There is a case for the Election Commission to verify independently the genuineness of the Opposition's fears that Advani's rath yatra may arouse communal passions.
THE Election Commission (E.C.) has ruled out any action against Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani's "Bharat Uday Yatra", his countrywide election campaign in two phases from March 10, as long as it does not violate any law. Advani announced his 33-day "rath yatra" on March 3 in New Delhi. The "rath" will be a "refurbished bus" and will cover 7,871 km and 121 parliamentary constituencies, spread across 12 States and Union Territories.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's Chhattisgarh leader Dilip Singh Judev had used the bus during his campaign against the alleged conversions to Christianity in the tribal areas of the State before the Assembly elections there in December. Judev quit as Union Minister following the expose in the media of his accepting a bribe in return for ministerial favours.
The yatra route, running along the north-south and east-west corridors, will highlight the biggest achievements of the National Democratic Alliance government, including the Golden Quadrilateral, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's dream project. The first phase of the yatra will begin in Kanyakumari and conclude in Amritsar, where Vajpayee will receive Advani and the two will address a rally. The second phase is scheduled to begin at Porbandar on March 30 and conclude in Puri on April 14.
On the face of it, the E.C. is correct in refusing to interfere with Advani's - and the BJP's - right to conduct the election campaign in a manner that he believes best suits the party's interests. However, the E.C. may have missed the symbols and statements associated with the yatra and ignored the serious reservations expressed by the Opposition parties. Advani's yatra, in his own words, is aimed at spreading the message of the BJP's vision for the future as well as the NDA's agenda for the next five years, and to seek a decisive mandate for their realisation. During the past five years, the BJP had to dilute considerably its ideology and its thrust on anti-minorityism for the sake of the coalition. The BJP relegated to the background issues such as Ayodhya, abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution and the enactment of a uniform civil code, as part of its strategy to remain in power. Therefore, the Opposition is concerned that the BJP's "vision for the future" will be delinked from its core ideology.
This will be Advani's third major yatra. The first was the Ram Rath Yatra in 1990 in support of the demand for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The other was the Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra in 1997 to commemorate the golden jubilee of India's Independence and to popularise the BJP's resolve to transform "swaraj" (self-governance) into "su-raj" (good governance). As Advani saw it, there was an intrinsic link between this yatra and his earlier yatras. "There is a common conceptual and emotional thread of resurgent nationalism that runs through all of them," he claimed.
The CPI(M) Polit Bureau expressed its fear that the latest yatra would vitiate the atmosphere. "Under the cover of an election campaign, the BJP leadership is once again seeking to arouse communal passions in the garb of a resurgent nationalism," it warned. It appealed to the E.C. to examine whether such a campaign will help in the conduct of the elections in a peaceful and democratic atmosphere. Both the CPI(M) and the Congress(I) reminded the E.C. of the widespread and mindless violence that accompanied Advani's yatra in 1990.
Irrespective of the basis of the Opposition's fears, could the E.C. have arrived at an independent assessment of the situation and advised the BJP to stop the yatra, or even banned the yatra if that was warranted by the various inputs it received from different sources? On November 13, 2002, a month ahead of the Assembly elections in Gujarat, the E.C. asked the Gujarat government to stop a proposed yatra (Jan Jagruti Yatra) by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) from Godhra to Akshardham (Gandhinagar) as it felt that there was "the likelihood of communally provocative and intemperate speeches being made during the yatra".
The Commission referred to a report from the State administration pointing to the likelihood of communal tensions and passions getting exacerbated by the proposed yatra. The report had unequivocally stated that the possibility of a law and order situation arising in the wake of the yatra could not be ruled out. The E.C. had then established direct contact with State government officials, independent of the caretaker Narendra Modi government, and that helped it to take an objective decision to ban the yatra. The State government stopped the yatra. The VHP's abandoned yatra, like Advani's latest one, did not overtly violate any law, but the E.C. thought it appropriate to ban it on the basis of a "likelihood" of communal tensions and passions getting exacerbated by it.
It is possible that the E.C. has not received any such report from any Central agency expressing similar fears about Advani's yatra. However, as Advani is also the Union Home Minister, it needs to be asked whether the E.C. took steps to verify independently the genuineness of the Opposition's fears. Can the BJP and Advani guarantee the E.C. and the nation that VHP-Bajrang Dal-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) elements will not use Advani's proposed yatra for a religio-social mobilisation and for spreading hatred against the minorities? Considering that VHP-RSS-Bajrang Dal cadre were the ones mostly associated with Advani's earlier yatras, the E.C. would have been well within its rights had it expressed its reservations about the yatra in the context of its experience before the Gujarat Assembly elections.
In 2002, the E.C. defended its decision thus: "Any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred, disharmony, ill-will or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic, will not only vitiate the election process and tarnish the fair democratic traditions of the country, but will also seriously jeopardise the law and order situation conducive for the conduct of free and fair elections in the State."
BJP leaders, including Vajpayee, party spokesperson Arun Jaitley, and party president M. Venkaiah Naidu, had in 2002 disapproved of the E.C.'s decision to ban the VHP's yatra. However, Vajpayee, on second thoughts, defended the decision. Considering that Advani's rath will begin from Gujarat in its second phase, the E.C. may be well advised to keep a close watch on its course.
The E.C. and the BJP may also have to resolve another ticklish issue: will the expenses of Advani's yatra be shared evenly by all the NDA candidates, as per the amended Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act?