A balancing act

Print edition : April 11, 1998

The BJP is walking an ideological tightrope; it is torn between the need to retain its Hindutva roots and the compulsion to softpedal controversial issues that may figure on its 'hidden agenda'.

"IT is all out in the open," Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha on March 28. "There is nothing hidden about it." Vajpayee's remarks, made during the course of his reply to the debate on the motion of confidence, were intended to assure the Lok Sabha that the Bharatiya Janata Party had no "hidden agenda" and would be guided only by the National Agenda for Governance that it had drafted in consultation with its allies. Opposition members had expressed their concern that the BJP would covertly push its divisive Hindutva agenda as dictated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), while using the National Agenda, which steered clear of controversial issues, to project itself as a party given to moderation in politics.

Vajpayee's assurance, however, has not dispelled doubts within and outside the BJP about the party's uncompromising commitment to its Hindutva themes, which helped it make major electoral gains in recent years. At a meeting of the party's general secretaries on April 1, presided over by Union Home Minister and BJP president L.K. Advani, the BJP decided to observe April 6, the party's Foundation Day, as 'Sankalp Diwas': all party members were called upon to "rededicate themselves to the party's founding principles and goals." However, when party general secretary and spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu was asked what the "founding principles" and "goals" were, he was evasive: to go over these, he said, would require a "lecture".

Venkaiah Naidu's predicament is understandable. The BJP finds itself walking an ideological tightrope: it cannot afford to move too far away from its core themes, nor can it be seen to be aggressively - or even covertly - pushing its Hindutva agenda for fear of antagonising its coalition partners. This predicament was exemplified in Vajpayee's pronouncements on March 29. A day after his forthright statement in the Lok Sabha, which sought to mollify the Opposition, Vajpayee appeared to change tack. At a press conference in Lucknow, he said in response to a question that his party remained committed to finding a negotiated solution to the Ayodhya dispute. Considering the fact that the National Agenda was altogether silent on the Ayodhya issue, political observers saw this as a departure from his statement in the Lok Sabha that his party would do nothing beyond what was spelt out in the National Agenda.

BJP president L.K. Advani with AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha.-K. GANESAN

A BJP national executive member, however, explained the context in which Vajpayee made his remark in Lucknow: "Left to us, we will be happy if the Ayodhya issue remains dormant for the entire five-year term of the Government. The Prime Minister did not volunteer to speak on Ayodhya. He had to respond to the queries of the media."

Implicit in Vajpayee's reply is the assertion that the BJP would prefer a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute rather than a judicial settlement. Although the National Agenda is silent on Ayodhya, the BJP perhaps feels that some of its allies may not be averse to a negotiated settlement. However, as some other allies are in favour of a judicial settlement, the party appears to be hesitant to declare that in its opinion the dispute is beyond resolution by courts.

The BJP is in a similar dilemma in respect of two other contentious issues - Article 370 and a uniform civil code. As the BJP's allies, who account for over 90 MPs in the Lok Sabha, do not agree with it on these issues, the BJP feels that it cannot pursue its line as specified in its manifesto: any initiative on these issues would require majority support in Parliament. A section of the BJP, which is opposed to the RSS exerting an influence on the government in any manner, disagrees with the opinion that the BJP's emergence as the single largest party in the elections is an indication of the people's support for its stand on these issues. A party strategist explained: "We do not think that those who voted for us did so on the basis of our stand on these issues, or that our support base will be eroded because we deviate from our manifesto promises on these issues."

Observers, however, believe that a tussle for dominance is likely between those who belong to the RSS and the newcomers to the BJP. Both Vajpayee and Advani told the Lok Sabha during the debate on March 27 and 28 that the Government would not be guided by any "remote control", as Opposition members had suggested. Vajpayee, however, said that leaders of the RSS and the BJP were in constant touch.

On March 30, during the debate on the motion of thanks to the President for his address, Vajpayee and Advani were questioned closely on the BJP's professed commitment to secularism and its relationship with the RSS. Asked by Opposition members if he agreed with RSS "guru" M.S. Golwalkar's views on the status of the minorities as outlined in his book We or Our Nationhood defined, first published in 1939, Advani said that Golwalkar himself had subsequently distanced himself from some of the views in his book. (Frontline carried a detailed critique of the book in its March 12, 1993 issue.) Advani was again asked if he himself subscribed to the views. "The book has so many ideas some of which I may agree with," Advani said.

Advani praised the RSS and likened the consultations between Vajpayee and RSS leaders to those between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Opposition members, however, pointed to the irony of Advani comparing RSS leaders with Mahatma Gandhi, who died at the hands of an assassin with evident RSS links.

THE composition of the Vajpayee Ministry appears to be intended to send across the signal that there is no domination by the RSS. Although many senior Cabinet Ministers - including Vajpayee, Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi - have an RSS background, the Ministry includes several leaders without an RSS background and also relatively new entrants to the BJP, such as Sushma Swaraj, Yashwant Sinha and Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. In fact, the non-inclusion of any other senior BJP leader from the RSS school seems to have disappointed the RSS. Significantly, junior leaders such as Ananth Kumar and Satyanarayan Jatia have been accommodated in the Cabinet, as has been Kashiram Rana, who fell out of favour with the RSS after he backed Shankarsinh Vaghela, who rebelled against the BJP leadership in Gujarat. On the other hand, senior leader Ram Naik, who has an RSS background, was inducted as a Minister of State.

Madan Lal Khurana had to be inducted in the Cabinet to contain the faction feud between him and Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma; however, the fact that senior BJP leader Sunder Singh Bhandari, a Rajya Sabha member who has his ideological roots in the RSS, was not accommodated in the Ministry has surprised observers.

Two other leaders whom the RSS does not wholly approve of - Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan - have been given high-profile assignments although they lost the Lok Sabha elections. Jaswant Singh, who was considered for the post of Finance Minister but lost out reportedly because the RSS vetoed the move, was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a post which he accepted with some reluctance. Mahajan was appointed Political Adviser to the Prime Minister, with Cabinet rank. This was an unprecedented move. In the days before the BJP formed the government, Mahajan, a master strategist and a political deal-maker, had been liaising with the BJP's allies. His sphere of influence is bound to widen now.

Vajpayee's categorical statement in the Rajya Sabha on April 2 that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government in Tamil Nadu would not be dismissed is being seen as an assertion of authority by him. Besides, he perhaps felt constrained to dispel any misgivings that may have been created by the allocation of work in the Ministry of Finance that he was being steamrollered by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the BJP's principal alliance partner in Tamil Nadu, which wants the M. Karunanidhi Government dismissed. (Minister of State for Finance R.K. Kumar, an AIADMK MP, was given the charge of Revenue, Banking and Insurance. This was seen as an attempt to appease AIADMK leader Jayalalitha, whose 'demand' that her alliance partner, Janata Party president Dr. Subramanian Swamy, be given the Finance portfolio, was not accepted by the BJP.)

Hours after he told the Rajya Sabha that the Tamil Nadu Government would not be dismissed, Vajpayee met Jayalalitha in New Delhi. Jayalalitha claimed that at the meeting she had merely requested the Prime Minister to help restore the ownership of the Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank to its original promoters. In her comments to newspersons, however, she reiterated her demand for the dismissal of the Tamil Nadu Government and said that her party would present a memorandum to the Home Minister about the "real ground situation" in Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalitha said that she did not know the "context" in which Vajpayee had declared that the DMK Government would not be dismissed. BJP leaders hope that she will be "realistic and pragmatic" and will not press the demand. Jayalalitha indicated that her party would not withdraw its support to the Vajpayee Government even if her demand was not conceded immediately. But the question uppermost among AIADMK watchers was: how long will she wait?

The first national executive meeting of the BJP after it assumed power will be held on April 11 and 12. The meeting is likely to discuss the party's electoral performance and the challenges of heading a coalition government. The party will also hold its national council meeting between May 1 and 3; Advani's successor as party president - as yet unnamed - should take over at the meeting. The party's general secretary in charge of organisational affairs, Khushabhau Thakre, is tipped to succeed Advani, although there are indications that Vajpayee would like Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to take over. Vajpayee enjoys better equation with Shekhawat than with Thakre, who, however, enjoys Advani's confidence. Whoever succeeds Advani, it is clear that the party will play second fiddle to the Government as all the senior leaders of the party are in the Government.

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