Homilies abroad

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

On the core issue of the RSS and how they fare in the context of the new Laxman line.


EVIDENTLY, there is something about the company of the American citizen of Indian origin that sets free the most backward-looking longings of the average Hindu preacher. Great acts of creative concoction are spawned when material wealth devoid of social status meets the promise of spiritual solace.

The dust from the BJP's National Council meeting in Nagpur was yet to settle and the basic task of reorganising the top leadership tiers of the party remained incomplete. But on a tour of the U.S. when he evidently had more time on his hands than is cust omary for visiting leaders, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee chose to make an appearance at a conclave of "Indian Americans", which in all but name was a showcase for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

The VHP had, through various front organisations, scheduled a series of events in the U.S. for the weeks following the U.N. Millennium Summit. This was in part to celebrate its elevation to the status of a participant organisation in the deliberations on religion that preceded the summit. Vajpayee was a featured speaker in the VHP event in Staten Island (New York) according to the schedule fixed in advance. His participation was only lent an element of piquancy by the immediately preceding BJP strategy session in Nagpur when the party had sought, quite consciously, to distance itself from the extremists and broaden its appeal to sections of India that were earlier regarded as enemy elements.

Expectedly, all the VHP rhetoric was presented with renewed vehemence at Staten Island, with the Prime Minister in attendance. Apart from Vajpayee, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Gujarat Governor Sundar Singh Bhandari - presumably the "secul ar" leaders of the Hindu community - other invitees included over 100 Hindu sadhus, sants and mahants, typically self-appointed to their positions of spiritual authority. The Laxman Line was immaterial to this motley grouping of spiritual hucksters, who spoke with one voice of the greatness of Bharat, a nation that had been reduced to pitiable circumstances because of "forced conversion" and the zealotry of religions born out of "violence and guilt".

In the VHP's strategic scheme, the gathering in the U.S. was designated as a "mandir nirman pratiggya sammelan" - or a session to reaffirm the collective Hindu resolve to build a temple at the site in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood. But in o bvious deference to the presence of the Prime Minister, the point was expressed in tones of relative moderation. One of the 100-odd saffron clad mendicants in attendance posed the question: could Vajpayee help hasten the construction of the Ram mandir at Ayodhya? The reply was suitably ambiguous. If he could obtain a parliamentary majority on his own, said the Prime Minister, then he would certainly build the Bharat that Hindutva dreams are made of.

As a reply to a fairly pointed question, this was suitably ambiguous. It gave nothing away and sought to shift the emphasis away from the Ram mandir as a physically accomplished reality. Rather, in Vajpayee's rather clever response, the temple at Ayodhya was elevated to metaphorical status, representing in a figurative sense the quest for renewed national glory.

Among the other homilies delivered by the Hindu sants in attendance at Staten Island was the exhortation to the Indian-American community to "protect their children". Danger, they said, lurks at every corner: "The only protection is teaching them the Ved as and our ancient and glorious culture. Then they will get samskara."

VAJPAYEE'S participation at this rather bizarre congress of cultural alienation was undoubtedly part of his strategy of blunting the force of the Hindutva weapon. The BJP is approaching the first anniversary of its renewed term in office without serious threats from within the ruling coalition. The main challenge to the stability of the ruling arrangement now comes from the Hindutva fold. After having propelled the BJP's ascent to authority, the Hindutva forces are now facing the unpleasant prospect of political isolation. The compulsions of coalition politics have made the BJP indifferent to the core issues of the Hindutva agenda, such as the construction of a temple at Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and the enactment of a uniform civil code. From the standpoint of the hardline Hindutva element, the new Laxman Line must seem utterly unpalatable, with its advocacy of a rapprochement with Muslims and other religious minorities.

There have been sufficient affirmations from the Hindutva cabal that the eclipse of their agenda is only a temporary phenomenon. First, K.N.Govindacharya, the soon-to-be-exiled general secretary of the BJP, stated quite definitively that the withdrawal o f the Hindutva agenda was only an arrangement of convenience. Then came the statement of Pravinbhai Togadia, the international general secretary of the VHP, that the construction of the Ayodhya temple would begin at a convenient date after March 2001.

A senior VHP leader contacted by Frontline, sought to underplay the significance of the Nagpur conclave. It was a fortuituous circumstance, he seemed to imply, that the National Council was dominated by the pro-Vajpayee elements. This balance of p ower within the party is bound to change in the next few months, he asserted.

A series of meetings have been planned under the auspices of the Sangh Parivar to bring the Hindutva agenda to the foreground again. Apart from the ongoing cycle of observances in the U.S. that the Prime Minister has himself become a participant in, ther e is a Jaipur to Ayodhya yatra planned, which would put the model of the proposed Ram Mandir on display for public edification. A meeting of the Marg Darshak Mandal, the guidance committee of saffron clad spiritualists, has been scheduled for October in Goa. This would be followed by a convention of the Dharma Sansad, or "religious parliament", comprising an assortment of Hindu sants and mahants, in Allahabad early next year.

Govindacharya has also explained away the BJP's decision to relegate the Hindutva agenda to the background in terms of the compulsions of coalition politics. By implication then, the revival of the agenda must await the BJP's arrival in Delhi as the sole party of governance, with an unambiguous parliamentary majority of its own. To this extent, Govindacharya's assertions seem to echo the sentiments expressed by Vajpayee at the Staten Island gathering. Differences could arise, however, over the strategic devices that the BJP should adopt to achieve the status of the single ruling party.

The Vajpayee line, articulated by Bangaru Laxman in Nagpur, is that the BJP needs to broaden its appeal to achieve a more inclusive representation of social classes within its political programmes. The Hindutva line would be that the party should press o n with the hardline agenda and consolidate the allegiance of those sections that respond to this slogan. The battle between these two strategic perspectives remains to be joined.

It is evident from the response of the official party organ, BJP Today, that the battle, when it is fought, will be bloody. In what seemed a pointed rebuff to the strategy of moderation that Laxman had proposed in Nagpur, BJP Today ran a co ver story terming the party as the "Gangotri of Hindutva". The lead article in this issue of the party organ seeks, quite diligently, to trace the history of Hindutva from its supposed golden period in the ancient days to the assaults that have been made against it in the medieval period and, finally, to its resurgence in the modern age.

BJP Today has generally been the bastion of L.K. Advani camp-followers. Its former editor, Praful Goradia, carried his ardour to such an extreme that one whole recent issue of the magazine was devoted to portraying a larger-than-life image of Adva ni even at the cost of knocking down Vajpayee. He paid for this transgression with his job. But the magazine continues to be secure in the hands of the anti-Vajpayee forces. It is evident that in the months to come party organs such as BJP Today w ill prove as important instruments through which the ideological battle between the Hindutva forces and the pragmatic elements will be waged.

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