It's now Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who utters the R-word most frequently in the bjp. At the recently concluded meet of the party's national executive in Delhi, senior leaders chose to steer clear of the contentious Ayodhya issue. The hero of that movement, home minister L.K. Advani, for instance, had much to say about the Northeast and Kashmir, but nothing about Lord Ram. Party president Bangaru Laxman could be trusted to make only a stray allusion. But, in his concluding address to the closed door bjp meet, it was Vajpayee who returned, briefly, to what appears to have become his pet theme.
Party sources say that Vajpayee first declared that it was the press which compelled him to speak on the Ram mandir issue. He then went on to say that there is a difference between the demolition of the Babri Masjid (which everyone condemns) and the movement for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya (which was a national movement). At this point, Advani intervened to say that even the then rss chief, Rajju Bhaiyya, had condemned the Babri demolition in strong words. Vajpayee then said that he stood by everything he'd said during the last session of Parliament.
Once again, Vajpayee displayed his mastery over the open-ended statement. On the one hand, Vajpayee's recent utterances and the tone and tenor of the entire bjp meet was designed to regain a moderate face. Yet, the cadres were also given their pound of flesh. Vajpayee began his so-called retreat to a moderate position just before the party meet with his "musings from Kumarakom"—two articles written from the Kerala resort where the PM vacationed with his family. The articles were a clear attempt to regain his liberal image—and to ensure the survival of his government in the face of increased pressure from nda allies. In the articles Vajpayee characterised the demolition of the Babri Masjid as a "flagrant violation of the law" and an act "totally at variance with the Hindu ethos". He also went on to say that the government will accept the court verdict on Ayodhya "whatever it might be".
But there was enough in the "musings" to keep even the Ram bhakts happy. For instance, Vajpayee went to great lengths to insist that "the movement for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya struck a supportive chord in more than one political party"—words which echoed his statement on December 6 that the "Ram movement was an expression of national sentiment" which created all the furore last month. In the "musings" Vajpayee asserted that "Ram is one of the most respected symbols of our national ethos—respect for him transcends sectarian barriers." The "musings" were a masterly attempt to regain some ground with the liberal intelligentsia and keep the allies happy even as the usual incantation about Lord Ram was designed to give the Sangh cadres their adrenaline rush.
Former Bajrang Dal chief and the
bjp's Faizabad MP Vinay Katiyar smiles indulgently when told that the "musings" indicate Vajpayee's attempt to distance himself from the movement for the Ram temple. "Read the articles carefully and you will see he has not gone back on his statement about a national movement. And we agree with him that consultation is one way to build a Ram temple. If the Muslim nawabs of Faizabad could build the Hanumangarhi temple at Ayodhya, why can't today's Muslims agree to a Ram temple at Ramjanmabhoomi." But ask Katiyar about what will happen if the vhp goes ahead with the temple construction, what with Vajpayee's clear warning that no one will be allowed to take the law into their hands, and his tone changes: "nda ke log nda ka kaam karen. Mandir nirman hum par chhorde (Let the nda constituents continue with their agenda. Leave the building of the mandir to us)."
It is the bjp's Uttar Pradesh leaders who are most forthcoming on the issue. State unit president Kalraj Mishra told Outlook: "The movement for a Ram mandir is a national movement. There is no debate over that. The PM has made it clear. And in any case there is already a Ram mandir there. But at the same time, no one wants the central government to fall so there will be no deviation from the national agenda."
Over the next few months, the rss/vhp/bjp will test the Ram card in Uttar Pradesh where elections are due in a year's time. If there is a response from the electorate, it is bound to be played up. Or else the entire parivar will find another excuse to backtrack. UP chief minister Rajnath Singh in any case is believed to be somewhat sceptical about the efficacy of the Ayodhya card. He believes that playing the Thakur card will yield better results in UP where Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) is believed to be the frontrunner. But as an rss strategist points out, "The situation in Uttar Pradesh is so desperate for the bjp that every card may have to be tested. Some people believe that when you start kar seva and begin transporting bricks for the Ram mandir, you will create a wave. Others consider this a risky strategy which may not work."
There is, however, a section of the party leadership which believes that given the arithmetic of this Lok Sabha and the reluctance of the political class to go in for another general election, this is the best time for the bjp to push its own agenda when necessary. Says a cabinet minister, "After Vajpayee made those statements in support of the Ram mandir, the allies may have thrown a few tantrums but they all came around in the end. All these parties have their own problems. Only the tdp can bring down this government. But Chandrababu Naidu is happy extracting the maximum in terms of aid for his state. Besides, if there is another general election, there is no guarantee that the tdp will again get 29 MPs."
But as the parivar tests the Ram card, the allies may be pushed to the brink. That is why Vajpayee has been working hard to distance himself from any agitation for the mandir—a genie he himself let loose only last month. He wants to give his allies enough breathing space to remain in the government. It is not merely the allies who do not want to bring down the Vajpayee regime. The entire Sangh parivar gains from having a bjp government at the Centre, and should there be a real threat to the Vajpayee government, they'll only try to bail it out.
Party insiders say that over the next few months the Ram drama will be enacted along expected lines. The vhp will announce some sort of schedule for the mandir. The PM will advise restraint and make statements about the law taking its own course. Both will act according to a set script. In spite of claims that "the vhp is a separate organisation" there is little doubt that the organisation will only up the Ram ante if there are electoral gains in it for the bjp. That is why one of the important sidelights of the recent bjp meet was the long chat between the UP chief minister Rajnath Singh and Vinay Katiyar. It is unlikely that they were only discussing the bitter Delhi winter. Responding to a query on whether he was fine-tuning his party's electoral strategy for Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath laughed and said, "Ram shabd mein bahut dum hai (There is great power in the word Ram). " And the bjp is adept at invoking it.
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