Politics after Ayodhya

Print edition : November 29, 1997

Five years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Bharatiya Janata Party remains aggressive in its basic strategic perspective.

FIVE years since the national trauma of the Babri Masjid demolition, the prevalent political situation suggests nothing so strongly as the transience of memory. The dominant sense is one of uncertainty, as a national coalition cemented by a shared revulsion of that act of vandalism seems on the verge of unravelling. In the bargain, the party that had authored the outrage at Ayodhya looks advantageously placed for a restoration of the political capital that was lost with that event.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have expected immediate political dividends from its virulent and often lethal campaign over the Ayodhya issue. That particular expectation was belied, as successive electoral outcomes since then showed that the BJP's electoral base, though augmented by the Ayodhya campaign, did not translate itself into legislative majorities. This took the fulfilment of two further conditions - one, the opposition to the BJP had to be reduced to a state of strategic incoherence; and two, the BJP itself had to present a unified facade, never an easy task for a party that styled itself as a prospective ruling party and was hence prone to the violent collision of personal ambitions.

The second condition seems unlikely to be met in the current situation, but the former perhaps is closer to fulfilment than before, principally on account of the peculiar convulsions that have gripped the Congress. Ayodhya represented a key turning point in the history of the BJP - its share of the popular vote was shortly afterwards to peak and then stagnate. But for the Congress, Ayodhya was the confirmation of a downward plunge in public esteem that had been momentarily reversed on two previous occasions by the sympathy waves generated in the wake of political assassinations.

Ayodhya saw a further forfeiture of the Congress' claims to popular allegiance, first by the benign indifference with which it watched the lethal buildup of the campaign during the Indira-Rajiv raj and then by its timorous inaction during the Narasimha Rao regime. Though reduced now to the most parlous state in its long history, the Congress retains the ability to play the spoiler - a role that it today seems to have taken up with a special sense of resolve, unmindful of the benefits that will be garnered in the process by the BJP.

This kind of cooperation, however tacit and unintended, should not be disturbing or surprising, since the Congress has, in all the more considered and thoughtful articulations of strategy by the BJP, been something of a role model. BJP president L.K. Advani, whose role in the entire Ayodhya mobilisation has been central, has never been coy about his basic strategic perspective. In his vision, the BJP is a political vehicle for all the nationalist aspirations that had historically been articulated by the Congress - it is the only force that can knit together a country of multiple diversities into a coherent and purposive political unit.

On December 6, 1992, the assault on the Babri Masjid begins.-BARTHOLOMEW / LIAISON GAMMA

Advani has conceded that this political progression is not entirely smooth or free of snags. The BJP's advance, he has admitted, has not quite matched the pace of the Congress' decline. But this is a minor problem of calibration which the BJP is convinced it can surmount within a reasonable time-frame.

BJP ideologues would hate to admit it, but two crucial electoral segments that have traditionally been part of the Congress coalition still seem to retain a strong sense of resistance towards it - the Muslim minority and Dalits. In the years following Ayodhya, these two sections have chosen almost without qualification to put their faith in a broader alliance with the backward classes, which in turn have, with rare and contingent exceptions, been a zone of resistance to the appeal of the Congress. The vistas opened up by this incipient coalition of forces have been a source of sustenance for the politics of the Third Force, a new conglomerate of parties from the centre and left of the political spectrum.

NOW incarnated as the United Front, the Third Force constitutes the political arena where some of the more fruitful action has been witnessed since the Ayodhya demolition. Although full of potential, the main protagonists of Third Force politics have often proven themselves their worst enemies. Forward movements in this theatre appear invariably to have been accompanied by an element of regression. As a political concept, the Third Force established its viability as early as December 1993, within a year of the Ayodhya demolition. Faced with an aggressive and unrepentant BJP, the alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party proved that the Ayodhya campaign, while helping the BJP to consolidate its political base to an extent, had also provided a strong inducement for the secular opposition to join forces in the common endeavour to halt the menacing advance of Hindutva. The stinging defeat in the 1993 U.P. legislature elections was the most decisive rebuff suffered by the politics of Hindutva since the Ayodhya demolition.

But that triumph of the new political paradigm proved ephemeral. By June 1995, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, combining the political interests of various disadvantaged strata like Dalits, Muslims and the backward classes of U.P., had fallen apart. And in a breathtaking turn-around, the BJP opted for a subordinate role to the BSP in the successor government in U.P.

Passive sustenance of the aggressive new brand of Dalit politics was not a policy that the BJP could sustain for long without serious damage to its core political constituencies. The cohabitation with the BSP ended soon enough, throwing the State of U.P. into a prolonged period of central rule that was ironically ended only by a renewed set of mutual vows of fealty between the strange partners. That arrangement too collapsed soon, though this time the BJP proved well prepared for the imperatives of political survival. Quickly abandoned were the lofty pretences of cultural nationalism, to be substituted by a naked recourse to the politics of sleaze.

IT is perhaps fitting that a pivotal role in the BJP's effort to reconstitute itself as the ruling party in U.P. was played by the Congress. Grown restive by many years out of power, a group of Congress legislators - nearly all of them with well-established networks of kinship and patronage within their constituencies that had withstood the decline in the party's fortunes - shifted their allegiance to the BJP in a dramatic switch that plunged the central leadership of the Congress into a state of nervous frenzy. It is clear that the crisis in U.P. only prepared the ground for the Congress' wholly disproportionate reaction to the artifices of the Jain Commission report. Though not connected in any obvious sense with the Ayodhya issue, it is apt that the fifth anniversary of the demolition has seen the Congress plunge further down the slippery slope towards political disarray. This brings the possibility of a clear-cut polarisation of forces in the Indian polity that much closer to realisation, without the Congress inhabiting the middle ground and fudging issues in what has come to be recognised as its patented style.

THE political impact aside, the institutional and legislative impact of the Ayodhya demolition present, five years down the line, a mixed bag. The judiciary has responded in a curiously mixed fashion to the aftermath of the event and to the complex of issues posed by it. Secularism was upheld as a central tenet of constitutional governance by the Supreme Court in the case of S.R. Bommai versus the Union of India. And as a remedy to the chronic vagueness that had afflicted it, the discourse of secularism was given a certain substance and basis by this judgment. But other rulings by the judiciary have seemed to run the risk of conceptual retrogression.

In rebuffing the Narasimha Rao Government's effort to recruit its services in determining a historical fact, the Supreme Court, many believed, struck a serious blow in favour of the principle of equality before the law. But the principle of lawful restitution was a sufferer in most objective perceptions, since the apex court decided, without great effort at explanation, that the Government's freeze on the situation prevalent at Ayodhya a month after the demolition had a certain legal status. The plain fact is that the date the Supreme Court sanctified with its stamp of approval - January 7, 1993 - has no legal basis outside the Narasimha Rao Government's clumsy and arbitrary effort to wipe clean the record of all its previous inaction. By that date, the demolition at Ayodhya had been given a gloss of legality by the decision of the Allahabad High Court to permit darshan by devotees under certain conditions to be met by the state administration. In failing to oppose this permission, the Central Government proved oblivious to its responsibilities as the custodian of disputed land. And by its later ordinance - subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court at least in these details - the Narasimha Rao Government finally managed to obtain the seal of legality for the illegal trespass, the surreptitious introduction of Hindu idols into a Muslim place of worship, that had culminated in the tragedy of December 6, 1992.

Certain other judicial rulings directly connected to Ayodhya - like the P.K. Bahri tribunal's quashing of the ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in June 1993 and the K. Ramamoorthy tribunal's overturning of the ban on the Viswa Hindu Parishad in June 1995 - betray a reliance on rules of evidence that are baffling in the extreme and ethical and moral principles that are little short of dubious. The Bahri tribunal held, for example, that there was little remiss in a political movement targeting places of religious worship, provided it did not concomitantly engender a feeling of ill-will between communities. The Ramamoorthy tribunal went to even greater lengths, extrapolating, from the loss of credibility of politicians as a class to a condemnation of their administrative actions as a whole.

The institutional and legislative impact of Ayodhya has been negligible partly because the political aftermath is yet to crystallise into clearly defined battle lines that can sustain the heat of serious ideological contest. Part of the reason for the amorphous character of this response has been the presence of the Congress in the ideological middle-ground - ever uncommitted, ever willing to fudge issues when the opportunity presents itself. If the current phase of marginalisation of the Congress should hasten a clearer crystallisation of these ideological positions, then perhaps the legislative and institutional initiatives to the Hindutva challenge will begin to acquire a greater degree of coherence.

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