of an unrepentant kar sevak and the outline of an underlying agenda.

STATEMENTS of serious strategic import are not made in offhand conversations between governmental figures and the media, least of all when Parliament is in session. And the judiciary is seldom if ever invoked as a magic talisman that will banish all disc ord when the political consequences of such verbal indiscretions become serious.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee at an iftar party in New Delhi last fortnight.-S. ARNEJA

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There is an unmistakable air of make-believe about the compromise arrived at after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's mask of moderation slipped to reveal the visage of an unrepentant kar sevak. S. Jaipal Reddy of the Congress(I) had just exercised hi s right to have the last word in the Lok Sabha on a motion demanding the resignation of three Ministers indicted for their role in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, when members belonging to two parties allied with the BJP rose to demand ex plicit assurances from the Prime Minister. Shedding all equivocation, he was asked to commit himself to full compliance with the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya matter. As if speaking on cue, Vajpayee asserted that the government would indeed abide by the verdict that the highest court may hand down.

Curiously, there is no litigation pertaining to Ayodhya pending before the Supreme Court. Rather, the crucial hearings on the title deed to the site of the Babri Masjid have been proceeding before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court. The Suprem e Court only stepped into the picture a few days before the demolition of December 1992. Pressed by a group of concerned citizens for an injunction against the assembly of an unruly mob in the vicinity of the Babri Masjid, it only sought - and obtained - an assurance from the Uttar Pradesh State government that no damage would be caused to the structure. Of course, that undertaking proved absolutely worthless on that fateful day. The subsequent action of establishing a makeshift temple at the site could also be construed as a gross violation of the pledge entered before the country's highest court. And the Allahabad High Court's later order sanctioning the visit of devotees to the site - the so-called "darshan" order - was, by any interpretation, a fur ther repudiation of the rule of law.

V. SUDERSHAN

R.V. MOORTHY

M. MOORTHY

Union Ministers L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, charge-sheeted in the Babri Masjid demolition case.

Clearly, the Prime Minister's assurances in Parliament have not even remotely approached the question of how far this legacy of lawlessness can be reversed. For the record, Vajpayee's statement does what is minimally expected of a party that has been ele cted to government, even if in uneasy cohabitation with potential ideological adversaries. It also seemingly represents a retreat from the Bharatiya Janata Party's often repeated position that no court could sit in judgment over a matter of faith.

The Prime Minister's earlier statement, in seeking to force-fit judicial findings to the sectarian politics of the Hindutva fraternity, was a clear breach of propriety. Faced with angry disruptions in Parliament over the presence of three indicted Minist ers in his government, Vajpayee refused for days to accept the demand for a debate on the subject. Four days into the impasse, he issued the extra-mural clarification that only aggravated the crisis. Though rendered in Hindi, there was little ambiguity a bout the purport of his statement. The construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, he claimed, was the expression of a deep nationalist urge. It was a task that yet remained unfinished.

Under pressure, the facade of moderation had cracked. The Congress(I) was exultant and many of the BJP's own allies were aghast. The day after his first indiscretion, Vajpayee had to deploy all his verbal dexterity to extricate himself from the mess. The "unfinished task" he had referred to was not the construction of a temple over the ruins of the Babri Masjid, he pleaded, but the resolution of the dispute over the site at Ayodhya. But then, in explaining himself further, he only plunged deeper into th e quagmire. There were two possible avenues of resolution to the dispute, he argued. The first would be for the courts to render a verdict favourable to the proponents of the Ram temple. The second would be for the "leadership" of the two communities to negotiate an amicable compromise which would allow the Hindutva fraternity to have its way and provide for the reconstruction of the Babri Masjid at an alternative site.

The strategy of pre-empting every outcome that was of inconvenience to the Hindutva fraternity reassured none but those who constitute the BJP's own hard core, who have with some reluctance fallen in line behind Vajpayee's leadership since 1998. Two of t he party's saffron-robed MPs, Chinmayananda and Aditya Nath, lost little time in proposing that all the niceties of the legal process be eliminated through legislation that would clear the way for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.

However, the foremost priority of the BJP after the sequence of miscued prime ministerial interventions was to calm the spasms of anxiety among its allies. The Congress(I) was pressing for a debate in Parliament under item 184 of the Rules of Procedure, which provided for the House to censure the government through a vote. The slightest sign of wavering on the part of the allies could have led to an embarrassing outcome. In hastily summoned conclaves with the allies, the BJP provided the requisite clari fications. It was clarified that no further modification of the status quo at Ayodhya would be permitted without the explicit clearance of the judiciary. The BJP, as part of a coalitional arrangement, remained committed to the programme mutually a greed between the partners.

With the allies falling in line, the BJP could turn its attention to confronting the challenge of the Congress(I). A debate under Rule 184 was agreed and though there was some initial tactical confusion the wording of the motion was quickly determined th rough consultations between the Congress(I) and the Left. Deprecating the presence within the government of three individuals who had been indicted for their culpability in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the motion demanded their removal.

Pillars for a grand temple fabricated in a workshop at Karsevakpuram, near Ayodhya.-SUBIR ROY

The Congress(I) fielded three of its most effective speakers in the two-day debate that followed. Jaipal Reddy, a relative newcomer to the party, bears none of the baggage of the Congress(I)'s many years of equivocation on Ayodhya. Mani Shankar Aiyar and Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, though tainted to some extent by association with the Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao dispensations, have always been vocal in their insistence that the rule of law be respected in the matter of Ayodhya.

YET for all the dramatic prelude, the debate in Parliament itself proved anti-climactic. The inability of the Congress(I) to force the issue was best symbolised by its leader Sonia Gandhi, who maintained a stony silence through the debate. And every time Congress(I) speakers threatened the BJP on its sensitive flanks, they were outmanoeuvred by a sequence of inconvenient questions. Who, for instance, had opened the locks on the Babri Masjid in 1986, allowing access to the Ram idols that had been surrept itiously placed there in 1948? Who had presided over the shilanyas pooja within the disputed perimeter in 1989? Who was the Prime Minister who began his election campaign at Ayodhya in 1989 with the ringing declaration that he would usher in a Ram Rajya if reelected?

On December 6, members of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee demonstrate in front of Parliament House demanding the rebuilding of the mosque at Ayodhya.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Always seeking to make a conspicuous display of his loyalty to the memory of Rajiv Gandhi, Mani Shankar Aiyar walked out in noisy resentment at one stage. But after days of disruptive behaviour, the Congress proved, at the crucial stage, to lack the init iative to press home the political advantage it had.

Allies of the BJP, such as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan of the recently constituted Jan Shakti, sought the path of extreme circumspection. They endorsed the presence of the three indicted Ministers in the government, prov ided there was no departure from the ruling coalition's agreed position that any alteration to the Ayodhya status quo would not be permitted. Unfortunately, the sub-text of their interventions was the conspicuously cynical message, that no politic al party could afford to make too fine a point of principle, since everybody was in some measure tainted.

A strident message at a Black Day rally in Hyderabad.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

After the vote was won 291 to 184, Home Minister L.K. Advani - one of the accused Ministers - confessed himself to be rather bemused by the Congress(I)'s tactics. The pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984, he said, was a matter that his party was greatly conc erned about. But that did not mean that he would raise the issue every year on the anniversary of that dark event. Another of the accused, Uma Bharti, was more explicit. The Central Bureau of Investigation's indictment, she said, led her to suspect its c redentials as an impartial agency. Murli Manohar Joshi, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, blandly disavowed any responsibility for Ayodhya. He was present at Ayodhya when the mosque was brought down, but he was at a location rather remot e from the structure. He had no idea who could have been behind the deed, he pleaded.

Add to these Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chieftain K.S. Sudarshan's bizarre theory that it was a bomb that brought down the mosque, and BJP ideologue K.R. Malkani's conjecture that the central intelligence agencies could have had a role in what had happe ned, and all the ingredients of a tragedy turning rapidly to farce would seem to be present. But the plain facts are that on any reasonable reading of the law, the 49 luminaries of the Hindutva fraternity who have been indicted, seem eminently culpable u nder a broad range of counts. Their evasion of the due process of law is a continuing affront to political propriety. And their allies' comfortable coexistence in the company of the authors of the greatest political outrage of independent India, a testim ony to the power of the expediency.

There is reason to believe, though, that the space for complacence is being rapidly constricted. Vajpayee's statement itself was transparently a response to the relentless pressure he has been under in recent times from the more extreme elements within t he Hindutva fraternity. They are unlikely to be very impressed by his deft footwork and by his effort to humour all parties to an irreconcilable ideological conflict. After their mid-year meeting in Goa, the Dharma Sansad - the VHP's captive religious co nclave - is scheduled to assemble again in Allahabad in January. A firm schedule for starting the temple project at Ayodhya is expected to be announced on the occasion.

L.K. Advani makes an offering at the mazar of Khwaja Garib Nawaz in Ajmer.-

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Shiv Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray has, meanwhile, served notice that he regards the recent exertions of Vajpayee and his ministerial colleagues with great disfavour. He has added his voice to a congregation of religious extremists in condemning the cease fire in Kashmir. Thackeray clearly thinks that his senior partner in the political fold of Hindutva is succumbing to the temptations of minority appeasement. And his recommended antidote is characteristically simple and brutal: disenfranchise the religio us minorities. Once embraced as a political creed, intolerance is not very easily subdued. That discovery is just beginning to dawn on those who had assumed that it could be turned on or off at will, in accordance with the compulsions of political pragma tism.

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