The road to power does not run through Ayodhya. Belief in Atal Bihari Vajpayee outranks the fervour for speedy construction of the Ram temple. This is the key message of the Raipur session of the national executive council of the BJP.
True enough, the issue was discussed at the highest level in the party for the first time since the NDA came to power in 1998. But in a neat flip-flop of its position adopted at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, 14 long years ago, it sidestepped the demand for legislation raised in strident terms by other Sangh affiliates.
The issue can only be settled via consensus and the search for a settlement must continue. Vajpayee minced no words when he took on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It cannot cross the Lakshman rekha and hope to enjoy his confidence.
The logic of the NDA has for now stalled the drive to make the Ayodhya issue the be-all and end-all of Indian politics. With his strident calls for the Prime Minister’s resignation, Ashok Singhal actually virtually ensured there would be a strong response but not on the lines he favoured.
As with other ruling parties, the BJP will not brook an in-house opposition. It is now in its interest and that of its leadership to rein in the VHP and other affiliates. The issue must remain alive but not get out of hand. The party will set the pace: other parivar affiliates will have to fall in line.
The party resolution pointed to the compulsions of power. It did affirm a belief in a law. But it was more for form than for content. Such a prospect only arises if the allies bolt, leaving the party in the lurch. It would then need the Ram temple as a distinguishing mark for itself. Such a situation looks highly unlikely.
Raipur actually marks a careful retreat. At Palampur, then party president L.K. Advani had proclaimed Ayodhya as the “electoral mascot” of the movement and the party. Both were united on one question. The matter concerned the belief of millions of Hindus and their will would prevail.
Now, a polarised polity would actually work against the interests of the party. Now, more than ever, the partners have to be mollified. More than that, playing the saffron card will only ease the Congress’ newfound strategy of trying to unite all anti-Hindutva elements on a secular platform.
By leaning towards the centre of the political spectrum, the BJP will try to project a reasonable image. And no better person than the one senior leader who never took the rath bound for Ayodhya, Vajpayee.
A bow towards the cadre is evident but it is largely a sop. Enacting a law would be ideal but it must wait another day.
Hardheaded political analysis also favoured a middle path. As recently as March 2002, the Ram issue failed to yield a dividend of votes in the Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh.
At the national level, there is even less chance the card will work wonders as it did in 1991. A close look at the line-up in the last elections will explain why. It will also dampen some of the tall claims made in recent weeks.
Party president Venkaiah Naidu aims to secure as many as 300 seats for the BJP, up from 182 last time. At Raipur, general secretary Pramod Mahajan raised the ante to 500 seats for the alliance. This compares to 294 won in 1999 in the last general elections.
Given the Lok Sabha has only 543 seats, the key would be to bind the 22 remaining allies together. Two small players, Ram Vilas Paswan and the National Conference, have already left.
But there is the distinct possibility of two new entrants. The Bahujan Samaj Party would enable the party to make a fight of it in Uttar Pradesh, one of the few strongholds where it can hope to increase its current tally of seats. Across the Hindi belt and in Gujarat, there is little extra ground to be taken from the Congress or other rivals. There is ground to be retained, but little to be won.
The calculation is simple. The alliance must reach and then cross the 272 mark. To do so, it has to improve, not worsen, relations with its allies. Though they won just over half the seats the BJP did, the pooling together of votes is what gives the larger party the edge over the Congress. In fact, it won as many as 54 per cent of the 339 seats in which it put up candidates.
The allies made all the difference. None but the Shiv Sena shares the views of the Sangh on the matter. Even Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayavati, conceivably the single most crucial partner in the general elections, would not want the issue to endanger harmony in her home state.
In place of the Ram issue, raising questions on Sonia Gandhi’s fitness for the post of Prime Minister would work better. It would unify the allies, many of whom have roots in antipathy to the Congress.
This is especially true of a potential ally in the south who makes no bones of her opposition to the Congress president on account of the latter’s foreign origin. In Tamil Nadu, there is a real prospect that the improvement in relations with the ADMK will bring back an old ally to the NDA ranks. The party would displace the DMK, now a shadow of its former self.
The actual campaigns will assume a clear shape only as the general elections draw closer. But there is little doubt on the core of the Raipur resolutions. Vajpayee and his credentials as coalition leader will be the trump card. Ram will not be jettisoned but will remain on the back burner. It may be a longer wait than some may have counted on.