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Vajpayee bends, but does not turn

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has done it again. He first identified himself, both verbally and emotionally, with the cause of the Ram temple at Ayodhya at the funeral pyre of Mahant Ramchandradas Paramhans. By the time he got to the floor of the House, he reaffirmed his inclination for a court verdict or a settlement.

Significantly, he did not raise the possibility of a new law. Despite strong and explicit support for such an idea from various wings of the Sangh fraternity, he simply ruled it out. His silence on the subject spoke volumes.

The reasons are not far to seek. Whenever the next general elections are held, and they are due by October 2004, the BJP will need a host of allies. The quickest way to alienate key regional partners such as the Telugu Desam would be to raise the ante on the Ayodhya issue. Bringing it up on the floor of the House in a manner that warms the hearts of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will also open up rifts with NDA’s constituents such as the Samata Party and the DMK.

In fact, Vajpayee’s strong retort to Mulayam Singh Yadav may well have hidden messages for other players. He claimed he would forgo office rather than yield to pressure. The gentleman, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s words, is not for turning.

Turn he may not, but bend he will and does. His very presence at Ayodhya made it imperative he would endorse the late mahant’s dream. He did so in the ringing style that he has always been known for. Though he justified it saying he was a citizen before he was Prime Minister, he omitted he is also a party leader and politician at the same time.

True, the speech did not refer to the disputed site, but the reference to fulfilling the mission of the mahant left little scope for doubt.

What he stopped short of saying was how this would be accomplished. The room was open for stepping back gingerly when faced with an outcry.

The drama was reminiscent of previous episodes. On the eighth anniversary of the demolition, he had hailed the movement for a Ram temple as “an expression of national sentiment”. In the Kumarakom Musings later that month, he clarified the movement began as nationalism, but narrowed down into something quite different.

No doubt, the responsibilities of high office and the compulsions of his parivar are not always in sync with each other. But on Ayodhya, the dissonance is so glaring; it needs all of Vajpayee’s years of experience, not to mention his mastery of Hindi, to tie his critics in knots. In pleasing some, he displeases others. So, he chooses to vary the timbre and tone of the message depending where he is.

Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, known for his strident tone, managed to touch a raw nerve when he spoke of the PM’s “majboori”. The word may be loosely translated as pressures or better still as compelling pressures.

The fact is the BJP now badly needs the combined might of the Sangh parivar for the Assembly elections due this winter. Should these be held with the Lok Sabha polls, the drive and energy of the cadres of the VHP will be all the more vital, especially in the Hindi belt.

The point was indirectly driven home by the RSS sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan in Ayodhya. He stressed the need to work hard to achieve the goal of the Ram temple. If Sudarshan reflects the feelings of the cadre, Vajpayee is subject to the limitations of office. A law-governed state cannot take a unilateral initiative on an issue under dispute.

No wonder, the key spearhead of the movement in the Nineties, L.K. Advani, plays an even more subdued tune than Vajpayee. The deputy Prime Minister emphasises that even a favourable court verdict should be underpinned by an accord. Consensual agreement to ensure harmony is preferable to the ill will that may well follow a court settlement.

There are clear limits to what the BJP leadership will do. Neither the PM nor his deputy will give up on their objective of a temple on the disputed site. In this sense, they are both legatees of the demolition of December 6, 1992. But given the legal and, more than that, the highly charged and divisive symbolism of the issue, both want to try and transcend it.

In this effort, Vajpayee always gets ahead. He stayed away from the rath yatra of 1990. In fact, his visit to Ayodhya last week capped a whole decade when his extensive tours in Uttar Pradesh never took him to the temple town. This makes him a target of the ire of VHP leaders who have publicly attacked him.

Yet his rare appearances on such platforms become an occasion for acclaim in the Sangh parivar. Ashok Singhal openly praised Vajpayee for joining in the condolence meeting for Paramhans.

Vajpayee walks a tightrope, all the more so given the controversy over the legal proceedings in the Ayodhya case. In the ranks of senior leaders, he is among the few free of any allegations of complicity.

In turn, it is the PM who is lending his political weight on the side of the likes of Advani and M.M. Joshi. They need his imprimatur and approval more than ever before.

It is now clear that a legislative initiative is highly unlikely in the period of the present Lok Sabha. Were the BJP to have its own majority, things will change and fast. As Vajpayee stated in his second speech as Prime Minister in May 1996, once the party has a majority it will facilitate the construction of a temple.

But that has to wait another day. Expect another initiative to resolve matters through a dialogue. Till then, the Sangh will have to be content with initiatives on issues like cow slaughter.

Ayodhya will not go away and is back on the political landscape. But the PM has served notice to anyone who thinks the issue can be settled soon. He thinks the tightrope walk will continue. The compulsions of the coalition have outweighed the emotions of the Sangh.

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