A prime ministerial ploy

Print edition : September 15, 2001

What did Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee have in mind when he claimed that the Ayodhya issue may be settled by next March - a permanent solution to the long-festering problem or some Hindu and Muslim votes for his party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections?

PRIME Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's recent announcement in Lucknow that a solution to the Ayodhya problem was possible by March had the effect of setting the cat among the pigeons. He refused to elaborate on the solution except to say that talks were being held with "various groups at various levels". Which are these groups, and what is the nature of the talks?

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Whatever he meant when he said the Ayodhya dispute could be resolved by March, the impression gaining ground is that it was more a political gimmick.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Not even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has been spearheading the temple movement, and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has upheld the cause of the Babri Masjid, know. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh is also unaware about the talks. Vajpayee refused to divulge any details even in Parliament.

So, was Vajpayee taking the nation for a ride? Or, with the elections to the U.P. Assembly only a few months away, was it a gimmick aimed at revitalising the hardcore supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who were disappointed with the party's decision to put the Ayodhya issue on the back burner? Considering the facts of the case, these questions lead to disturbing conclusions.

Any 'solution' arrived at through 'secret talks' that do not involve the VHP and the AIMPLB will be acceptable to neither of them. The VHP should have been privy to any talks on the Ayodhya issue because it had announced that the construction of the Ram temple would begin in March 2002 and urged the government to remove all obstacles towards this end. But VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmia candidly admits that he is not aware of any such effort by the Prime Minister.

"We know nothing about any such talks at any level. The Prime Minister's statement came as a surprise to us, too. No solution to the Ayodhya problem is possible without involving the VHP, so we don't know what he is talking about," said Dalmia. In his view the Prime Minister's statement lacked sincerity and was just "another political gimmick" meant to attract some Muslim and Hindu votes. If he was sincere about solving the Ayodhya problem, he would have interacted with the VHP, said Dalmia. "It is all part of a political ploy to continue exploiting the issue and keep it hanging fire."

Syed Shahabuddin, member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. "Since the matter is in court, any action by the government will be illegal and tantamount to contempt of court."-

Dalmia made it clear that irrespective of what Vajpayee had said, the VHP's programme on temple construction after March 12 remained unaltered. "The VHP will begin the construction of the temple after March 12. The only solution to this problem is to concede that there was a temple at the disputed site and that there can only be a temple there. We are willing to start a dialogue with Muslims on this issue," he said. What purpose will a dialogue serve in view of such a rigid stance? "Oh, just to convince Muslims to give up their claim. They can have the mosque anywhere else in Ayodhya. In fact, we will construct the mosque for them. In order to convince them about this we are willing to enter into a dialogue," he said.

The AIMPLB, which has been authorised by the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC) and the All India Babri Masjid Coordination Committee (AIBMCC) to head the Babri Masjid movement, is equally ignorant about any talks. "We know nothing about any talks. How can the Prime Minister have talks without involving us?" asked AIMPLB member Syed Shahabuddin, who is also a member of the board's committee on the Babri Masjid. "In the three years that he has been in power no Muslim organisation of any repute has had any interaction with the Prime Minister on this issue. And suddenly he is talking of a solution."

Syed Shahabuddin maintained that no solution was possible outside the purview of the courts; the matter is pending in both the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court. "Since the matter is in court, any action by the government will be illegal and tantamount to contempt of court. The government cannot transfer even an inch of the acquired land in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid once stood," he said.

Shahabuddin reminded the Prime Minister that the AIMPLB was the "only competent body" to take a decision regarding the Babri Masjid and any solution that was arrived at without its involvement would not be acceptable to the Muslim community. "We are willing to enter into a dialogue with the government provided the atmosphere is conducive to such talks. But so far the government has taken no initiative. The Prime Minister's statement is nothing but a last-ditch effort to save his sinking ship in Uttar Pradesh,"said Shahabuddin.

Vishnu Hari Dalmia, VHP president. "No solution to the Ayodhya problem is possible without involving the VHP, so we don't know what the Prime Minister is talking about."-

He claimed that Vajpayee's statement was an indirect attempt to pressure the judiciary into taking a decision before March next. "No one can dictate terms to the judiciary. Vajpayee cannot do anything before the verdict is delivered," said Shahabuddin. Even more sinister, he said, was the fact that the statement endorsed the VHP's programme of temple construction. "This can hardly be described as creating an atmosphere that is conducive to talks."

Chief Minister Rajnath Singh, who should have been privy to any such initiative on Ayodhya, said when he was asked about the organisation and the individuals involved in the talks: "I have no information on this. I will talk to him (Prime Minister) and find out." He said it was possible that the talks were being held in Delhi. He, however, expressed the confidence that the Prime Minister meant it when he said a solution was possible before March next. "There are a whole lot of people who want to see the Ayodhya dispute resolved. I am sure he made the statement in all sincerity," said Rajnath Singh.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that Vajpayee intends to use the services of the newly appointed Civil Aviation Minister, Shahnawaz Hussain, to build bridges with Muslim leaders. His promotion to Cabinet rank is seen as a measure of the Prime Minister's confidence in his ability to carry out the task. For opening channels of communication with Hindu bigots, Vajpayee may rely on Lok Sabha member Swami Chinmayanand. Both have apparently started the exercise, and they are also trying to establish contact with former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.

Vajpayee is known to have instructed them to speak to all those who were involved in such talks earlier. One name that has figured prominently is that of Congress leader Subodh Kant Sahay, who, as Home Minister in Chandra Shekhar's government and later during P.V. Narasimha Rao's government, played a key role in initiating dialogues with Hindu and Muslim leaders in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

But Sahay denied that he was contacted by anyone on the Prime Minister's behalf on the issue. "It is a case of cheating people. To the best of my knowledge no talks are being held at any level," said Sahay and added that the last time talks were held in this connection was on November 23, 1992. At that time all senior BJP leaders, including Vajpayee and Advani, had given an undertaking to the National Integration Council that the masjid would be protected. Sahay said he would get involved in any such talks only if the government treated it as a national issue and not as an election issue for U.P.

Whatever the Prime Minister meant when he said the Ayodhya dispute could be resolved by March, the impression gaining ground is that it was more a political gimmick. Even BJP leaders grudgingly concede this. They admit that sundry talks with stray leaders here and there would yield nothing substantial. "This was purely a political statement which unfortunately got blown out of proportion," said a senior BJP leader who has been associated with the Ayodhya movement since its beginning. "As far as we know, no serious talks are being held at any level."

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