Desperate in Uttar Pradesh

Print edition : December 25, 2000

In its efforts to contain the political damage in Uttar Pradesh following Kalyan Singh's expulsion, the BJP overreaches itself on the Ayodhya issue and finds itself entangled in a web of intrigues.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh has tied itself up in knots over the Ayodhya issue. In its haste to neutralise the negative impact of the expulsion of former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh from the party, the State party leadership, particularly the new Chief Minister, Ram Prakash Gupta, has taken a series of steps, several of which are certain to prove counter-productive in the State and at the national level. Discussions currently under way at various levels in the State BJP point to a growin g realisation that if Gupta is not reined in, his actions and statements may place the Central and the State governments at grave risk.

Central to these anxieties are Gupta's visit to Ayodhya on December 12 and his statement there that the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid was still on the BJP's agenda. His remark triggered expressions of indignation from various quarters, including some constituent parties of the alliance ruling at the Centre. In Parliament, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was subjected to close questioning by members who demanded to know if the National Democratic Alliance (ND A) Government at the Centre had a "hidden agenda". Gupta subsequently denied that he had made such a statement, but this carried little conviction in the light of the fact that his original remark, which had been recorded by television cameras, was telec ast over and over again.

Gupta's remark contributed to the sense of unease among the BJP's alliance partners in U.P., such as the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) and the Janatantrik Bahujan Samaj Party (JBSP). Leaders of the two parties said that any move towards buildi ng a Ram temple at Ayodhya would force them to walk out of the BJP-led government in the State, a prospect that would have inevitably led to the government's downfall.

Gupta's remark, BJP insiders claimed, did not reflect the party's official line. They that he had no brief to make such a declaration. In their reckoning, the septuagenarian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist was carried away by a sense of elatio n over the perception that Kalyan Singh had virtually forsaken the Ram temple movement.

Announcing his intention to float a new party (which was subsequently named the Rashtriya Kranti Party), Kalyan Singh stated on December 10, a day after he was expelled from the BJP, that since the two hardline champions of the Hindutva agenda within the Sangh Parivar - the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) - had "disowned" him, he was dissociating himself from the Ram temple campaign. He added that rather than focus on a socially divisive Hindutva agenda, he would take up inclusive issues, which relate to social justice, reservation for the backward classes and social engineering.

The BJP leadership felt a sense of relief over Kalyan Singh's agenda. This was because even as they prepared to expel Kalyan Singh, they were clueless as to whether they would be able to respond politically if the former Chief Minister opted for a hardli ne Hindutva initiative.

These apprehensions grew after reports came in the wake of Kalyan Singh's suspension from the party on November 27 that he had opened a line of communication with Shiv Sena president Bal Thackeray and that he might join the Shiv Sena as its leader in U.P . Kalyan Singh's remarks during those days that he would always be associated with the Ram temple movement and that the RSS and he were "assets" to each other seemed to lend credence to these. There were also reports of a breakdown of communication betwe en Thackeray and Vajpayee in recent times; Thackeray evidently nursed a grievance that under Vajpayee's leadership, there had been dilution in the Hindutva agenda. The BJP leadership sensed that if Kalyan Singh, who had come to be identified as the masco t of the Ram temple movement, joined the Shiv Sena, it would put the BJP in an embarrassing position.

Throughout this period, central- and State-level leaders of the BJP were apprehensive that the former Chief Minister would go public on December 6, the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with an initiative to revive the temple campaign. S uch a move, the leadership feared, would have a domino effect in the BJP, given that its core group of leaders and supporters espoused a rabid Hindutva agenda. Giving voice to the prevailing concerns, Gupta told newspersons that he would be compelled to dissolve the U.P. Assembly and call fresh elections if Kalyan Singh revived the Ayodhya movement.

Going into damage control mode, the BJP leadership initiated a dialogue with Shiv Sena leader Udhav Thackeray and urged him to persuade Bal Thackeray not to admit Kalyan Singh into the Shiv Sena. This initiative succeeded around December 8, and the BJP l eadership promptly expelled Kalyan Singh. On his part, the former Chief Minister realised that he would not be able to push the Hindutva agenda without the backing of cadre organisations such as the RSS, the VHP and the Shiv Sena. He then distanced himse lf from his earlier commitment to revive the temple campaign.

Kalyan Singh greets Ram Prakash Gupta upon his being chosen Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. At left is State BJP president Rajnath Singh.-SUBIR ROY

For the BJP, however, the relief was short-lived. Gupta created new problems with his statement of December 12.

A WHISPERING campaign seeking Gupta's removal is now on in the State BJP. It originated essentially from supporters of State party president and Union Minister Rajnath Singh, who want him as Chief Minister. Their argument is that Gupta is a weak leader a nd in the event of the party opting for mid-term elections, as appears likely, the party's interests would not be well served by having him at the helm.

There are not many takers for this demand at the central level, but there is no doubt that Rajnath Singh's clout in the party is increasing by the day. He is being projected as a key player of the future. According to his supporters, Rajnath Singh is dyn amic and has a clean image compared to other leaders who had campaigned against Kalyan Singh (such as Lalji Tandon and Kalraj Mishra) and he would ultimately emerge as the most important personality in the State BJP.

However, the BJP leadership admits that even Rajnath Singh may not be able to check the erosion of support for the party among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) following Kalyan Singh's expulsion. The strategy to elevate a few leaders from among the OBCs to key positions in the party has not worked out so far: apparently, the names being considered - former Bajrang Dal leader Vinay Katiyar and Om Prakash Singh, who were considered to be Kalyan Singh loyalists - have not been cleared by the central leade rship, particularly the Prime Minister.

The party believes that it cannot remain complacent on the strength of the fact that Kalyan Singh has not been able to muster much support in the BJP Legislature Party. Prior to his expulsion, Kalyan Singh claimed that he had the support of 150 of the 17 5 BJP MLAs, but when he was expelled only three of them met him. Significantly, there are 60-odd BJP MLAs from OBCs.

There is, however, another consideration: that Kalyan Singh's supporters within the Ministry and in the legislature party might be biding their time, while enjoying power for now and preparing for the kill during the Assembly session, scheduled to begin in late December.

The future of Kalyan Singh's party might depend on the developments during the Assembly session. Opposition parties, including the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress(I), will be looking forward to embarrassing the BJP by raising Gupta's statement regarding the temple movement.

In the meantime, Gupta and his team are pressing on with their operation to ward off the "Kalyan Singh effect" on the administration. The State Women's Commission, headed by Kalyan Singh's confidant Kusum Rai, was disbanded. On another track, the Governm ent revived the Uttar Pradesh Electronics Corporation (Uptron) and announced a package of measures to implement reforms in the power sector.

Sections of the party are of the view that if the leadership can find a leader from among the OBCs to take charge by early January and introduce more populist measures, the BJP could be prepared to face Assembly elections in March-April. But before that can happen, the party has to free itself from the Ayodhya tangle.

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