The Vajpayee government faces the uneasy prospect of renewed activity on the Ayodhya front as the VHP prepares to announce its programme for building a Ram temple over the ruins of the Babri Masjid.
SINCE adopting Ayodhya as a cause that it would stake its existence and political fortunes on, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always presented the spectacle of being an uneasy amalgam of partly complementary, though potentially competing tendencies . A pragmatic faction within the BJP saw Ayodhya as a cause that had been presented to it by a sequence of maladroit manoeuvres by the Congress(I). In purely practical terms, the issue was one that afforded the party the opportunity to broaden its base t hrough mass mobilisation, to win fresh recruits in an atmosphere of heightened communal aggressiveness. In a more fundamental manner though, Ayodhya was supposed to serve as a focus for a campaign to transform the very character of the Indian state and render it into an instrument of propagating a particularly exclusivist and non-accommodative vision of nationalism.
In seeking this broad range of objectives, the BJP drew into its train an assortment of mystics and mendicants, not to mention spiritual hucksters looking for their brief moment of glory. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, was for th is motley crowd a moment of revelation, but that climactic act of destruction also deprived them of a focus for their malevolent endeavours. Since then, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which once led the BJP by the nose, has meandered on the sidelines o f the Hindutva Parivar, unsure of its role and unable really to establish a distinct niche for itself. A rabid campaign of calumny and intimidation against Christian establishments served the purpose of keeping the VHP occupied for a while. But there was no single point at which these scattered and sporadic efforts could be concentrated, no way of gathering disparate forces driven by resentment and greed into a single endeavour that would challenge the government. During his second term as Prime Ministe r, Atal Behari Vajpayee today faces the uneasy prospect of a revival of activity on the Ayodhya front.
Vajpayee would not be alone in the BJP in wishing fervently that the Ayodhya issue would just disappear. But the VHP is not quite ready to oblige him or his camp-followers. Having begun the programme and having propelled the BJP to its current status as the largest party in Parliament, they demand adequate requital for services rendered. And this can only come from the erection of a temple over the ruins of the Babri Masjid, to serve as a durable and visible symbol of Hindu ascendancy.
To stem the tide of revulsion that was unleashed by the vandalism of December 6, 1992, the BJP had to make a sequence of compromises on its core ideological convictions. It was never an easy task to win allies who would help it to bridge the more obvious lacunae in its organisational spread and electoral appeal. Memories of 1992 were to endure till as late as 1996, when the BJP, despite being the largest party in the Lok Sabha, was unable to attract any parliamentary grouping into its camp to sustain a government that had been installed by a particularly questionable presidential decision.
The situation had changed dramatically by 1998, when parties that had once sworn undying hostility to the BJP and its ideology found themselves eager to strike alliances with it. They were impelled as much by the fractiousness of the third force as by th e sectarian attitudes of the Congress(I) and its disinclination to graduate out of the lazy habits of thought that had gained sway through its many years in authority.
Yet the parties that were outside the ruling coalition remained unrelenting in their hostility and took the first half- chance that presented itself to pull down the government. The revamped coalition that came to power in 1999 was considerably more stab le in terms of parliamentary arithmetic. And now the challenge to the continuing reign of Vajpayee comes not from the Opposition, which seems to be adrift in confusion, but from within the ranks of his own party.
Since assuming power, the BJP has been deeply riven by the competing priorities of its different factions, particularly in the realm of economic policy. The 1998 efforts to liberalise the insurance industry and secure the passage of the amendment to the Industrial Patents Act, brought about a virtual paralysis in parliamentary functioning. But the hasty damage-limitation exercises that were undertaken brought home to disgruntled elements the realisation that survival in a coalition situation was the for emost imperative. Others were appeased with the plea that economic liberalisation was an ongoing process which had its own momentum, that the baneful effects could be dealt with separately. However persuasive these pleas may have been, the underlying ten sions between the pragmatists and the ideologues have remained unresolved to this day.
These tensions have mounted since the government announced a major liberalisation of Foreign Direct Investment norms in a variety of sectors in June. The swadeshi wing of the party is unamused. And Vajpayee is sufficiently perturbed at their reaction to seek a personal audience with K.S. Sudarshan, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh boss and principal ideologue of the swadeshi element within the Hindutva cabal.
IN the career of the rule of law, January 1989 marks a crucial watershed. Meeting on the fringes of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, the VHP's trumped-up religious parliament, the Dharma Sansad, decided then that no earthly power - as embodied in the institu tions of democracy such as the judiciary and the executive - could thwart it in its divine mission of constructing a temple at Ayodhya. January 2001 could bring an unwelcome reprise. The VHP, by all indications, is intent on utilising the aura of religio sity that the next Kumbh Mela will foster, to announce its irrevocable and inflexible programme for building the temple on the ruins of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. And the swadeshi lobby within the Hindutva constellation has, after successive rebuffs fr om the pragmatists within the Ministry, begun to view this effort with some sympathy.
Ever able to put an ideological gloss on the most unsavoury reality, L.K. Advani had as BJP president in the early days of the Ayodhya movement cast it as a struggle for the rediscovery of a nation's cultural identity. Now responsible for the maintenance of law and order as Union Home Minister, he is more inclined to go with the pragmatists than risk the survival of the Vajpayee government. There are undoubtedly occasions when the old cultural animosities show through, as when he thumped the table in Pa rliament recently to demand that Indian Muslims provide an appropriate response to the Pakistani clergy's declaration of jehad against India. But if temperatures start rising again over Ayodhya, matters may swiftly move beyond even Advani's formid able powers of rationalising the irrational.