DELIRIOUS with joy outside Rashtrapati Bhavan, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders showered praise on President K.R. Narayanan when they learnt that the Union Cabinet had revoked its decision to impose Central rule in Uttar Pradesh. "He will go down in history as the saviour of democracy," said BJP president L.K. Advani. "The real hero of the affair is the President," added general secretary Pramod Mahajan. "Hats off to him!" Right-wing media commentators went even further. Narayanan's action, wrote The Pioneer's editor Chandan Mitra, "cannot but remind us of the words of Bhagwad Gita - sambhavami yuge yuge - Krishna's promise to return in every age to prevent the triumph of evil."
Yet in July 1997, when the scholarly and distinguished Narayanan, who had risen from humble origins, was elected President, he was subjected to a venomous attack by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Although Narayanan's candidacy was supported by the BJP, for the simple reason that any other course of action would have left it open to charges of being anti-Dalit, no leader of the party ever condemned the VHP's abusive behaviour. Not a single word of reproach was delivered by the Sangh parivar's apex body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the central figure in the attack, VHP president Ashok Singhal. Singhal, like most top-rung leaders of the BJP, is its long-standing RSS member, and served as a Prant Pracharak (regional organiser) of the RSS for years.
In a country with an effective legal system, both the VHP and Singhal could have faced the consequences of defamation and incitement to communal hatred. During the run-up to the presidential election, Singhal let it be known that he wanted a "pro-Hindu" President - and, in his view, Narayanan did not fit this description. In an interview to the Internet magazine Rediff On The Net, the VHP president explained his rationale to journalist George Iype: "Narayanan is a Dalit Hindu only on paper. His bent of mind, philosophy of life and his life-long activities are all distinctly anti-Hindu." The evidence? His Burmese-origin wife, Usha Narayanan, who the VHP claims was a Christian who changed her name. Papers that purport to show that the President's parents had longstanding contact with Christian groups in their home district of Kottayam, Kerala. And the claim that Narayanan, who rose from humble origins, received financial aid from missionary organisations to study for his bachelor's degree.
If this itself was replete with falsehood and suggested paranoia, Singhal went on relentlessly. Narayanan's rise to high office, he claimed, was part of a "larger conspiracy of the Church to make Rashtrapati Bhavan a bastion of Christianity." For the VHP leader, evidence of this lay in Narayanan's reported participation in a conference of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), an apex body for several Christian denominations, a decade ago. The head of the pro-BJP National Harijan Action Council, M.K. Kunjhol, seconded the proposition of deep links with a supposedly malevolent WCC. Evidence? The tiny home of Narayanan's sister Gowri and brother Bhaskaran in Uzhavoor village looked to Kunjhol like a "small chapel". "The people who have relations with the World Christian Council, which is piloting and financing the conversion of Dalits, the poor and the backward classes in India, will now rally behind Narayanan," he asserted.
The VHP's assault on Narayanan is representative of much revanchist material on the Internet, a medium that seems to attract religious bigots and peddlers of pornography like honey does flies. What was disturbing about this particular affair, however, was that it was led not by an unknown, neurotic non-resident Indian in, say, Milwaukee, but the head of a well-entrenched theocratic-political organisation. The VHP faxed and mailed documents outlining its stand to newspapers around the country with impunity. Singhal was not disowned by the BJP or the RSS, whose leadership has now discovered Krishna-like qualities in the President.