Reclaiming Hindutva

Print edition : April 27, 2002

The signal from the National Executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Panaji is that the party plans to reclaim its militant Hindutva ideology in order to revive its declining political fortunes.

IN moments of grave danger to survival, try to motivate the cadre by drawing inspiration from how similar crises were overcome in the past. At Panaji, Goa, where the Bharatiya Janata Party's 175-member National Executive met from April 12 to 14, the party leadership resorted to this good old strategy, not only to explain the party's defeat in the recently held Assembly and Delhi Municipal Corporation elections, but also to face the mounting challenge from secular parties to the continuance of Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat, the only State where the party rules with its own majority. (The party runs governments in Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Goa either with limited support from other parties or without a mandate from the electorate.)

Apparently, the stability of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre is no longer a matter of concern for the BJP. If an obsession with the government's stability led the BJP to dilute its ideology and subscribe to the ruling coalition's National Agenda of Governance (NAG) in 1999, the series of electoral and other political setbacks it suffered since then have made it rethink its plan. In other words, the BJP has started to re-examine the primacy accorded to NAG over its own core ideology.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, BJP president Jana Krishanmurthy and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani at the party's National Executive meeting in Panaji.-

In fact, the National Executive was not expected to discuss the factors that caused the party's rout in the Assembly elections. A senior Union Minister said: "When we won, we never knew why and how we won. Similarly, when we lost, the factors that caused our rout could not be identified." However, recognition of this fact did not prevent the party leaders from identifying the probable reasons for the party's overall decline. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani candidly admitted in his remarks made at the meeting that both the government and the party had not been able to measure up to the high expectations of the people. He said: "Indeed, we have not been able to fully measure up to our own very high ideals that inspired us to found the Jan Sangh and later the BJP. This is the main factor responsible for the disillusionment of the people with the party. It is also the basis of the present state of demoralisation among tens of thousands of our karyakartas (workers)."

In fact, it is debatable whether the people who supported the BJP in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections did so because of their belief in the ideals that inspired the party. The 1999 vote was a vote for the NDA as it had been formed before the elections. Those who voted for the NDA might have done so because the BJP had deliberately kept a distance from certain contentious issues that form its ideals, in preference to the NAG.

Advani, in his speech, sought to distort this underlying message of the 1999 elections by suggesting that in the last four years when it was in office at the Centre the party betrayed a tendency to be rather apologetic about its ideological moorings. Advani referred to the party's guiding outlook on "enlightened cultural nationalism", "positive secularism", and social justice and harmony, and deplored the party's "apologetic" stance on all these issues which, he said, had contributed to the people's disenchantment with it.

He cited his own example during the depositions before the Liberhan Commission of Inquiry which looks into the Babri Masjid demolition. Advani said that he defended his belief in the Hindutva ideology before the Commission, though as a Minister in the Vajpayee government he was bound by the NAG. Assuming that Advani took the correct approach, was he hinting that Vajpayee's frequent attempts to pamper the Hindutva and secular parties alternately by his utterances were flawed? Although Advani did not refer to any specific issue, such an inference was inevitable. However, if Advani believed that his was an effective electoral strategy, he did not explain why it failed in the recent Assembly elections.

Vajpayee pays homage to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, as BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy looks on.-

Interestingly, Vajpayee's speech, made at the public meeting held to launch the party's campaign for the Goa Assembly elections at Campal Grounds, Panaji, on April 12, reflected what Advani would call an "unapologetic" stance on Hindutva. He not only suggested that the violence against Muslims in Gujarat had been triggered by the Godhra incident, but also did not express any remorse for the failure to prevent the post-Godhra anti-minority pogrom.

Referring to Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, Vajpayee said: "Wherever Muslims live, they don't want to live in peace with others." His remark was preceded by an analysis of how Islam had come to acquire two forms, liberal and militant. However, he did not make similar distinctions with regard to Hinduism. Vajpayee also referred to the arrival of Christians and Muslims in India and said how "we" allowed them to worship according to "their" customs despite the threat of conversions. He claimed that small incidents (apparently referring to the violence in Gujarat) got magnified, though the nation had its roots in tolerance. He made an oblique reference to the demolition of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders during the Middle Ages. There were warring Hindu kingdoms in Cambodia with their Kings belonging to different Hindu faiths, but none destroyed each other's temples, he said.

Incidentally, Vajpayee's speech came a week after he had expressed shame and agony over the incidents in Gujarat. Therefore it evoked considerable misgivings about his motives and was recieved with outrage across the country. In Goa, eminent citizens belonging to some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) expressed their anguish that Vajpayee had chosen to make these remarks in Goa, known for the peaceful coexistence of Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

FACED with a nationwide uproar over his controversial remarks and a possible embarrassment abroad with many nations discreetly expressing their apprehensions, Vajpayee soon reverted to the "apologetic" mode. He blamed the media for distorting his remarks and the context in which they were made. Vajpayee claimed that he was referring to jehadi or militant Muslims and not to all Muslims. Even if his clarification is accepted, it does not neutralise the tone and tenor of his speech. More important, his controversial remarks failed to bring forth any applause from the huge crowd that had gathered to listen to him. While some of them were seen leaving the venue, others showed signs of disinterest.

If only Vajpayee had recalled what he said in the wake of the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, he would have understood how wrong he was in explaining away the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat as an inevitable consequence of the burning of a few coaches of the Sabarmati Express which resulted in the death of many Hindu passengers. He had said, while addressing the BJP's National Executive meeting in New Delhi on November 14, 1984, that he was convinced that much of the violence that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination had been engineered. He said: "If the law and order machinery had not remained paralysed and supine as it was, and if at some level in the ruling party this feeling had not been there that the community to which the killers belonged should be taught a lesson, these recent disturbances would not have assumed the dimensions they did."

Why did Vajpayee choose to make the provocative speech? The answers could be found in the events that surrounded the meeting. The National Executive meeting was held amidst a nationwide uproar over Narendra Modi's handling of the violence in Gujarat. Even the BJP's allies had asked for the removal of Modi. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and Telugu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu had endorsed the April 11 resolution of his party's Politburo which urged the BJP to effect immediately a change of leadership in Gujarat. In the Samata Party, party spokesperson Shambu Srivastava had quit his post following the party's reluctance to endorse his stand seeking the removal of Modi. BJP leader from Himachal Pradesh and Union Minister for Consumer Affairs Shanta Kumar also had backed the oust-Modi demand, though his stand was attributed to his dislike for Modi who had been the party's general secretary in charge of Himachal Pradesh.

Those who had taken Vajpayee's advice to Modi - during his visit to the relief camps in Ahmedabad - to follow rajdharma as a veiled directive to treat both Muslim and Hindu victims of violence equally in the matter of distributing relief, felt that Vajpayee could indeed decide to sacrifice Modi in order to safeguard his own position. However, that Modi was bold enough to rebuff Vajpayee in his presence saying that he was indeed following rajdharma did not go unnoticed by observers.

It was also felt that if Chandrababu Naidu demanded the removal of Modi nearly a month after the violence had begun, it could not be without Vajpayee's discreet blessings. It was believed that Vajpayee could use the oust-Modi demand of the TDP, the Trinamul Congress, a section of the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) to persuade the strong pro-Modi lobby within the Sangh Parivar to see reason and agree to his removal. Apparently, the logic was that Naidu and others had demanded only a change of leadership and not the imposition of President's Rule, and hence it was unlikely to hurt the BJP. The Gujarat government would continue to be a BJP-led one, but with a new leader, and this would have pleased the allies who clearly felt embarrassed to be in the BJP's company in the wake of mounting criticism about Modi's handling of the violence. Risking withdrawal of support by the TDP on the issue would have left the BJP dependent on the support of unpredictable entities such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Unlike BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy, who had publicly opposed the oust-Modi demand before the Goa meeting began, Vajpayee is a man of circumspection. He said the meeting would discuss the issue and that he would listen to what his colleagues had to say. Vajpayee's stand indicated that he had an open mind on the issue and that he was not averse to replacing Modi. The visit of Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley to Ahmedabad on April 11 to meet Modi conveyed the impression that Jaitley was acting on behalf of the Prime Minister in order to persuade Modi to agree to a change of leadership.

When Krishnamurthy, in his presidential address in Goa, condemned the hue and cry raised by those who demanded the head of Modi, some people interpreted it as a conciliatory gesture towards Modi who was on his way out. It was believed that Vajpayee would himself offer to resign if Modi refused to step down, and that this would put pressure on the latter. In the past, Vajpayee's apparent readiness to quit had brought a semblance of discipline in the party and silenced his critics. However, it appears that all these techniques were of no use in the face of the vigorous defence of Modi at the National Executive meeting. For a moment, the Prime Minister appeared to have been isolated, and he soon fell in line with the dominant mood in the party. Understandably, he did not risk expressing his personal views, if he had any.

Was the move by Modi to offer his resignation soon after Krishnamurthy's address on April 12 a pre-planned one? It was certainly not an impulsive decision. Modi offered to resign on the plea that his continuance as Chief Minister would come in the way of party members having a free and frank discussion about his handling of the riots. But he did not have any such guilt feelings when Parliament debated the riots; he did not have any compunction when he set up a Commission of Inquiry to go into the violence.

The National Executive held an unscheduled meeting on the evening of April 12 to discuss Modi's offer. In fact, Vajpayee and Krishnamurthy gave enough indications of what they felt about the demand for Modi's removal at the public meeting that preceded the crucial meeting. Vajpayee by attributing the anti-Muslim carnage to the Godhra tragedy made it clear that he shared Modi's analysis of the events. Unsurprisingly, the meeting rejected Modi's offer and asked him to recommend dissolution of the State Assembly and opt for fresh polls. The resolution on Godhra and its aftermath, passed unanimously by the Executive, claimed that the violence had been brought under control and that the situation in Gujarat was returning to normal. It also praised the State administration. Hence Modi's offer to resign was aimed to pre-empt any critical discussion on his role and to help him maintain a pretence of innocence before the National Executive discussed the issue.

The TDP rejected the Goa resolution, declaring its opposition to the use of the "noble process of polls for achieving blatantly narrow and communal ends". The TDP accused the BJP of trying to make political capital out of a human tragedy and slammed its poll gambit as a covert attempt to clothe its narrow and partisan ends. Although Vajpayee appealed to Chandrababu Naidu to reconsider his stand, his colleagues showed no inclination to soothe the latter. Advani stated that the BJP's allies had no right to decide who should be the Chief Minister of a BJP-ruled State. He even claimed that the decision to let Modi continue was the right one under the circumstances. Advani implicitly rejected the allies' view that the events in Gujarat had their repercussions beyond the internal politics of the NDA and that it was not fair to silence the allies on the issue.

Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan was confident that the TDP would not withdraw support to the government on the issue even if the BJP stuck to its decision not to remove Modi. "Look at the results of the last elections in Andhra Pradesh. Could the TDP have reaped such a remarkable victory in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections without the BJP's support?" he asked. Apparently, the BJP failed to realise that the TDP's concerns went beyond electoral considerations.

In fact, the BJP's reaction to the TDP's concerns was marked by blatant disregard for an ally's right to express dissent. "Why did Naidu make his demand public? He could have discussed the issue with the Prime Minister in private," said Jana Krishnamurthy. A misplaced confidence that it could replace the TDP's numerical strength in the Lok Sabha with the support of other probable allies, especially the AIADMK and the BSP, marked the Prime Minister's expression of confidence that if necessary he would prove his strength in the Lok Sabha.

Some leaders at the National Executive meet even sought to attribute motives to Chandrababu Naidu. "He wants the post of Vice-President for Andhra Pradesh Governor C. Rangarajan and this is just a posturing to get his demand met," said a member. Others felt he probably misread Vajpayee's view of Modi and wanted to take credit for Modi's ouster by publicly making that demand prior to the Goa meeting.

Behind the debate on the TDP's open disagreement with the BJP on the Modi issue is the perception within the BJP that Modi had brought a ray of hope to the beleaguered party in Gujarat by his handling of the violence. Krishnamurthy said that the advice to Modi to dissolve the Assembly and go in for fresh polls was a response to the Opposition's demand. In fact, neither the Opposition nor any of the BJP's allies had made such a demand. They were critical of Modi's handling of the post-Godhra Violence and sought his removal as a measure to ensure political accountability.

If the BJP did not have an effective replacement for Modi, the viable solution would be the imposition of President's Rule. Several BJP leaders reasoned that if Modi was removed, there would be more violence against minorities. It was pointed out that leaders such as Union Tourism Minister Kashiram Rana or former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, who could have replaced Modi, would be hardly able to control the situation. It may well be true that the Opposition and the TDP might have been wrong in stopping with the demand for the ouster of Modi. They should have also demanded the replacement of Governor Sundersingh Bhandari, a former RSS pracharak, followed by the imposition of President's Rule.

However, some independent observers feel that the BJP misread its electoral prospects in Modi's handling of the violence. They point out that the violence has proved that there was a silent majority in the State that needs to be mobilised by the Congress(I), the main Opposition party; that the riots were mainly confined to north and Central Gujarat, dominated by the BJP's main constituency, the land-owning caste of Patels; that the main Other Backward Class in the State, Kshatriyas, did not join the riots but helped the minorities wherever they could; and that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) bribed a section of the OBCs and Dalits to instigate riots against Muslims.

Thus, if the BJP saw an opportunity to benefit electorally from the current situation in the State, it was not perhaps owing to a possible mobilisation or consolidation of people on communal lines. It was based on the assumption that Muslims would be afraid to vote, and that given the widespread absence of fear of the police and a demoralised Opposition, it would be easy to capture booths and secure a favourable outcome. Such an assumption, which lies behind the BJP's Goa resolution, has ominous portents for electoral democracy. The Election Commission has the onerous responsibility to hold elections in a free and fair atmosphere, and if this is not possible, it can refuse to hold elections. Only a strong Election Commission, it appears, can defeat the BJP's evil designs.

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