Two parties, two faces?
IT is always easy – in retrospect – to pick a point when things start to go wrong for a government. Sadly, it is never easy to identify this moment when it actually happens. Looking back, we can say that V.P. Singh was done for when he delivered that demagogic Independence Day address in which he promised to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. At the time, however, most political commentators hailed the address for its sagacity and shrewdness.
Similarly, it is easy to say now that H.D. Deve Gowda dug his own grave when he asked the CBI to implicate as many Congressmen as possible in criminal cases. The fear of going to jail led Sitaram Kesri to topple the government and consign Deve Gowda to the kind of obscurity that, many would argue, he so richly deserved. But once again, Deve Gowda’s strategy was regarded as a master-stroke when it was first implemented.
Another instance: when we think of Narasimha Rao’s legal troubles these days we trace the fall back to Hawala. This was a man, we say, who tried to manipulate the system to fix his political opponents and now he is hoist with his own petard. In fact, when Rao’s CBI filed the Hawala chargesheet, the conventional wisdom was that it was L.K. Advani who was finished. Rao, said the pundits, would go on forever.
So, I hesitate to pick a point at which the fortunes of the NDA government began to change. When A.B. Vajpayee took office for the second time, I predicted (privately, of course, I am not stupid enough to put that kind of prediction into print where it can come back to haunt me!) that the honeymoon would last till April. All governments, I said, had about six months in which to make their mistakes. After that, the electorate would forgive nothing.
Needless to say, I was quite wrong. The honeymoon continued way past April and when Vajpayee went to America in the summer he was, without a doubt, the most popular Indian prime minister in 15 years. Given all this, you would be well advised to treat any predictions I make with extreme scepticism. But I will, nevertheless, stick my neck out on this one.
My guess is that when the history of this government is written we will remember this winter as the point when the honeymoon finally ended.
The BJP is not one party; there are two BJPs. There is the one that Atal Bihari Vajpayee founded in 1980 in Bombay. This was supposed to be a centrist party that inherited the space vacated by the old Janata party. Vajpayee took a deliberate decision not to call it the Jan Sangh again because he believed that a Hindu party could never occupy the principal Opposition space – let alone the seat of power. His BJP was the successor to the old Janata party, shorn of the Charan Singhs and Jagjivan Rams.
My guess is that the strategy could have worked. I don’t think that the BJP could have toppled Indira Gandhi in 1984 but it certainly would have been a major Opposition party. Two things went wrong. The first was that Vajpayee’s BJP did not accurately represent the real views of its membership. At the Bombay Convention in 1980, the Rajmata of Gwalior took umbrage at the phrase ‘Gandhian socialism’ and her supporters had it deleted from the political resolution. (The Rajmata said she was against any kind of socialism. Wags said that the RSS was against any reference to Gandhi.)
Within two years, a lobby, associated with the RSS and such hard-liners as the Rajmata and the then still-emerging L.K. Advani, was trying to dissociate itself from Vajpayee’s overly centrist approach. Such mainstays of the Sangh as Nanaji Deshmukh made their displeasure public, even urging people to vote for the Congress and not the BJP in 1984. Worse still, for the moderate Vajpayee faction, it was the Congress, under Indira Gandhi, that was playing the Hindu card.
But while the RSS had alienated the Muslims with this approach, Indira Gandhi had found a new twist. By targeting Sikhs, she had managed to evoke Hindu passions and still retain the Muslim vote. As Hindus began praising the Congress, the hardliners in the BJP argued that Vajpayee had turned the new party into a pallid remake of the Congress while handing the Hindu vote to Indira Gandhi on a platter.
As if all this was not enough, a second factor then emerged. On 31 October, two Sikh guards assassinated Indira Gandhi. Anti-Sikh riots (or more accurately, pogroms) broke out all over India and in several cases the angry Hindu mobs were led by Congress leaders. By the time an election was called in the winter of 1984-85, everything that could go wrong for Vajpayee’s BJP had gone wrong. The Hindus had lined up behind the Congress. The RSS had turned its back on the BJP. There was a sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And Rajiv Gandhi’s charisma dominated the election.
To Vajpayee’s horror, his party won two seats in Parliament. He lost his own election.
Asecond BJP then grew out of the ashes of Vajpayee’s centrist party. Nobody is clear whose idea it was to open the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. But the consensus is that it was Arun Nehru who, after the Congress’ role in the Delhi riots, believed that the party could consolidate the Hindu vote.
This was a foolish notion because the essence of Indira Gandhi’s success lay in finding an electorally-marginal target (Sikhs, the foreign hand, the syndicate) to unite both Muslims and Hindus in one vote bank. Once the Congress got into the politics of Hindu versus Muslim, it was sunk.
In fact, this is precisely what happened. The militant assertions of Hindu nationalism found an echo in the Muslim community where a newly-aggressive leadership began to focus on social and religious issues: Muslim personal law, the right not to pay maintenance to wives, the offence caused by The Satanic Verses, and so on. At first, Rajiv tried to take a ‘modern’ line (there should be one personal law for all communities), but as the pressures grew, his basic secularism kicked in.
Far from consolidating the Hindu forces unleashed by such decisions as the opening of the Ayodhya locks, he actually offended them. The newly-assertive Hindu community looked on with horror as he emphasised the right of Muslims to have their own personal law and cheerfully banned The Satanic Verses. This man is pampering the Muslims, the Hindus decided.
This situation represented a heaven-sent opportunity for any genuinely Hindu party. But there was a problem. Not only had the BJP ceased to be such a party but it was also a badly demoralised outfit. Vajpayee, always a sensitive man, had taken his defeat personally and retreated into an extended sulk. The BJP had virtually no presence in Parliament and its cadres, dominated by RSS types, were convinced that the experiment with moderation had failed.
It was at this stage that the second BJP emerged. Led by L.K. Advani and backed by the forces who had opposed Vajpayee’s attempts at moderation, it completely junked the centrist platform. Vajpayee had tried to distance his BJP from the RSS; Advani acknowledged his RSS roots and even invited the Sangh to send a theoretician (Govindacharya, a rather dour man who was always described in the press as the BJP’s think-tank) to help provide guidance to the party.
There have always been deeply unpleasant Hindu nationalist organisations at the fringes of the RSS. Advani used them to test the efficacy of the new Hindu agenda. For instance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a little-known organisation dedicated to a medieval ideology, organised an agitation at Ayodhya. The VHP told Hindus (the vast majority of whom had never heard of the Babri Masjid) that Lord Ram had been born at this spot. In fact, said the VHP, an ancient temple marking his birth had stood on this spot. But the Moghul Emperor Babur had destroyed it and built the Babri Masjid on its ruins.
In historical terms, all of this was extremely dubious. There is some doubt that Ram – at least as the VHP recognised him – ever existed at all. There is no evidence that he was ever born at that spot in Ayodhya. And the claim that a Hindu temple was destroyed to build the Babri Masjid is still a subject of archaeological controversy.
The VHP did not have to argue any of this out – the essence of medievalism is that there is no need for argument or scientific enquiry of any kind. But Advani recognised that he could not follow the same approach. So he came up with the following formulation: it does not matter whether Ram was really born there. It does not even matter whether he really existed or not. What matters is that Hindus think that this is true. And this is enough for us.
Why did this historically dubious appeal on the basis of a masjid that nobody had heard of take off all over India? The answer has to be that Advani realised that the Babri Masjid, in itself, was not of much consequence. Its importance was that it was a symbol of Hindu humiliation and Muslim dominance.
Look at it this way, the BJP would tell Hindus: for hundreds of years Muslims destroyed our temples, converted our people and ruled our country. Now, we are finally rid of most of them because they have their own Pakistan. Shouldn’t we at least be allowed to feel proud of having got our country back? But we can’t because the Congress continues to pamper Muslims. It bends over backwards to accommodate their religious agenda. Every Imam represents a few lakh votes to these Congressmen. And as for us Hindus, we are taken for granted; second-class citizens in our own country.
In case anyone needed proof, there was the example of the Babri Masjid. The holiest figure in Hinduism had been born on this spot. Muslim invaders had desecrated his birthplace and sullied his memory. All Hindus were asking was this: give us back the spot, let us build a new temple there and we will help the Muslims to build a masjid wherever they want.
And guess what? Not only were these Muslims refusing to move even an inch, but Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party were backing them! Are we living in India or are we living in Pakistan?
Put in those terms, the message had an undeniable impact. Suddenly, Hindus began using phrases like ‘pseudo secularism’ and ‘second-class citizens in our own country’.
When he was sure that the movement was taking off, Lal Krishna Advani slid into the driving seat of a massive Toyota rath and took charge. The unsavoury Hindu outfits that had spearheaded the early offensive (the VHP, the Bajrang Dal) now became part of the entourage.
All this was so far removed from Vajpayee’s vision of a centrist BJP that it was easy to see why he found no place in Advani’s scheme of things. Nobody mentioned him, few people of consequence bothered to call on him, and he never once went to the masjid site in Ayodhya.
There are stories – and these, by definition, are based on hearsay – that Vajpayee told Advani that what he was doing was wrong; that it would all end in tears; and even, that he was riding a tiger. That by the time he was ready to dismount, the movement would have eaten him up.
Nobody knows what the truth of these stories is. But the reality is that from 1986 to 1992, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was treated by this new BJP as no more than an avuncular figure who belonged to an earlier era. L.K. Advani was very much in control.
All this changed with the demolition of the Babri Masjid. According to one person who was present when the demolition squad brought down the first dome, Advani was totally distraught. After some RSS leaders tried to assure him that this was the will of Ram, a senior BJP leader was deputed to take him back to a room in a guest house.
According to this version, Advani was beside himself with grief. ‘They have destroyed everything,’ he kept repeating. His grief of course, was not on account of the masjid, it was on account of himself. ‘They have destroyed my movement,’ he explained.
(Later, he was to expand on this theme in a signed article. It was the saddest day of his life, he wrote, because of the damage to the BJP’s reputation for discipline. If he meant this, he was quite wrong. Only a trained and disciplined fascist organisation could have brought down the Babri Masjid as quickly and as skilfully as the BJP did that day.)
The demolition was followed by further tragedy. Riots spread all over India. And the Congress government of Narasimha Rao, either through ineptitude or yet another cynical attempt to win the Hindu vote, sat back while much of India burned. Hindus thought that the movement had gone too far. The Centre dismissed BJP state governments. When fresh elections were held, the BJP found that it had lost its share of the vote.
Vajpayee had been right. There was no sign of the mosque or the movement. But there was a smile on the face of the tiger.
If the BJP had to regroup and to recapture its momentum, then a new strategy had to be evolved. By then, the political battlefield was littered with the remnants of two different BJPs: Vajpayee’s centrist outfit which lost in 1985 and Advani’s Hindu grouping which was demolished in 1992.
Curiously, the strategy that the BJP adopted was closer to Vajpayee’s centrist approach than to anything that Advani and his RSS friends had dreamt up. By then, the realisation had sunk in that if the party was ever to take office at the centre, it could only do so at the head of a coalition? But who would coalesce with a bunch of fascists, religious demagogues and mosque-breakers? If the BJP was ever to break through to national power then it would have to go back to the Vajpayee image of moderation.
By 1994-95, the political resurrection of A.B. Vajpayee had begun. To Advani’s credit, he was the first to recognise this. With elections due in 1996, he declared that Vajpayee would be the party’s candidate for prime minister. (It is often unfairly claimed that Advani only stepped aside after he was framed in the Hawala scandal. In fact he had proposed Vajpayee’s name much before Hawala.) While the BJP did not disown its second, post-Ayodhya avatar or actually declare that it was returning to the 1980 version, it toned down some of its rhetoric and emphasised Vajpayee’s charisma.
In 1996, an opportunity arose to measure the success of this transformation. The elections threw up a hung Parliament with the BJP as its single-largest constituent. The President asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the government. The BJP agreed and then found to its horror that not only would anybody refuse to join a BJP-led coalition, no party of consequence was willing to support the BJP from outside. After 13 days in office, Vajpayee resigned as prime minister before being defeated in a vote of confidence.
The failure of the 1996 experiment convinced the BJP that it could not remain Advani’s party with Vajpayee’s leadership. It needed to re-draft its agenda, to tone down the more communal aspects of its platform, and to appear to be more centrist if it was to appeal to allies. Once it had managed this, it would be more electable.
The BJP that won the following election wore the colours of Vajpayee’s 1980 party. Calling itself a centrist alternative to the Congress, it followed an agenda that was almost identical to the one that Vajpayee had proposed in Bombay in 1980. By basing its appeal on Vajpayee’s personal charisma, not only did the BJP attract support all over the country but it also managed to win the confidence of many regional parties that would never have dreamt of aligning with the Ayodhya-obsessed avatar of the BJP.
And yet, all was not well. Throughout the first few months of Vajpayee’s reign, elements of the Ayodhya-era BJP kept raining on his parade. The VHP said it would construct a temple at Ayodhya anyway. The RSS, perhaps having been told to lay off Muslims, decided to persecute Christians instead. Priests were attacked, churches burnt and nuns raped. Vajpayee protested but nobody would listen.
Within the BJP, there was still no consensus on how to merge the two avatars of the party. Govindacharya told a foreign diplomat that the BJP would continue to be Advani’s baby. Vajpayee, he said, was just a mask (mukhauta). Similarly, when Vajpayee tried to select his Cabinet, he faced undue interference from the Sangh. Determined to appoint Jaswant Singh as his finance minister, he was forced to let the matter drop after K. Sudarshan, then the RSS’ second-in-command, visited him to complain.
By the time the BJP lost Assembly elections in the crucial states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, most people had given up on the party. A poll conducted by India Today showed that Sonia Gandhi was more popular than Vajpayee and the general view was that the marriage between the two BJPs had not only been rocky but that it was heading for the divorce courts.
We will never really know what happened in those anxious weeks after the Assembly defeats. But obviously, the leaders of the two BJPs and the Sangh sat down to do some tough talking. Their conclusion was reflected in their actions. From that point on, the Ayodhya avatar of the BJP disappeared from public view, the lunatic fringe of the Parivar was reigned in, and Vajpayee became all-powerful. It was almost as though 1984 had not happened and the 1980 version of the party had fast for-warded itself to 1998. The BJP that ruled India was the centrist party that Vajpayee had tried to create in Bombay to occupy the space vacated by the old Janata party.
Few can deny that it worked. Vajpayee seemed so much in control that there was no question of raising the old secular objections to the Ayodhya avatar of the BJP. Even Advani moved towards the centre of the political spectrum and suggested that the media had caricatured his views by portraying him as an extremist and a hardliner. By the time the BJP won another election victory (after Kargil and a misconceived confidence motion), there was no doubt that the party was well on its way to occupying the old Congress space (not just the Janata space as had originally been intended) and that Vajpayee was a leader in the Nehruvian mould.
Why then do I say that this could be the turning point in the fortunes of this government? My guess is that the tacit understanding between the two BJPs is finally unravelling. It is not so much that the Sangh Parivar is seeking to embarrass Vajpayee; more that the strains of a mismatched alliance are beginning to show.
One instance of this tension is the Ayodhya controversy which paralysed Parliament for much of December. The furore had relatively innocuous origins. Vajpayee was asked about the Ayodhya movement by a few journalists as he was stepping out of Parliament House. He reiterated his disapproval of the manner in which the masjid was brought down and repeated that the construction of a temple was not on the NDA agenda.
All this was fair enough. But he also said that the Ayodhya movement was an expression of national sentiment that had remained unfinished. Because he spoke in Hindi, the potential for selective translation was immense. Some papers quoted him as saying that it was the aspiration of every Indian national to build a temple at Ayodhya. Others said that the use of the term unfinished agenda was ominous. Did he mean that the BJP intended to finish that agenda?
Vajpayee’s view was that the controversy was uncalled for. Speaking at an iftaar party the following day, he sought to play down the uproar. The reference to the national movement, he suggested, was a statement of fact. Whatever one’s views on the Ram temple, there could be no denying that the movement for its construction was national in character. And as for it being unfinished, well, wasn’t it? The temple had not been built.
Further, he said, there were two solutions to the matter. Either the courts decided or Hindus and Muslims sat across a table and settled the dispute through dialogue. This was unexceptionable enough. But then came the clincher. One solution, he suggested, would be if the Muslims accepted that there was once a Hindu temple on the spot and agreed to let them construct a Ram temple there. They could build a mosque somewhere else.
Nobody is certain why Atal Bihari Vajpayee said this. Surely he knew that he was merely restating Advani’s position from the late 1980s? After all, what was the Ayodhya dispute about? Hindus wanted Muslims to move their mosque from the disputed site so that they could build a temple. Muslims refused and hence the need for an Ayodhya movement. To suggest the dispute itself as a solution to the problem made no sense.
Inevitably, the ‘clarification’ set off a new round of speculation. Vajpayee had raised the issue on purpose, said the commentators. Ayodhya was back on the agenda. The BJP had realised that Vajpayee’s moderation might help it win allies and maintain a responsible national image. But to win Assembly elections – and U.P. goes to the polls next year – it needed Hindutva issues to enthuse its traditional vote bank.
Vajpayee kept insisting that he had been misunderstood. He had not raised the issue himself, he said, he had been asked questions. He had not suggested that a temple be built in Ayodhya. He had merely listed one possible solution to the problem without in any way endorsing it. He had not changed his mind on Ayodhya in any significant sense.
Unlike most people in the media, I am inclined to believe Vajpayee. If he had wanted to associate himself with the Ayodhya movement, he would have done so in the 1980s. Instead, by publicly distancing himself from Advani’s avatar of the BJP, he risked his own political career. So why would he now want to raise the issue?
But it is not Vajpayee’s motives that intrigue me. It is much more that the response to this statement has been instructive. The honest thing for him to have done would have been to have got up in Parliament and said something like this: ‘Look, I never approved of the Ayodhya movement. I don’t believe that such communal issues take India forward. Fortunately, the issue seems to have died a natural death. Why, in God’s name, do you want to revive the damn thing?’
The problem is that no matter how much the nation and his NDA allies want to hear him say this, the head of the BJP cannot rubbish the Ayodhya movement in public. Whatever his personal views, he is obliged to be silent about them and to take a moderate party line on communal issues. The deal seems to be: we’ll agree to be Vajpayee’s kind of party but only on the condition that he respects our agenda even is he isn’t willing to implement it.
This was not the first time that Vajpayee had run into this kind of problem. As anybody who has cruised the internet will tell you, a surprisingly large number of non-resident Indians are Sangh Parivar supporters. Many of them live in the United States where they have made large sums of money. Their wealth and their detachment gives them, or so they believe, the right to tell those of us who actually have to live in India how the country should be run. Their prescriptions are crude and simplistic: free enterprise and Hindu rashtra.
For such Parivar wallahs, a visit by a BJP prime minister to the United States was their moment of triumph. Against his better judgement, Vajpayee accepted an invitation to a Parivar function at Staten Island. Once he got there, he was horrified to find that speaker after speaker lambasted his government for refusing to implement the Hindutva agenda. Where was the mandir? What happened to the common civil code? Why weren’t we invading PoK? And so on.
Pushed to the wall, Vajpayee fell back on a familiar formulation. The agenda could not be implemented, he said, because the BJP did not have a majority. As for himself, he may or may not be prime minister a year from now, but he would always be a swayamsevak. Both statements were factually accurate but unhelpful nevertheless. Yes, the allies would not let the BJP implement its agenda. But he did not say whether he supported that agenda himself. And as for being a swayamsevak, he had joined the RSS in his youth and never left. So technically, the statement was correct but it said nothing about the state of his relations with the Sangh.
His speech quietened the restive crowd but Vajpayee had not reckoned on the impact it would have back at home. No sooner had television networks broadcast the swayamsevak sound-byte than the phones began to ring at his suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. All the allies were demanding that he withdraw his remarks.
A perturbed Vajpayee issued an unconvincing clarification saying that he had been quoted out of context. What he meant was that he was a swayamsevak of the nation. It was too late. The damage had been done.
My guess is that controversies like this will begin to recur at regular intervals. The Opposition has scented blood. It knows that Vajpayee’s image throughout the country rests on the perception that he is a moderate. Equally, it knows that the compromise at the heart of the marriage of the two BJPs requires neither partner to speak ill of the other.
Ask Vajpayee a question about Ayodhya, common civil code, or any of the old Hindutva issues and he will not be able to go any further than: it is not part of the NDA agenda. If the questions continue, he will have no choice but to make vaguely supportive remarks about the Hindutva position.
Once he does this, three things will happen. One: the allies will complain. Two: the Sangh Parivar will sink him by rejoicing in the streets and declaring (as it did after the Ayodhya remarks) that he was always a swayamsevak at heart. And three: the moderate image that keeps this government afloat will be tattered.
And yet, it is hard to see what else he can do. If he gives vent to his own views and says that he has never supported the Hindutva agenda, then he loses the goodwill of his own party. The lunatic fringe of the Parivar is certain to end the ceasefire and to destabilise his government.
For over two years, the NDA regime has survived because Atal Bihari Vajpayee has walked this tightrope between the two BJPs. My feeling is that the tightrope walk cannot go on for much longer. And without Vajpayee’s image, this government does not have a hope of surviving.