At an iftar dinner hosted on December 7 by the bjp's sole Muslim minister Shahnawaz Hussain, the Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam wore a big grin. "This is the PM's greatest statement," he exulted soon after Vajpayee suggested that a "Ram temple could be built at the disputed site in Ayodhya, while a masjid could be built at an alternative site". This statement was eerily reminiscent of the vhp/bjp war cries of "mandir wahin banega (we'll build the temple there)'. The Shiv Sainik joked: "What a great example of Indian secularism, a call for the Ram temple at an iftar!"
Earlier in the day, Nirupam had called on the PM to congratulate him on Shiv Sena's behalf for his statement that the building of the Ram temple remained an unfinished task. The PM responded: "Maine kuch naya nahin bola (I have said nothing new)." To which the MP said: "Naya nahin bola, lekin aapne pehli bar bola (Nothing new, but you have said it for the first time)."
Atal Behari Vajpayee was supposed to have been the liberal in the bjp, the odd man in, a dove among hawks. A man who never failed to remind the world that he was sadly out of tune with the agitational politics of the Ramjanmabhhomi. Party workers recall Vajpayee snapping at kar sevaks: "Bolte raho Jai Shri Ram aur karo mat kuch kaam (Keep chanting Jai Shri Ram and don't do any work)." It was around anecdotes such as this that the liberal and reasonable Vajpayee persona was built.
It was a mighty reputation. Some opinion polls even described him as the most popular Indian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru. But in one fell swoop all pretensions to any kind of Nehruvian liberalism were washed away when Vajpayee played the Ram card last week and resurrected the specter of Ayodhya. He stunned the world when he gave his support to the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site on the eighth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition.
The question that's on all minds is: why did Vajpayee demolish his carefully nurtured image by playing an overtly communal card? Deflecting attention from the three chargesheeted ministers—L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi and Uma Bharti—the entire Opposition has now trained its guns on the prime minister, demanding his resignation. Vajpayee was also destabilising his government and embarrassing his nda allies into putting up a protest though none of them would really like to rock the boat now. But should her persist with the agenda the allies might reconsider their support to the government. tdp leader Chandrababu Naidu sharply reminded Vajpayee that his support is for a national agenda and it is "unwarranted that someone should exploit a issue which is before the courts for their political ends". National Conference MP and minister of state for commerce and industries Omar Abdullah described himself as "let down" by the PM's statements: "For a Muslim minister Babri Masjid is certainly an issue." When Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee went to meet the PM along with the tdp's Yerran Naidu, Vajpayee reassured them that the Union Government would not deviate from the nda's national agenda. But according to Banerjee: "He also explained that there are some issues which the bjp as a party has to raise."
Vajpayee had essentially passed on to Banerjee what the rss leadership had told him earlier this month. On December 1 the PM had hosted a dinner for the rss leadership. The entire top rung was there: sarsangchalak K.S. Sudarshan, general secretary H.V. Sheshadri, general secretary Mohan Bhagwat and joint general secretary Madandas Devi.The bjp lineup was limited only to its national presidents, past and present: Bangaru Laxman, L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi and Kushabhau Thakre.
THAT night the rss leaders told the PM that the government should do its work, but should not expect the bjp to act like its secretary. The bjp must be allowed to raise its issues. The rss also let the PM know that they were protecting him from the likes of vhp's Ashok Singhal and Giriraj Kishore and the swadeshi lobby within the Sangh itself. Sudarshan also said that despite grave reservations of the cadre, for which a hardline on Kashmir is an article of faith, he had supported the ceasefire as a "well thought out strategy".
The Sangh leaders also mentioned a national council meet of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch at Bhopal in mid-November, where speaker after speaker attacked the first generation economic reforms. The bjp leaders were warned that the economic reforms could become the bugbear of the government: many of the Sangh's network of small sector businessmen were adversely affected and could turn against the party. The disgruntlement had now spread to the farming sector.
There was another sub-plot to this drama. The rss was livid over the raw charges levelled against media baron J.K. Jain, reportedly at the behest of the prime minister's powerful principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. The owner of Jain TV, it's been alleged, has links with Pakistan's isi. Jain has been an rss/bjp old-timer and has repeatedly put his channel and television studios at the party's service. How could Mishra have labelled one of "us" a "deshdrohi", demanded the rss leaders? There are also other charges against Mishra: that his juniors in the pmo talk against other party leaders and the parivar, and that the principal secretary has been quoted as describing the rss as "irrelevant". Later, in a separate meeting with Vajpayee, Jain is rumoured to have detailed some corruption charges against the entire prime ministerial establishment.
Vajpayee's political antenna picked up the signals. The Sangh was demanding Mishra's scalp. They were also telling him that the cadre would not work for the party in Uttar Pradesh—the bjp's lifeline—in preparation for the 2002 assembly elections. Vajpayee understood that things could go terribly wrong in the party he had nurtured and brought to power unless he acted fast. The Sangh was telling the PM: "We have given you so much; ab aapki bari (now it's your turn)."
Under pressure the prime minister obviously dug deep into his bag of tricks and came up with the bjp's much-used Ram card. An odd choice for a man who built his image on being "different from the pack". That Vajpayee was willing to destroy his carefully built-up image was itself an indication of the kind of pressure he was under. He was risking destabilisation of his government, just to keep his flock together. The "swayamsevak' knew that when the sarsangchalak commands, even a prime minister obeys.
In fact, there is not much to speculate about on this. pmo sources say that since Vajpayee acted as an nda PM rather than a bjp leader on issues like the economic reforms and the Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, he has been under pressure from the Sangh hardliners. So, says a bjp leader, "in order to buy peace from the hawks so that he could implement the nda agenda, Vajpayee made appeasing noises on the Ayodhya issue. This will keep the hardliners happy and they will ease the pressure on the Budget, ceasefire, etc".
Besides, the PM was also under pressure from the Sangh to bridge the divide between him and Advani. Even Advani was taken aback when Vajpayee came out so strongly in his defence. Says a bjp minister close to the PM: "The only thing that has suffered is Vajpayee's image. The party comes across as united. And Vajpayee's image can take this beating. No one has asked for his resignation. The alliance is not in danger. When the tdp and the Trinamul Congress representatives met him, this was not the only agenda on their minds."
However, later in the day, after an all-party meeting of the nda convened by Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, the Trinamul, the tdp and Om Prakash Chautala's inld sought a statement from the PM to "reduce communal tension caused" by his Ram temple remarks.
Meanwhile, the impact of Vajpayee's utterances on the Ram temple on the rank and file of the parivar has been electrifying. bjp vice-president Madan Lal Khurana crowed: "Ab party mein raunak aagayi (Now there's excitement in the party). Joshi was more circumspect: "I am certainly not unhappy." Sheshadri Chari, editor of Organiser, the rss mouthpiece, says: "The cadre is beginning to ask, if Advani can go to a dargah, why can't Rajnath Singh go to Ayodhya?" As an rss strategist explains: "The cadre need a Hindu issue to mobilise them. Now they will recall the heady days of the Ram mandir movement". The odd man out was bjp president Bangaru Laxman. In one stroke Vajpayee had buried Laxman's Nagpur line of moderation and reaching out to the minorities.
By rekindling the mandir issue, Vajpayee also spelt out his party's electoral strategy for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Next month, at the Prayag Kumbh Mela, the vhp will announce a date for building a temple to Ram. Through the year, as the election campaign for the state hots up, a wave, that makes the construction of Ram temple look imminent, will be created. For, this time around, the bjp expects Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP to match it in terms of money and muscle. So, the cadre want to have Lord Ram on their side.
bjp secretary incharge of UP Pyarelal Khandelwal says: "In any case, there is already a mandir at Ayodhya. The masjid is gone. Why do you people get so excited." Unless some brakes are put and the Ayodhya genie is put back into the bottle, Uttar Pradesh in the year 2001 could be eerily similar to Uttar Pradesh of 1991-92, when the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation rewrote the political destinies of the state and the nation , forever.
The only difference: this time it's the so-called moderate Vajpayee who is willing to risk communal polarisation in the country's largest state, just to ensure that his party comes up trumps there. But that doesn't satisfactorily explain why Vajpayee did such an about-turn and destroyed his fine reputation.
When the bjp was formed in Mumbai in 1980, in the wake of the dual membership controversy that brought down Morarji Desai's Janata government, Vajpayee's presidential address played down the rss and the Jana Sangh connection and focused instead on Jayaprakash Narayan's legacy. After the 1984 debacle when the party was reduced to just two Lok Sabha seats and Vajpayee himself suffered a humiliating defeat, the party went back to basics and built up it's Hindu identity. The Hindutva phase peaked with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. But it came to an end in 1993 when the bjp was defeated in the UP elections. At this point, master-strategist Advani realised that stridency could fetch no further gains.A moderate line was adopted and the search for allies began. That line proved successful, with Vajpayee being installed as prime minister in 1998 and the bjp ending the political isolation which had earlier kept it out of power.
But Vajpayee's sudden about-turn at the close of the first year of the new century simply makes no sense. While the cadre may love the Ram card, even bjp leaders admit that Ayodhya is not an issue with the electorate. By stoking the flames of Ayodhya, Vajpayee will only destroy his reputation, and again isolate the bjp at a time when efforts are on to revive the third front. As strategies go, this one is too strident and not one that Vajpayee would normally author. But last fortnight was not Vajpayee's. The Sangh clearly reiterated that when it comes to the crunch, it dictates the course which the bjp has to take.