He looked perfectly at ease. The half-shut eyes considered his audience and apparently enjoyed what they saw. He paused for effect before delivering the coup de grace. "The task is not finished yet!" The dotting media hands in tow, having lately become so accustomed to the liberal face of Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, couldn't believe what their ears had registered. Many termed it 'a slip of the tongue' but as S Jaipal Reddy of the Congress so aptly put it, "this was no slip of tongue...this is the slip of the mask."
And by choosing the venue of the iftar party hosted by Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, the Vajpayee cabinet's only Muslim face, to reaffirm what he had said earlier in the day, the Prime Minister apparently wanted to drive home the point both to his party and the opposition that he was serious about what he was saying.
Little wonder, the Hindutva clan went into raptures. A delighted Sanjay Nirupam, the MP from fanatic Shiv Sena said: "This was the greatest statement by PM. And what a great example of Indian secularism - the call for Ram temple at an iftar party!"
And this is precisely why the BJP's partners in power, the members of the National Democratic Alliance, were so shocked. Before joining the BJP-led NDA, the parties like the TDP and DMK had gone to town with their reasons for joining hands with the BJP. We have forced the BJP to abandon its agenda, the allies had claimed. The allies were therefore appalled by the Vajpayee rigmarole. But when the Prime Minister offered a 'clarification' at the hastily-convened NDA meeting, the partners like TDP, which do not want to upset the NDA applecart at as it would pave way for a government led by their common foe, Congress, were only too willing to accept the facile clarification by the Prime Minister.
The allies, who never had any love lost for the extremist Hindu party, known for its campaign against the Muslims and other minorities, have been perplexed with the metamorphosis in Vajpayee, the so-called liberal face of the fascist party. When the Congress and other opposition parties cornered the government in parliament on the issue, the confusion in the ranks of the BJP's allies came to the fore.
They were faced with a curious dilemma indeed. They could not support the censure motion moved by the Congress on the issue of the resignation of the chargesheeted ministers implicated in the Babri Masjid destruction for it would bring down the government. Nor could they support the BJP's destruction of the mosque built by Mughal emperor Babar's general, Mir Baqi, 400 years ago and the grandiose justification of the act of vandalism by Vajpayee. The NDA partners eventually ended up with a bizarre approach. While they criticized the Congress and other opposition parties for bringing in the motion against the Vajpayee government on the demolition issue, they also took on the BJP leadership for demolishing the mosque. The BJP allies in the government threw the ruling party in a tizzy by their aggressive postures right before the voting on the motion.
No wonder, Vajpayee tried his best to pacify his allies. He assured them that he would stick to the NDA manifesto. But did he disown the BJP's contentious agenda? He didn't. Nor did he seek to 'clarify' his statement of the December 7, on the eighth anniversary of the Babri Masjid destruction. Instead he dipped into his vast repertoire of histrionics to create a risqu rigmarole, which meant different things to different people.
The act of vandalism eight years ago had shattered the 150 million-strong Muslim community in India. The Hindu party had led a massive seditious campaign throughout the country against the 16th century mosque alleging that Emperor Babar had the mosque built after "demolishing the temple at Lord Ram's birthplace in Ayodhya." The highly inflammatory campaign had culminated in the destruction of the historic mosque on December 6, 1992 leading to widespread protests and agitation by the Indian Muslims. But the protesting Muslims had to face the police bullets as well as the fanatic Hindu mobs across India. As a result thousands of Muslims died in the riots in cities like Bombay. And the rabid campaign against the mosque and indirectly the Muslim community had been successfully directed and exploited by the BJP, the party that heads the rag-tag coalition of 24 parties. Pandering shamelessly to the religious sentiments of the majority Hindu community of the country, the party in a very short period of time managed to increase its strength in the parliament from 2 to close to 200.
However, it still needed the support of numerous small parties to form the government. Although the compulsions of coalition politics have forced it to puts its fascist, anti-Muslim agenda on the backburner, it has never really given it up.
Coming back to the current crisis, while Vajpayee tried to reassure the peeved allies on the temple issue, his belligerent brothers in the saffron family were left in no doubt that the Prime Minister after all was one of their own -- the eternal swayamsevak who would never abandon the real agenda of the clan. In his 50-minute speech, he reiterated that "the Ram temple was an expression of national sentiment" and compared it to a similar statement by the late president Rajendra Prasad in the context of reconstruction of Somnath temple. Although the crisis seems to have blown over for the time being, the about-turn by Vajpayee on the mosque destruction has fuelled intense speculation on the factors that led to the change of approach by the BJP. Pundits have been wondering as to what forced the 'dove' among the hawks to shed his moderate image? What indeed? Of late, the ruling party, so used to its rabble-rousing anti-Muslim role and agenda, was finding it hard to adjust itself to the compulsions of coalition politics. The rank and file were growing restive because of the 'appeasement of Muslims.'
With the Prime Minister raising the Ram pitch, the party surely finds itself on familiar ground yet again. Already there are reports of communal disturbances from across the country. The zealot followers of the Prime Minister's party seem to have taken the cue from the top brass. In the coming days as the fanatic party starts giving shape to the new strategy, the communal cauldron is likely to be stirred and stirred vigorously across the country.
And the Muslims are naturally very disturbed by the resurrection of the anti-Muslim campaign and the demons of the 1990s. G M Banatwala, Member of Parliament and the president of Indian Union Muslim League told iviews.com, "Vajpayee should know that the Supreme Court had termed the mosque destruction as a national shame." Moulana Shafi Monis, the vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind believes the Hindutva brigade is preparing to launch a full-scale campaign against the community to gain the votes of the Hindu majority. "Vajpayee is speaking like a true Hindutva votary now," says Moulana Monis. Former prime minister V P Singh, whose government fell for refusing to bow to the BJP, also shares the perception.
"The new approach is an expression of the BJP's increasing political aspiration to look beyond the present alliance," he said.
Meanwhile, the construction work for the proposed temple at the mosque site is going on in full swing. According to VHP leader Praveen Togadia, a massive dharam sansad (religious meeting) will be held at Allahabad in January 2001 to "accelerate the movement for Ram temple and awakening the Hindu consciousness." Simply put, a highly dangerous movement is underway, similar to the one that shattered the country and left a trail of death and destruction before and after December of 1992.
But why the Ram card now? The simple answer is the compelling necessity to retain the power in UP, the hotbed of Hindutva politics, where elections could be held any time next year. T,here is also a strong possibility of calling mid-term polls to the Parliament to get a more comfortable mandate riding yet again on the temple wave.
Today, although some coalition partners profess to be acutely unhappy with the turn of events, they are not likely to precipitate any crisis over an issue that affects they but peripherally. Vajpayee knows this. Hence, the courage to cast off the mask of a moderate and show his real face -- the face of a bigot ruler who has to settle scores with the community that ruled the country for a thousand years. "They (the chargesheeted ministers) have committed no crime (by demolishing the mosque)," he told the parliament. "The Ram temple agitation was the expression of a nationalistic sentiment."
Where is the need to display a liberal faade when he knows he holds all the aces? Advani, the potential rival, cannot challenge him eclipsed as he is by his past. Allies cannot afford to desert him. The opposition is too divided to take on his coalition. And the CBI, which has charged his three ministers, functions right under him. Given the investigating agency's record, it goes without saying how it can be safely persuaded to spawn a desired outcome. And no prizes for guessing what outcome Atal Behari Vajpayee would desire.
Aijaz Syed is Executive Editor of Meantime newsmagazine published from Bangalore, India
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