L.K. Advani's statement at the BJP conclave in Ranchi that the party was the "Chosen Instrument of the Divine" betrays a desire to embrace the Hindutva hardline stance once again despite the compulsions of coalition politics.
VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in Ranchi and New Delhi
RANCHI, the capital of Jharkhand, has no pretensions of being a major religious or spiritual centre. As many of its residents say, the town's association with issues of the mind more or less has to do with the Central Institute of Psychiatry, rated as one of the best mental health institutions in the country. Yet, when the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) National Executive met here, between November 24 and 26, party president Lal Krishna Advani was so `spiritually inspired' by the place that he came up with a unique "divine" dimension to the country's politics.
Talking to party delegates at the end of the three-day deliberations, Advani stated that "the BJP is really the Chosen Instrument of the Divine to take our country out of its present problems and to lofty heights of all-round achievements." The statement was hailed as historic by a large number of participants. Independent political observers point out that the invocation of the "divine" element marks a significant moment in the political practice of the Hindutva-oriented party, particularly in the context of its recent stand of moderation in some of its religion-based slogans.
Kailashpati Mishra, a veteran BJP leader from Bihar, who perceives the `divinity' proclamation as historic, told Frontline that Advani's presentation reminded him of a similar pronouncement made 15 years ago by the BJP leadership. Mishra's reference was to the resolution adopted at the National Executive in Palampur in June 1989. The Palampur resolution is rated both within the party and outside as the most forceful representation of religiosity in the BJP's official documents. Through that resolution, the BJP had formally adopted Hindutva as its political-ideological doctrine and decided to partake in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, aimed at demolishing the Babri Masjid and building a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya. The politico-religious initiatives that followed Palampur, including the Ramrath Yatra and the karseva of 1990, helped the BJP reap major political gains.
However, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the resultant political reverses the party suffered in 1993, the Palampur spirit was toned down in order to win over political allies who did not agree with Hindutva politics. This strategy gave good political dividends. A BJP-led alliance came to power at the Centre in 1998 and held on for six years. During this period, even Advani softened his stance to echo a moderate line, which was advanced mainly by the party's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
What Advani's `divinity' statement and the events leading up to it, including the speeches and deliberations at the Ranchi meet, signify is that the BJP leadership is visibly giving up this moderate line. In the view of BJP leaders and activists like Mishra, the Ranchi meet has given the clarion call for a definite return to Hindutva, and all that remains to be done is to provide a concrete shape to ideological and mass campaign programmes on the basis of this call. "The period after Palampur," Mishra remembers, "was when Hindutva politics rose to great heights." He expects the Ranchi meet will herald a similar trend.
But neither independent observers nor the rest of the Sangh Parivar thinks so. Many political analysts opine that there is a world of difference in the social and political situation that prevailed when the Palampur resolution was adopted and the one that exists now. In 1989, there were objective social and political conditions that promoted the expansion of the BJP's Hindutva doctrine and its efforts to develop a pan-Hindu political identity. The Congress, which dominated the national political scene for most of the 1980s, had pursued between 1984 and 1989 a kind of religion-based, communal politics, vacillating between soft Hindutva and minority appeasement. It had made some political gains out of this. The BJP merely used that climate to become the number one Hindutva player. More importantly, the Palampur resolution had emerged out of a general pro-Hindutva mood that prevailed in the BJP and in the rest of the Sangh Parivar. This socio-political context does not exist now.
According to Hariraj Singh Tyagi, a seasoned political observer and a former Member of the Legislative Council in Uttar Pradesh, the divinity statement may be treated as "history repeating itself as farce". Tyagi points out that religiosity has always been a device employed by parties swearing by the Hindutva ideology, be it the BJP or its earlier avatar, the Jan Sangh, to advance their political interests, but the divinity statement almost smacks of political desperation. "This desperation," says Tyagi, "is multifaceted and encompasses all streams of activity of the BJP - ideological, political and organisational."
According to Tyagi, Advani has returned to religiosity hoping that it will be an instrument of catharsis to solve the variety of problems facing the BJP. He noted: "With this, Advani hopes to get over the party's inability to play the role of a real and effective Opposition against the six-month-old United Progressive Alliance government and at the same time retain his equations with the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar. Religiosity is also perceived as the ambrosia that would instil some vibrancy and enthusiasm into the rank and file, which is greatly demoralised by the series of electoral defeats and the constant in-fighting and indiscipline in the higher echelons of the organisation." Tyagi dismisses these as unrealistically high hopes.
In fact, there is a strong thinking even in sections of the BJP that a religious card will not fetch political benefits. Many people believe that Advani was virtually forced by the RSS to make the "return to Hindutva". The RSS had been putting pressure on Advani to be "truthful and loyal to the basic Hindutva tenets" ever since October 18, the day he hurriedly took over as party president after deposing M. Venkaiah Naidu. According to Tyagi, the real importance of Advani's divinity statement is that it marks the high point of the BJP leadership's complete subjugation to the diktats of the RSS.
In many ways, this subjugation negates the very rationale that had motivated sections of the BJP in mid-October - when they compelled Venkaiah Naidu to resign - to bring back Advani as party president. These sections had moved in to foist Advani as president when it became clear that a consensus was emerging in the top leadership of the RSS to anoint Murli Manohar Joshi, former Human Resource Development Minister, as Venkaiah Naidu's replacement. The consensus in the RSS was based on the premise that Joshi was best suited to take the BJP back to its "ideological roots". Joshi's track record as a Union Minister, when he went about aggressively altering the syllabi and textbooks on Hindutva lines, was a factor in his favour.
The section of the BJP that manoeuvred to bring back Advani feared that Joshi's elevation would virtually ruin the BJP's efforts at building a potential ruling coalition by the time of the next Lok Sabha polls. Advani was seen as the right man to strike a balance between the RSS and the party's political allies without a Hindutva orientation. He was an acknowledged "Hindutva warrior" as also an "advocate of coalition dharma".
But political balance is conspicuous by its absence in Advani's one-and-a-half month old stint. In the early days of his presidency, Advani put on a show of balance. The Hindutva rhetoric was confined to speeches while official resolutions steered clear of the "problematic issues". This approach was visibly reflected during the National Council meeting held in New Delhi in the last week of October.
However, within the next two weeks Advani was forced to give up even this show. The process towards this started with the RSS national executive in Hardwar in early November. At this conclave, the RSS top brass gave Advani a dressing down for "abandoning the core ideology and character of the party while in power" and made it clear that the "Sangh was waiting and watching the next moves" of the BJP and its president. One of these moves was an internationally televised meeting of the new office-bearers of the BJP in New Delhi on November 10, which turned out to be an absolute political disaster for the party.
At this meeting, Advani chose to castigate publicly former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati, leading to her walkout from the gathering in full glare of the media. Advani promptly suspended her from the party accusing her of gross indiscipline. Under normal circumstances, one would have expected the RSS to consider organisational hierarchy as important and support Advani against Uma Bharati. But that did not happen. Instead, the RSS seemed to strike an equidistant public posture, but praised Uma Bharati for the contributions she had made to the Hindutva cause.
TWO days after the Uma Bharati episode, the Tamil Nadu police arrested Jayendra Saraswati, the Kanchi Sankaracharya. Advani and his associates did make statements against the arrest but refrained from embarking on a proactive agitation, perhaps in appreciation of the tenet that everybody is equal before the law. However, this did not win him any accolades from the RSS. According to BJP insiders, the RSS sent tough directives to the BJP leadership to get into a proactive mode.
The BJP got into agitation mode by launching a relay hunger strike and dharna on November 20 in New Delhi. There was no looking back after that. Advani publicly promised to make the Sankaracharya campaign as powerful as the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation and an instrument to "powerfully counter ideological and political adversaries and reaffirm the meaning of genuine secularism". Some unexpected political mileage was gained when former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and former President R. Venkataraman (both devotees of the seer) joined the hunger strike.
According to BJP insiders, this unexpected gain was rated by leaders close to Advani as a clear indicator that the party might be able to pull off an aggressive Hindutva line in spite of having to do "political business" with secular allies. The meek surrender of its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies on the Ayodhya issue at a November 15 meeting also strengthened this conviction. At this meet, the allies accepted the BJP contention that the mandir-masjid dispute should be resolved through a negotiated settlement. Many parties in the NDA, such as the Janata Dal (U) and the Telugu Desam Party, had for long held that the issue should be settled through the judicial process.
It was in the context of all this that the Ranchi meeting took place. And it was clear from the beginning of the meet that the Hindutva tilt was complete. Advani's inaugural speech, in which he said that "if anybody tries to take the cover of secularism to indulge in anti-Hindu politics and statecraft, the BJP will stand in their path like a rock, prepared to make any sacrifice", set the tone. He went on to accuse the Congress, the Communists and some other political forces in the country of "conspiring to erase the Hindu ethos and obfuscate the basic Hindu identity of our culture and civilisation". He said that the BJP had taken up the Sankaracharya issue in order to "fight this anti-Hindu politics", "strengthen national unity, and rededicate ourselves to the adoption of life-enriching dharmic values in society, politics and statecraft".
There were other indications, too, of a subjugation to the RSS line of thinking. One of these was the indication that Uma Bharati, who had publicly humiliated Advani with her November 10 walkout, will be taken back into the party. Advani claimed that "not even a single delegate referred in all the three days of the meet to the episode", but added that he himself would be talking to Uma Bharati once she came back from "leave".
Advani also contended that the Ranchi meet had disappointed critics of the BJP because the party had emerged "with a look of greater self-assurance and poise". By all indications, Advani's claim must have its basis in his improved relations with the RSS, but the pep talk has not evoked uniform appreciation across the BJP. "One is not saying much," pointed out a Jharkhand-based middle-level leader of the party to Frontline, "when we claim that the party's overall image and efficacy has improved since the unseemly developments that followed the last National Council."
According to him, after the Uma Bharati episode the BJP's image as a disciplined party had been shattered. "There was no way any political outfit could have sunk any lower, organisationally, after having touched that sort of rock bottom." He said the real question was how aggressive Hindutva and cordial relations with the RSS would help the party take up political challenges on the ground - such as the Assembly elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana early next year.