This December is not likely to be a particularly appealing month for the BJP. The rumpus in the Lok Sabha about chargesheeted ministers L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati continuing in the government after being named in the nine-year-old Babri Masjid demolition case has just died down, but summons for appearance in the specially designated court at Lucknow on December 22 is right at hand. Add to it the possibility of the Liberhan Commission finally speaking up officially this month about the way politicians and officials have declined to depose before it, calling attention to its largely futile existence of seven years.
Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's defence of his cabinet colleagues last week saying that the demolition could not be after all treated on par with a corruption case could have been the BJP government's first defence on an issue that has dominated the country's political agenda since '86 when the locks of the Babri Masjid were first opened by the then ruling Congress. According to a fact-finding team of the CPI(ml), in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the mosque's demolition, over 2,000 people lost their lives.
Senior BJP leaders and their lawyers are reportedly in a huddle about the case's legal and political ramifications. Publicly, though, the BJP top brass says it is not unduly worried. The comfort comes mainly from four revision petitions filed by BJP leaders in the Allahabad High Court. The petitioners in these cases include Faizabad's then district magistrate and senior superintendent of police, Uma Bharati, Vijayaraje Scindia, former Shiv Sena MP Moreshwar Save and 10 other Sangh activists. In legal terms, as revision petitions are still being heard in the high court, it would be impossible for the lower courts to frame charges. According to a senior lawyer dealing with the case in Lucknow, 'even though stringent orders have been exercised, with Parliament in session, it will be practically impossible to have all present'. The physical presence of all the 49 accused is mandatory for the chargesheet to be framed and read out. Congress leaders allege this is a deliberate strategy to keep justice at bay.
The charges, as they stand, are all-encompassing. Advani, Joshi, Bal Thackeray, Uma Bharati, Faizabad MP Vinay Katiyar and 43 others have been charged under several sections of the ipc: section 147 (punishment for rioting); 149 (every member of unlawful assembly guilty of offence committed in prosecution of common object); 120(b) (rioting); 153(a) (promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race); 295 (intentional destruction and defiling of a place of worship); 295(a) (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs); 395(a) (dacoity); 297 (trespassing of burial place); 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servants from doing their duty); 338 (causing grievous hurt while attempting robbery or dacoity); 397 (robbery or dacoity with an attempt to cause death or grievous injury); 153(b) (assertions prejudicial to national integration); and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief).
The accused leaders have predictably said that all the charges are phoney and sought to make a differentiation between criminal and political cases. Advani told Outlook that 'whether a case is political or not is the key' (see interview). He recalled an anti-budget demonstration he led in '74 in Delhi. 'The next day, I found I was booked under sections of the ipc which I don't even remember, but they included every conceivable charge rioting, arson, you name it.' The other high-profile accused, Union hrd minister Murli Manohar Joshi, told Outlook that he had received the summons. 'This case has been going on for years. It is a politically-motivated issue. The charges in the case are baseless.' According to him, the Congress was trying to rake up an old issue 'primarily because they have no other issue to raise'.
Congress sources say that if the accused are actually forced to make an appearance in Lucknow, it would be like getting its own back. The reasoning being that if Rajiv can be named as an accused in Bofors, so could Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati in the Babri demolition case.
The ruling party's evasiveness has drawn an avalanche of criticism from Opposition politicians. Says Congress' Kapil Sibal: 'Under the ipc, an offence is an offence. There is nothing to distinguish one offence from the other. The difference could be in punishments. A lighter offence could draw a lighter punishment. But to say that offences are different under law is preposterous.' On the stand taken by the prime minister in Parliament, Sibal says that 'Vajpayee is obviously using one standard for the Opposition and another for the ruling party'. Points out Congress leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Madhavrao Scindia: 'The BJP has shown its true colours. When it suits them, they say chargesheeted people ought to quit. In this case, obviously it does not think so.' A reference to the time when BJP leader M.L. Khurana had quit as Delhi CM and Scindia from the the cabinet after being chargesheeted in the Jain hawala case.
The debate in Parliament itself was pretty dramatic. Initially, in the face of a combined Opposition onslaught, the BJP looked in trouble. Its floor managers, led by Pramod Mahajan, were active in trying to contain the damage. The BJP's problems may have been compounded by speculation that some disgruntled members of the party from Delhi who did not find a place in the cabinet despite being old Sangh members in particular, Khurana were prompting friends in the Congress to keep up the heat on Advani. Behind the scenes, in the prime minister's chamber in Parliament, Vajpayee, Advani, law minister Ram Jethmalani, legal brain Arun Jaitley and Uma Bharati, along with top officials of the law ministry and the cbi went through the case thoroughly and Vajpayee's statement was a careful outcome of that meeting.
On the floor of the House, both Advani and Joshi offered to quit, and Vajpayee declined to accept their resignations. But that was known only after he told the waiting media outside emphatically putting his weight behind the line that Ayodhya was not like any other case. Which led to another furore. The Congress next day moved a privilege motion saying Vajpayee should have informed the House first about the proposed resignations. The Speaker did not oblige. Said Congress MP Santosh Mohan Deb: 'Vajpayee has created a bad precedent by withholding the fact that two ministers had offered to quit.' Warns the CPI(m)'s Somnath Chatterjee: 'What it means is that in future, all ministers could be suspected of concealing information from the House.'
At the end of the day, BJP members say they are confident of riding out the Ayodhya storm, particularly given that the Opposition itself is a badly divided house. Mulayam Singh Yadav, for instance, has tarred the ruling party and the principal Opposition with the same brush, saying that 'both are communal and have vitiated the atmosphere'. No sooner does the Ayodhya issue come up than the subject of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots is raised, thereby diluting the debate. In addition, the prime minister's statement put a formal seal of approval on Advani's long-held stand that the Ayodhya issue was basically political and not criminal.
Meanwhile, the BJP has managed to keep its allies together on an issue that has the potential to tear the coalition apart. Both the tdp and Trinamul Congress, strongly opposed to the demolition, say they will wait for the court verdict, even as they were critical of what happened in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. The clincher came from the Samata Party's Prabhunath Singh, who went so far as to declare that the 'need of the hour was the building of the Ram mandir', amid thunderous applause from the ruling benches.
Clearly, the last word on Ayodhya is yet to be heard. And with the case mired in legal wrangling and with political points to be scored, it looks a long and dusty road ahead.