Vajpayee’s challenge


back to issue

FOR a party that has never ceased to warn of the threat to the country from across the borders, the year 2001 was a landmark. Atal Bihari Vajpayee ended the year on a sober note in Parliament, in a House still shaken by the terrorist attack of 13 December. But the unity across the political and factional divides in and outside the government was a temporary one, masking the challenges and problems that lie ahead. Foreign policy after all is intimately related to domestic politics.

The defence of the nation was a powerful rallying call for Indira Gandhi in the past. Will it do the same for the present regime? After her victory in the Bangladesh war of liberation in the winter of 1971, she dissolved several state assemblies and used the opportunity to tighten her grip on the party and the country at large.

No such option awaits the NDA government. Its concerns are more prosaic. The party at the centre of the coalition that has ruled for over two years is on the back foot in the two states that propelled its rise to prominence in the last decade. In Uttar Pradesh, it faces the daunting task of defying an anti-incumbency that has routed every regime but one since 1974. The polls, due by March 2002, will equally be an acid test of the ability of the saffron party to re-unify a scattered and divided Hindu vote bank. In Gujarat, polls are only due a year later, but the stakes are even higher for the rival is the Congress, not a People’s Front constituent, and the BJP rules here not with the prop of smaller allies but on its own steam.

The problem for the prime minister and his team is that the BJP has still to face a serious trial of strength. All the state assembly elections since October 1999 have involved one or the other ally as the chief protagonist. The last time the party’s own prestige was at stake was in the winter of 1998, when its defeat at the hands of the Congress in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan signalled the collapse of the NDA at the Centre. But most critics would give the present regime a better chance in office, even if it were to stumble.

The Opposition is aware of the enormous negative fallout of the defeat of Vajpayee’s ministry by one vote in April of 1999. It is even more worried that terrorism as an issue may dominate and cloud out all other questions. It would give the BJP the ideal lever to polarise voters, in fact do much, much more than just that.

Even before the attack on Parliament, and with a sense of added urgency after 11 September, the BJP pressed into service some of its most articulate voices to win over public support for fresh anti-terror legislation. POTO is more than a successor to TADA: it is a sign of the passage of the rhetoric of a strong state from the Congress to the BJP. This is precisely where the ruling party aims to define the idiom and grammar of Indian politics, something it has been trying hard to do since the late eighties.



The BJP bid to redefine the terms of debate is not new. In its early days, the symbols it selected found little popular resonance. In 1952, the then Bharatiya Jana Sangh organised a five mile long bullock cart train to submit signatures against cow slaughter. Even though the party’s founder, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, had initially taken up the cause of the religious minorities in then East Pakistan, it was the issue of gau hatya (cow slaughter) that first saw mass demonstrations of sadhus in North India. By this time in the late sixties, it was clear that such protests were inadequate and the party had no option but to enter into umbrella agreements with other non-Congress parties. All through, the Jana Sangh never let up on it own ideological markers, though it was unable to dominate the scene even in the opposition camp.

There was a clear bid as a cadre-based entity to try and move into positions of influence, first in the anti-corruption crusade launched by JP in 1974, and then in the unified Janata Party government itself. Two men symbolised each of these efforts: Nanaji Deshmukh, a key ideologue who also served as a General Secretary of the Janata Party for two years, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first non-Congress external affairs minister of India. The internal disputes over reservations and education, the role of the RSS in the party at large and the communal issue are too well-known to require any recounting here. But the departures in foreign policy are worth noting.



Or rather, the attempted departures, for many came to naught. It was in 1977-79, that an Israeli foreign minister first visited India: Moshe Dayan paid a secret visit on which he met with Prime Minister Morarji Desai. The good neighbour policy with Pakistan also led India to stay silent about the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a trial that was a travesty of justice. Given its long standing animosity to communism, and its espousal of the free market as opposed to a planned economy, many also expected a thaw in ties with Washington and a cooling off with Moscow. These never quite came about as the deeper continuities in foreign policy reasserted themselves. What mattered in the long term was the fact that Vajpayee had occupied a position of such prominence.

It also opened the way in the early years of the reborn party, the BJP, for a brief phase, in which it emphasised the common anti-Congress heritage and played down its own core ideological stances. Gandhian socialism was in and hard Hindutva was out. By 1984, this policy stood exposed as a failure, laying the ground for a shift to the agenda of Mandir versus Masjid. Once the Congress appropriated the slogans of soft Hindutva as it did so clearly under Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP set out under Lal Krishna Advani to reclaim its own idiom and with a vengeance.



The Ayodhya card was different from all previous cards in that it worked wonders. It was only under the flag of mandir wahin banaeyenge (we shall build the temple at that very spot), that the party first crossed the three-digit mark in the Lok Sabha. It did so at a time in 1991 when it was virtually isolated and bereft of allies, save for the Shiv Sena. The BJP emerged as the leading non-Congress force for the first time, making major inroads into the all important state of Uttar Pradesh, where it won a majority of the Lok Sabha seats. In western India, it succeeded in fragmenting and swallowing the Janata Dal (Gujarat).

There is little doubt that the Ayodhya movement managed to capture attention and command support in a manner as no symbol used in the past ever had. Advani had exceeded the dreams and hopes of Savarkar and Golwlalkar, Hegdewar and Upadhyaya. But he fell short of the real goal, the march to power through an outright majority. The pressure was kept up in a renewed rath yatra, but the demolition of December 1992 was followed by setbacks. Not only did the party fail to return to power in Uttar Pradesh, where caste proved more potent in politics than community, it even lost crucial polls in central and western India in 1993.

The change of tack came at the national level. In the next Lok Sabha polls, the party emerged as the single largest entity in the House, but was unable to muster the numbers necessary to stay in power. Ever since then, the party has had to return to the path of wooing smaller formations, and to do this successfully downplay the very symbols that had been so crucial to its own programme. The Ram temple, the reform of personal law and the abrogation of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, have all had to be put on the back burner. The escape route for believers is a disarmingly simple one. No issue has been dropped from the BJP’s own wish list. The National Agenda of Governance that guides the government is simply silent on all such issues.



The conflict between head and heart is integral to the very existence of any ideologically coherent political formation, and the BJP is not alone in this respect. Its unique problem is that it is the front of another organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The latter has a critical role to play in supplying the party with key personnel, providing back-up through powerful and well-funded fronts like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and stepping in at times to help resolve issues of strategy. The link works not through a simple command and control mechanism but through the existence of a shared idiom and worldview.

There are times when the immediate pressures of each of the Sangh’s outfits work in different directions. This has never been as sharp as in the tenure of the NDA government. Before coming to office, the party favoured normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir prior to polls, but the first Vajpayee government in May 1996 proclaimed its commitment to holding the polls on schedule. On Kashmir, the BJP may reject calls for autonomy in toto but there is little doubt that the National Conference will make this issue its major plank in next year’s elections in the state. Article 370 is alive and well, and will remain so till the BJP by itself has the numbers in each of the Houses of Parliament to amend it, a possibility that appears remote.

On an issue as emotive and central as the Ram temple, the Sangh consistently calls for a resolution that favours one side in the dispute over the site. But as Home Minister, L.K. Advani has had little recourse but to speak in the language of a V.P. Singh or Deve Gowda in calling for a court verdict or a negotiated settlement.

Vajpayee, of course, has mastered the art of the tightrope walk, alternating sympathy for the cause with calls for restrained behaviour by his fellow travellers. In 2001, he added to the confusion by repeatedly claiming he would settle the issue in a consensual way by March 2002. If that is any reassurance to those worried about a conflagration, the VHP has done a reality check by claiming it is happy to note that the prime minister is on the same wavelength.



The issue is a particularly vexed one. While in opposition, the party had the best of both worlds. It sat out the early phase of the movement when the VHP took up the cudgels. It timed its entry to maximise gains at the hustings. And it distanced itself from the issue, if only ever so slightly in 1998, once it was clear that openly clinging to it would jeopardise its chance of holding high office.

Its dilemma will grow deeper should the sants and sadhus push ahead with a confrontation by March 2002. If in office in UP, a saffron-led ministry would find it difficult to contain the fallout of such a movement. If out of office in the state, it would still face a problem, as it will hold power in New Delhi. So far, the Hindutva front organisations have always calibrated their protests to reach a fever pitch under non-BJP regimes. V.P. Singh, Narasimha Rao and Chandrashekar have had to deal with such situations while in office.

More seriously, the parties that keep the Union ministry in office will find it difficult to stand by a government that enables precipitate action in Ayodhya. This applies not only to the small splinter groups of the old Janata Dal led by Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. It would also rankle with regional outfits, especially the southern parties, the Telugu Desam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.



This in itself is a major check on actual confrontation on the ground. Should it happen, it will coincide with the unravelling of the Vajpayee led-NDA experiment. Just as the issue of dual membership led to the end of the Janata Party in 1979, and the Ram Mandir the V.P. Singh led government in 1990, Ayodhya would in all likelihood have fatal consequences for the alliance that is now led by the BJP. In order to keep the coalition alive, the party has at its core to content itself with a policy of abstinence and self-denial.

Like any ruling party, the BJP has the other option of playing on patriotic sentiments, and giving these a partisan twist. In 1999, incursions in Kargil saw the government use the issue to drum up support. The Congress had a tough time when it criticised the security lapse that led to large-scale infiltration in the first place. Every time it looked like it was trying to play spoilsport. This time round the situation is both more and less ripe for the ruling party.

The suicide attacks on New York and Washington in September looked like opening up a common front in a campaign against terrorism that would see the US and India join hands. The links of the Taliban leadership with various transnational terrorist groups gave ground for such hopes.

The ouster of the Taliban from Kabul by the Northern Alliance in December was followed by the attack at the Indian Parliament, an incident all nations have condemned. That no militant group or terrorist outfit has so far accepted responsibility does indicate a wider understanding of India’s predicament in the international community. Yet, the hopes of a joint front have been dampened by Pakistan’s continued significance for the strategic aims of the US, the UK and their allies. As in his talks with India, the General in Islamabad has proved a skilled tactician and survivor.



The question of questions is what all this may mean for domestic politics. Unlike at the time of Kargil, the opposition after initially berating the regime in power decided to underplay criticism and called for a united struggle against the forces of terror. But there is no doubt that the anti-terrorism ordinance will figure centrally in our politics in the coming months. Are you for or against POTO will be the touchstone of politics – the implication being that anyone who raises doubts or objections seeks to weaken the government and the country.

Given tensions along the border with Pakistan and the continuing violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the issue has clear communal overtones that cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Academics may debate the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis or perspective, but it is a great contest of Hindutva versus Islamic radicalism that animates the cadres of the Sangh combine. This is where the BJP has a chance to mix the strains of the defence of India as a country with its own pet theory of how Hindus are natural-born defenders of India and others have to prove their Bharatiyata.

Such a line may be all that is left in hand in a state like UP where three chief ministers and several policy initiatives have not succeeded in putting the shine back on the ruling party. It would not do so well in the Punjab, given bitter memories among Akali Dal supporters of detentions under another similar law, the TADA. But a nationalist plank would not have the disadvantages of the Ram temple. It would blend easily with a wider call to defend the country. The cadres and the front organizations will be more divisive in their public appeal. The senior leadership will be restrained, statesmanlike and steadfastly non-parochial in their utterances. In the process, the hope is that they win the game while claiming to stand above it.



It is a different matter that politics is full of unexpected twists. In 1993, the demolition failed to fetch the party the votes and seats it hoped for as it fell short of power in Lucknow. Even the Kargil factor probably played less of a role in the 1999 victory than the simple accretion of votes of the allies, two dozen in number. The fact is that performance on a host of issues, from the economy to law and order, are what figure in assembly elections. Few parties in recent years have defied the odds to return to power after a full five-year term. Most have done so on the basis of a strong showing either in governance or by bringing in new strata into the power structure.

Having done neither, the BJP is forced to fall back on a nationalist plank. Ten years ago, the Ram Mandir was, to use Advani’s words ‘the ideological mascot’. The wheel has turned full circle as the party hopes its new card will work. If it does not, we will have a weak-kneed regime or even a wobbly one. It is still unclear what forces will have a chance to redefine the polity in a manner very different from the BJP’s. But that is a prospect that may well lie around the corner.