The Gujarat Government being forced to withdraw its order lifting the ban on participation by its servants in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has saved the Vajpayee Government from an impending crisis.
FOR Bharatiya Janata Party president Kushabhau Thakre, who was convalescing in New Delhi after surgery, it was an occasion to put in his bit. He had kept away from active party work for over a month and had been practically sidelined by other party bigwi gs during the elections to four State Assemblies. Besides, he had expressed his reluctance to accept another term in office, and was expected to pass on the mantle of party presidentship to another leader in June.
Union Home Minister L.K.Advani and other senior party leaders approached Thakre on March 7 and requested him to use his moral authority as party president and persuade Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel to rescind a Government Order issued on Januar y 3 lifting the ban on the participation of State government servants in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Thakre telephoned Keshubhai Patel in the presence of the leaders and requested him to withdraw the order. Keshubhai Patel, however, refused to do so and asked Thakre to speak first to senior RSS leaders who had begun assembling in Nagpur for a three-day meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the RSS' highest policymaking body, which was to begin on March 10. Gujarat's Minister of State for Home Affairs Haren Pandya, who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the January 3 order, was in Nag pur. In response to questions from mediapersons, Pandya had insisted that there was no question of reviewing the circular. Several days of uproar in Parliament had evidently not shaken his resolve.
For over two weeks since the beginning of the Budget session, the RSS issue held up proceedings in the Lok Sabha although Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was allowed to present his Economic Survey on February 28 and the Union Budget the next day. The Opposition parties, mainly the Congress(I), insisted on a debate under Item 184 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. (This item enables discussion of a matter of public interest with the consent of the Speaker. Read with Ru le 191, which requires the Speaker to determine the decision of the House on the original question, a discussion under Rule 184 in the Lok Sabha will necessarily be followed by voting.)
The BJP and its allies were reluctant to agree to such a discussion. The reason was obvious: that would expose the divisions in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Constituents of the NDA, barring the BJP and the Shiv Sena, are averse to any i dentification with the RSS. Although majority support for a motion in this regard would be construed as implicit censure of the Government, several of the BJP's allies had no option but to vote for the motion.
Censure in the Lok Sabha would necessarily have put Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee under moral obligation to resign. The BJP's allies such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhag am (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and the Trinamul Congress sought the easier option of a debate under Rule 193, which, when read with Rule 195, precludes a formal motion requiring a vote. Sensing the vulnerability of the coalition, the Opposit ion turned down this option and forced as many as 12 adjournments in five days.
Faced with the intransigence of both the ruling coalition and the Opposition, Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi appealed for the intervention of the Prime Minister. This took the BJP by surprise. The BJP had resisted the Opposition demand that suitable directives be issued to the Gujarat Government to rescind its order. Advani sought to defend the Gujarat Government's action by leaning on a technicality: he argued that the order had not violated any law. He also claimed that the Centre could not seek its withdraw al, as that would be against the spirit of federalism. By accusing the Opposition of seeking to drive a wedge between his party and its partners in the coalition, Advani seemed to acknowledge the divisive potential of the issue.
The Opposition's strategy was different in the Rajya Sabha, where it has a majority. It agreed to a short-duration discussion rather than press for a discussion under Rule 170, which provides for voting. This was because unlike in the Lok Sabha, where it is the Speaker's prerogative to admit or disallow a motion under Rule 184, in the Rajya Sabha convention requires the Chairman to consult the Leader of the House before admitting a motion under Rule 170. (External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh of the B JP is the present Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha.)
During the debate, Law Minister Ram Jethmalani remarked that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by people who conceded the Partition of the country. This infuriated Congress(I) members, who forced a brief adjournment. Advani defended the RSS by saying that he owed every admirable quality in himself to the RSS. He pleaded helplessness in taking any action against the Gujarat Government.
As pressure from the allies also mounted, the Prime Minister made a surprise announcement at an NDA leaders' meeting in Parliament House on March 8. In an evident bid to break the deadlock and put pressure on the hardliners in his own party, Vajpayee sai d a debate in the Lok Sabha under Rule 184 was acceptable to him. He announced this without making any effort to ensure the allies' support to his party's position.
The allies were baffled. In an effort to explain the reason for the Prime Minister's gamble, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said that the motion would not be taken up before March 14 on account of an intervening weekend and the obligatory consultations the Speaker had to make with all the parties. There would, therefore, be sufficient time to lean on the Gujarat unit of the BJP which, Mahajan felt, had its own compulsions.
Mahajan also sought to give an impression that even if the Gujarat Government refused to rescind the order by March 14, there would still be no threat to the Vajpayee Government. The motion, he argued, could be so worded as to seek the decision of the Ho use on whether the Central Government was responsible for, or in any way involved in, the Gujarat decision. Any strong language could be thwarted by invoking procedural niceties, he said.
Mahajan reasoned that even those allies who disagreed with the Gujarat order would not hold the Central Government responsible for it. In case the Gujarat Government agreed to rescind the order, the discussion would become infructuous. After all, why sho uld the Opposition want to topple the Government at this stage, he asked.
Despite this bravado, the fact remained that the Centre had no clue as to what the Gujarat Government would do. Although there were indications from the Centre that it wanted the withdrawal of the order, the State Government was obdurate. But with Vajpay ee deciding that he would raise the stakes and, if necessary, even put the survival of his Ministry on the line, Thakre and Advani panicked. Two party general secretaries, K.N. Govindacharya and M. Venkaiah Naidu, were deputed post-haste to Gandhinagar t o plead for the withdrawal of the order.
Pandya announced the withdrawal of the order that evening, after intense discussions with the party emissaries and several rounds of Cabinet meetings. He maintained that the order was indeed just and legally sound and reflected the sentiments of the peop le of the State. Yet, he said, the Government had decided on a "strategic withdrawal in the larger national interest".
The crisis was defused, but not before it exposed the ambiguities and deep divisions within the Central leadership of the BJP. The Gujarat Government had remained unmoved even after RSS sarsangchalak Rajendra Singh threw oblique hints that the RSS would not be greatly perturbed by a withdrawal of the order, since, he said, "it was not dependent on official patronage for its growth".
Advani again displayed strategic confusion when he said that the Centre would consider emulating the Gujarat example in lifting the ban on participation in RSS activities by its employees. This caused an uproar, compelling the RSS to convey its "lack of eagerness" in this matter. It was only after this that the Prime Minister denied that there was ever any such proposal before his Government.
Opposition to the January 3 order within Gujarat remained feeble and this emboldened the BJP Government to brazen it out. The Congress(I) began its protests on the first day of the Budget session of the State Assembly. Leader of the Opposition Amarsinh C houdhury explained: "Unlike the Lok Sabha, the State Assembly was not repeatedly adjourned. We were suspended from the House thrice and we feared that key bills would be passed in our absence." Choudhury was also compelled to apologise for the behaviour of some Congress(I) MLAs who brandished khaki shorts before Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari who was in the Assembly to make his customary address.
The developments over the Gujarat G.O. may have helped the RSS achieve its limited purpose of getting publicity, thanks to the debate both within and outside Parliament. And government employees who are currently associated with the RSS will continue to remain so in Gujarat and elsewhere, according to RSS-watchers. Fr. Cedric Prakash, president of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, Gujarat chapter, however, felt that the Gujarat Government's withdrawal of the order would have a symbolic impac t; he said it shows that what the State Government did in the first place was wrong. The communal situation in Gujarat continues to be vitiated with the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill, moved by Professor Mangalbhai Patel, a BJP MLA, coming up in the Bu dget session of the Assembly. The bill seeks to prohibit religious conversions affected by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means.
The Gujarat order and the related developments have caused a serious erosion in the credibility of the Vajpayee Government. A question that remains is what the motives behind the January 3 order could have been. Could the State Government have taken such a decision, widely considered immature, on its own, ignoring the reverberations that it could cause elsewhere? Although the RSS and a section of the BJP may well have wanted to test the waters, the response from the BJP's allies was mixed. While some of them, such as the Trinamul Congress, the Samata Party and the National Conference, made it known that they would bail out the Government if a division was pressed in the Lok Sabha after a discussion on the issue, others such as the TDP, the DMK, the MDM K and the PMK expressed their disapproval of the Gujarat order and refused to commit themselves to a vote in favour of the Government.
The allies had only a limited role in forcing the BJP's central leadership to find a solution. While they pressured the Prime Minister to resolve the issue outside Parliament, they were against a Lok Sabha discussion followed by voting. Only the TDP sign alled its reluctance to stand by the BJP: its leader in the Lok Sabha K. Yerran Naidu told Frontline that it would be difficult to vote with the Government on the RSS issue.
Although both the TDP and the DMK urged the Speaker to opt for a discussion under Rule 193, these parties, along with other allies of the BJP, were not clear what their strategy would be if a discussion under Rule 184 became inevitable. Yerran Naidu, for instance, held that it was a State issue and hence there was no need to discuss it under Rule 184. However, the question remained whether the TDP would have voted with the Government if the motion was so worded that it only sought to know the extent of the Centre's responsibility in the Gujarat Government's decision. The resolution of the issue led Yerran Naidu to remark that the entire question had become hypothetical.
The question whether some of the BJP's assertive allies would have voted against the Government on the issue should be understood in the context of their shying away from a discussion under Rule 184. The TDP's stand, for instance, represented a balancing act; the party failed to take an unequivocal stand, probably keeping the impending local body elections in Andhra Pradesh in mind.
The Trinamul Congress demanded a discussion under Rule 193 rather than under Rule 184. In fact, its leader Sudeep Bandopadhyay claimed that a notice under Rule 193 had already been given by CPI leader Indrajit Gupta and the Speaker had accepted it. "How can the Speaker backtrack?" he asked. The Trinamul Congress and the National Conference, however, promised to support the Government if a debate under Rule 184 was unavoidable.
The Samata Party, which was equally critical of the Gujarat notification, however, shared the Prime Minister's view that a matter concerning a State government should not be used to disrupt the proceedings of Parliament. Samata Party president Jaya Jaitl ey declared that the party's MPs would vote against any motion to censure the Government on this issue because the Centre had upheld the principle of federalism by choosing not to intervene in the matter. She also asked why the RSS was being singled out when "Left parties too encourage government servants to join political organisations".
The BJP and its allies were curiously silent over the decision of the governments in two other BJP-ruled States - Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh - to permit their employees to participate in the activities of the RSS. These governments held the view that since there was no ban in these States unlike in the case of Gujarat, there was no question of lifting it.
In the event, were the allies successful in making the BJP see reason and regret the January 3 notification? Although the notification was withdrawn, the BJP sought to score brownie points over the move. Venkaiah Naidu, for instance, argued that the Guja rat Government, by its order, had taken the "benevolent" stand that citizens with genuine cultural beliefs should be free to join government service. He seemed implicitly to suggest that any attack on the decision by the Opposition and the BJP's own alli es would amount to an infringement of human rights. It appears in the retrospect that rather than let government servants participate in RSS activities, the January 3 order aimed at recruiting RSS activists for government service.
The BJP described the order as "legally, constitutionally and politically correct", although its reversal on March 8 was sought to be justified on the grounds that the entire country was concerned with the agitation in Parliament. Venkaiah Naidu accused the Opposition of behaving irresponsibly. The Congress(I) hailed the withdrawal of the notification as a victory of the combined secular forces. One of its top leaders, Pranab Mukherjee, observed: "The BJP should learn a lesson from these developments an d understand that the nation would not accept any attack on the high principles that India had stood for through centuries".
Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet said the BJP had realised that it could not impose its will on the people, who were secular-minded. He warned that the BJP's outlook remained the same - to saffronise the polity and the institutions of governance.
Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja said that it was a victory for secular parties and that the BJP stood exposed since the developments had revealed what it stood for and what dangers the country would face in the event of its coming to power on its own strength.
The BJP's allies were relieved when the Speaker gave his ruling on the notices by members for a discussion on the issue under Rules 184 and 193 saying that it had become infructuous following the Gujarat Government's withdrawal of the January 3 order. Th e ruling failed to pacify Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav who insisted on a debate on the issue under Rule 184. In the absence of a debate, the nation is yet to get an opportunity to put to test the secular credentials of the NDA.