The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Smiles all around, only VHP by wayside

The peaceful conclusion of the denouement at the temple town of Ayodhya has pleased all key players but one. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad stands isolated in the political landscape. The governments in both Lucknow and New Delhi have managed to avert crises.

A new precedent of co-operation between regimes of opposing political hues has been set in a troubled region of north India.

Ashok Singhal continues to breathe fire but there is little sign that the spark has spread. In sharp contrast to October 1990, when Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Sangh parivar were both on a warpath, there is little resonance in the vast Hindi heartland. The card has been played many a time and over and now yields sharply diminished returns.

The other possible explanation is more complex. For both Mulayam Singh and the BJP, the politics of polarisation is past the peak. The former is trying to put together a new social coalition that has space for all but the Dalits. This should explain why he has been so restrained and measured in his containment of the VHP cadre and volunteers.

In the early nineties, north India was just emerging into a post-Congress era. Both the claimants of majority and minority support wanted to up the ante. It was a means to garner and consolidate support.

The Hindutva groups succeeded beyond all their dreams and even came to power in 1991. Ram Lalla proved more powerful in the voter’s mind than the magic of Mandal.

All that was long ago: the saffron party is now a shrinking force in Uttar Pradesh.

What was once a masterstroke now looks like a desperate gamble to hold together a constituency increasingly, perhaps, irretrievably fractured on the lines of caste.

The BJP’s predicament is of a party leading the Union government. It is busy back-pedalling on the emotive temple issue. The Centre even helped the state government with central paramilitary forces.

The government is also mindful of the growing distaste in a significant part of the body politic for the ferocity of the Gujarat massacres last year. Any untoward developments at the disputed site in the temple town would only worsen matters for the Gujarat government. The latter already faces further Supreme Court strictures on tardy investigation of the massacres.

The party also put some distance from Praveen Togadia’s comment that violence would follow if “the Ram bhakts were prevented from offering prayers at the disputed site”. In a sense, this suits Vajpayee’s team in its larger battle plan. The new stirrings of realignment within the NDA indicate the smaller parties will try demand a greater pound of flesh. Any new conflagration will only decrease the larger organisation’s clout.

Conversely, a Vajpayee under attack from the firebrands of the VHP attracts centrist support. This only adds to his image as a man who stands above the fray. He did appeal that the Parishad be trusted and allowed free run of the town but it was a statement for the record. It was not followed up and there was no secret about where his sympathies lay in this instance.

All the more so, since it is the main challenger against Congress ministries in the four Hindi belt Assembly elections this December.

The Ayodhya card and its variants such as cow slaughter are simply not working. It is more prudent to focus on the shortcomings of the chief ministers. Riding a wave of anti-incumbency has worked more often than not in the past. All the more so in north India where the gap between promise and performance is all the greater.

Interestingly, both Mayavati and the Congress were left on the sidelines in the most recent round of the battle for Ayodhya. Both are out of power but trying to play up on the Samajwadi Party-led coalition’s record. Neither made much headway. Mayavati alleged complicity of the Sangh and the Samajwadi Party and asked all trains with kar sevaks be stopped at the Uttar Pradesh border if possible.

The political implications are clear enough. The build-up by the VHP did not work wonders. Bereft of a sympathetic administration and faced with police batons and tear gas, the cadre are like paper tigers.

The larger implications are significant. The general elections are due a year from now. If the BJP and its allied organisations do not play the Hindutva card full tilt, it will deprive the Congress of a key rallying point for secular forces.

Few would have imagined a decade ago that Ayodhya could signal such realignment. The VHP’s trial runs on the issue in the late eighties had convinced the BJP that the temple could be its electoral mascot. Whether the reverse will be the case is yet to be seen. But last Friday did provide a pointer in that very direction.

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