The schism in the Sangh Parivar

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The government-inspired effort to find a negotiated solution to the Ayodhya dispute through religious leaders has added a new dimension to the differences within the Sangh Parivar.

in New Delhichintan baithak

THE Sangh Parivar has never been such a divided house as it is today. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the Centre and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are openly backing the efforts of the Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, Sri Jayendra Saraswati, to find a negotiated settlement to the Ayodhya dispute with the leaders on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. As the Board is set to discuss the Sankaracharya's latest proposals, sent to it in confidence, organisations of the Hindu Right spearheading the nearly two-decades-old movement for building a Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid stood, have begun to feel marginalised.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-affiliate which played a major role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and in running a movement for the building of a temple at the spot, has protested against the secret parleys between the Sankaracharya and the Board. Casting doubts over the success of the Sankaracharya's initiative, VHP general secretary Pravin Togadia threatened to launch a mass agitation, details of which would be announced by June-end. He alleged that Vajpayee was the only one in the BJP who was bent on reaching a compromise with Muslims.

The BJP had only recently appealed to the RSS to restrain VHP leaders from making remarks against the Prime Minister that would cause the party acute embarrassment. However, at the meeting of the VHP's governing council in Raipur on June 27 and 28, Togadia expressed his contempt for the Prime Minister in clear terms by calling him Gandhi-II, for his role in "sidelining the VHP and involving in the Ayodhya talks the Board, which is a body of Muslim fundamentalists". On the eve of the Raipur meeting, VHP vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore said Vajpayee never helped the Ram temple agitation, and so the organisation had no hopes from him. He obliquely warned that the VHP would campaign against his re-election from Lucknow in the next Lok Sabha election. He said the VHP expected a lot from Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who supported the movement from the start.

At the core of the VHP-BJP differences is the perceived reluctance of the BJP to back the VHP's claims over the mosques adjoining the temples in Kashi and Mathura. The BJP has not only declared that these two are not on its agenda, but taken an ambiguous stand on the reported suggestion from some quarters that Hindus must abandon their claims over these two shrines in return for Muslims' concurrence to the plan to build a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. The VHP has declared that Kashi and Mathura, like Ayodhya, are not negotiable, and that Hindus cannot be expected to forgo their claims over the two shrines.

BJP general secretary and spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi refused to take a stand on Kashi and Mathura under the plea that the party had not discussed these issues. The BJP's reticence follows a meeting between party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan on June 22 in New Delhi. Sudarshan not only cautioned Venkaiah Naidu against bartering away Hindus' claims over Kashi and Mathura, but asked him not to ignore the VHP in the efforts to find a negotiated solution to the dispute. The BJP later stated that the VHP would be invited for talks once the Sankaracharya-Board negotiations were over and a joint-proposal, if any, reached the government.

Venkaiah Naidu made clear to the RSS the government's inability to ensure the passage of legislation to facilitate construction of a temple, because it was not on the National Democratic Alliance government's agenda and some constituents of the NDA were opposed to it. He rejected VHP general secretary Ashok Singhal's suggestion that the BJP seek a fresh mandate from the people if it was unable to introduce legislation on the issue in Parliament.

The BJP risked inviting the VHP's ire at a time when its senior leaders pondered a strategy to increase the party's tally in the Lok Sabha elections which are due in September 2004 as they did at the recent chintan baithak (brain-storming session) at Uttan near Mumbai. After all, the VHP's contribution to the party's success in the Gujarat Assembly elections has been phenomenal, and its usefulness in strengthening the BJP's campaign machinery in other States is a proven fact.

Observers say that the schisms within the Sangh Parivar, especially between the BJP and the VHP, are never to be taken at face value. The public expression of differences between the BJP and the VHP on Ayodhya reflects the different strands within the BJP on what kind of approach to the issue would go in the party's favour. The Vajpayee school of thought believes that Ayodhya has outlived its electoral utility and that the VHP's divisive campaign would mar the party's electoral chances. This school also assumes that if the dispute is resolved amicably during Vajpayee's term in office, it would add to his stature and could increase significantly his electoral appeal. The Advani camp agrees with this assessment, but is not prepared to antagonise the VHP.

Notwithstanding the various compromises he has had to make as Prime Minister owing to the conflicting pulls and pressures within the party and the government, Vajpayee appears to be keen on securing another term in office. This is what dissuaded party leaders at the Uttan conclave from considering seriously a proposal to advance the Lok Sabha elections to February 2004 or even to end 2003, coinciding with the elections to four State Assemblies. Supporters of the proposal felt that the party would do better in the elections if they were held before the next Budget and a possible drought next year. However, it was not acceptable to Vajpayee, who wants to become the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term in office. Vajpayee felt that if the Lok Sabha elections were held on schedule, he would get sufficient time to make a lasting contribution to India-Pakistan relations and in his efforts to solve the Ayodhya dispute.

Behind Vajpayee's keenness to solve the Ayodhya dispute is the lurking apprehension about the damage a consolidated Muslim vote bank can do to the BJP's electoral fortunes across North India, as it did in 1999 despite the grand alliance the party had formed with other parties and the VHP's purported role in the election campaign. The government knows that a solution to the Ayodhya dispute is unlikely to be based on a consensus between the two communities, and that hardliners in both the communities are bound to resist it. In the event, while the VHP will be unable to consolidate Hindu opinion on the issue across the North, as it did in Gujarat during the Assembly elections, Muslim opinion is sure to be divided, and this would significantly reduce the Muslims' potential to vote en bloc for any party that has a reasonable chance of defeating the BJP.

As the VHP has no interest in seeing Vajpayee return as Prime Minister, it is bound to resist his attempts to take credit for finding a solution to the Ayodhya dispute through the Kanchi Sankaracharya's formula. However, BJP insiders believe that opposition from the VHP to Vajpayee's Ayodhya strategy would earn him enough goodwill among not only Muslims but also secular Hindus, who together could deliver a majority of Lok Sabha seats to the BJP and its allies.

On the contrary, the selective attack on Vajpayee by the VHP and its public expression of confidence in Advani's ability to solve the Ayodhya dispute are sure to consolidate Advani's image as a hardliner and further alienate him from the other constituents of the NDA; the BJP is bound to require their support as and when Advani loyalists make a determined attempt to project him as Vajpayee's successor.

The Uttan conclave was witness to a public display of mutual admiration among Vajpayee, Advani and Venkaiah Naidu. Coming close on the heels of the controversy over Venkaiah Naidu's proposal to project both Vajpayee and Advani as leaders during the next election campaign, the leaders appeared to have been under some compulsion to dispel misgivings about possible differences between Vajpayee and Advani.

Party observers say that for the moment Vajpayee has no reason to disturb Venkaiah Naidu's continuance as party president, despite his subtle expression of displeasure and a feeling of hurt over the latter's efforts to project Advani as a rival for leadership. Vajpayee is apparently content with letting Advani continue as No.2 in his government, rather than have him as the party president and create a parallel power centre, in case Venkaiah Naidu is to be replaced.

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