National

The Pm Vs The Man

Consensual politics is the cross Vajpayee has to bear

The Pm Vs The Man
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When A.B. Vajpayee was a young and fiery Jana Sangh leader, he made several speeches attacking conversion. As always, his oratory was impressive. Now that Vajpayee is older, and the prime minister of India, he's also undoubtedly wiser. So he's chosen not to make a display of his oratory on the prickly issue of Christians and conversion.

Though reports of atrocities against Christians keep coming in, the PM views them with a dollop of scepticism. He told a senior journalist that many reports were exaggerated and random criminal acts were being passed off as anti-Christian. Over a month ago, he asked a member of a Christian delegation why they were giving India a bad name. But the group of Christians who called on him last week got a more sympathetic ear. Vajpayee asked special secretary (home) T.R. Kakkar to investigate the anti-Christian hate literature in circulation. He added that "all minorities are safe in India".

Even for a master of consensus like him, Vajpayee has a particularly tough balancing act to do on this issue. On the one hand, he can't afford to anger the RSS by blaming organisations like the VHP/Bajrang Dal for the violence. At the same time, he cannot alienate allies like Chandrababu Naidu by appearing to do nothing. The best course he has is to do little and keep his fingers crossed that parivar hotheads do not embarrass him further.

Vajpayee did speak his mind once, in 1997, when anti-Christian violence first erupted in Gujarat. He sought a national debate on conversions, then recanted at the national and international reaction. At that time, his aides claimed he'd been misled by the RSS. He may have put his foot in the mouth but Vajpayee had been speaking from the heart. It is an article of faith for every product of the parivar to oppose any conversion. Says a pmo official: "The PM knows there's an extremist fringe of Hindu organisations behind the violence. But there is also a real disapproval in Hindu society for conversions some missionaries engage in."

This doesn't imply Vajpayee condones Christian-bashing. On the contrary, he abhors violence and was sadly out of tune with the agitational politics of the BJP's Ram mandir drive. His aides say the prime minister is worried about the frequency of the incidents. Instructions have been given to stop them. Asks a pmo aide: "But do atrocities against Dalits stop because the PM says so?"

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