The author is an independent researcher and political analyst
The third anniversary of the ruling National Democratic Alliance was meant to showcase its achievements. As it turned out, it was a demonstration of its continued reliance on its pre-eminent leader and most well-known symbol: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The gloves were off as he spoke out against the politics of intolerance. No one was in doubt that it was the in-house critics and not the opposition that were the prime targets.
Prior to the firm esconsing of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in office in April 1998, few doubted the discipline and unity of the sangh parivar. Bound together by a shared ethos of the parent organization, and under the benevolent eye of the headquarters in Nagpur, it conveyed a sense of organizational discipline. The image now lies in tatters. Since March this year, in particular, when the deal on Ayodhya fell through, leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have not minced words about the prime minister and his team. Of late, Ashok Singhal has not even spared the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, though his anger has been mainly reserved for the principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra.
Not since R.K. Dhawan was the focus of public anger after the Emergency has anyone in the prime minister’s office been so central to public debate. At heart is a critical issue: the right of the head of government to pick his own team. The sangh feels left out. No one from its ranks has attained the stature and power that Vajpayee has. But the former swayamsevak did not become the longest serving non-Congress head of government in order to cede power to someone else. It is not the official but the leader who is the VHP’s real target.
It is not the office but the direction in which he takes the country that matters to the VHP. The latter was a largely moribund front from the time it was founded in 1964 until the Eighties. It was overhauled and transformed into a large platform by Ashok Singhal, a former ideologue of the parent body. Even Advani’s famous journey from Somnath owed much to the initial spadework by the VHP. From the early Eighties, it launched yatras across the length and breadth of India, especially the small towns and villages. These first used an icon of Bharat mata or Mother India. Later, they took on the Ram jyoti, a flame symbolizing the Ayodhya site. The BJP only officially took on the Babri Masjid issue after its session at Palanpur. The “electoral mascot” was identified and prepared by a sister organization; even the demolition in December 6, 1992, involved cadre from the larger front organization.
No wonder that the minimal agenda of the ruling coalition has a different logic for each of the partners. For the BJP, it has provided an opportunity to hold office, something the Ram temple agenda in itself could not provide. This poses a major challenge for the VHP, which finds its own friends in office unable, if not unwilling, to dance to its tune. At the time of the shilanyas in November 1989, the then head of the VHP and the mahant of the math at Gorakhpur, Mahant Avaidyanath, had identified two major allies in the political landscape. One was the BJP, which he said was a permanent friend; the other was the Congress, which was sometimes a help.
Since then, Indian politics has undergone a sea-change. The Congress, though out of power since 1996, is locked in head-on struggle with the sangh as a whole. The fact that it is headed by a foreign-born Indian national and a Roman Catholic is central to the propaganda of the BJP as much as of the VHP. The success of the BJP, which has been the largest party in the Lok Sabha since the ouster of the Congress, has been a god-sent for the sangh parivar as a whole. The differences should not be exaggerated or blown out of proportion.
There is no doubt that ideological agenda have made much headway. Witness the handling of the anti-Christian violence in 1998 or the massacres of Muslims earlier this year. The fact that both were in a BJP-ruled state is no coincidence. It shows how far the various elements and groups in the sangh can and does work together when they have a common purpose.
But there are still major points of tension. The present head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, K. Sudarshan, has strong views on economic reform, its scope and character. These often run counter to stated policy, and he continues to publicly proclaim the virtues of a swadeshi model. A couple of years ago, in an economic counterpart of the recent spat over Mishra’s case, he suggested that the economist, Bharat Jhunjhunwala, should be the sole adviser on economic affairs. The latter had to be content with an award at a glittering ceremony. Recognition by the ideological fraternity did not translate into a change of personnel at the top.
Nor can it be allowed to do so. What is at stake, as so often in the Vajpayee period, is prime-ministerial authority. The office itself is reduced to a shadow of what it was in the Congress era. Even the master of balancing acts, P.V. Narasimha Rao, seems to have packed more power than the present incumbent. The difference is not merely in that Rao headed a single-party regime and the present coalition has 24 component units and parties. It also derives from the deep, organic links of the BJP with the rest of its fraternity. Having grown used to the close-knit, closed-door functioning of their own brotherhood, the pracha- raks of the sangh are unable to adapt to a modern state.
The latter can only be run according to established procedures. But these mean little to the sangh. What is significant is that their own chosen few, once in public office, are under sustained attack. The parent body refuses to step aside, as veteran Gandhians did, once Jawaharlal Nehru firmly took the reins of power. The shrill attacks by Praveen Togadia and Singhal increase their leverage. This is what deepens suspicions that the Ayodhya issue will come back to centrestage at some point. This may happen by the eve of the next general elections or when the government feels confident of brow-beating its allies. The official government line is that it can only be settled via the courts or consensus.
But this leaves the cadre of the BJP as much as of the VHP in a quandary. They would then have precious little to show for having been in power for so long. Conversely, opening the question will add to the disaffection of the NDA partners. The issue will simmer on, and the next round in the tug of war will be after the Gujarat assembly poll results are out. The logic of Vajpayee’s politics has always been consistent: he will strengthen his party, but keep it at the core of a multi-party alliance. But a big win will reinforce another view, which puts a premium on ideology, not coexistence.
The deeper casualty of the division over tactics in the broader sangh family has other, more sobering, consequences. They call into question its ability to evolve a coherent mechanism to resolve conflicts. They also further erode the party’s image as a responsible custodian of power, making this a time for introspection, not celebration.