Does anybody remember the exact date on which LK Advani lost his chance to become Prime Minister of India? If you don’t, it was 6 December 1992. What happened was this: Advani reminded karsevaks at Ayodhya how the Babri Masjid, which stood at the exact spot where Lord Ram was born, symbolized the evils heaped on the Hindu nation through the centures.
But the karsevaks were not interested in mere talk. They stormed a police cordon around the masjid and the police cheerfully gave way. Then, the mob attacked the Babri Masjid and demolished it till not a stone remained standing.
Advani seemed genuinely upset by this turn of events. Some say he was in tears when Pramod Mahajan led him away and took him to the guesthouse where he was staying.
In the weeks and months that followed, there was shock and revulsion across the world. Riots broke out throughout India, hundreds died. And later, when assembly elections were held, the BJP was voted out in those states where it held power.
The demolition effectively sealed Advani’s fate. It was clear that the BJP government in UP had colluded with the vandals. In total violation of an undertaking given to the Supreme Court, the karsevaks were allowed to bring the implements required to demolish a large stone structure to the group. And the demolition was carried out with well-rehearsed precision.
Cynics maintained that Advani must have been party to the conspiracy to demolish the mosque. This meant that he was clearly unfit to be Prime Minister. Others, such as myself, believed that he had no idea of what was planned. But this led to a graver question. Could you trust a man who stoked passions for political gain (as Advani clearly had on the Ayodhya issue) and then lost control of the mob whose fervour he had fed?
I reckon it was the second question that sealed Advani’s fate. At the time he was Supreme Leader of the BJP and AB Vajpayee had been sidelined. But in the years following the demolition, Advani was demoted to second place and Vajpayee became the party’s candidate for PM – a post he eventually secured.
I was reminded of the questions about Advani’s leadership as I watched events unfold after the crackdown at JNU, and I couldn’t help but notice how history was repeating itself.
Consider the way this story has played out. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar was in keeping with the hyper-nationalism promoted by Modi. After the arrest, the party sent in the big guns to condemn the JNU agitation: Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani, who introduced Bharat Mata into the discourse.
Then things began to go wrong. There was, first of all, the nagging feeling (now largely confirmed) that a) the slogans, while deeply offensive, did not meet the legal definition of sedition and b) that even if they did, the police had arrested the wrong man. Even while we grappled with these doubts, Rajnath Singh declared that there was a Hafeez Saeed link. It turned out that this was based on a tweet from a parody account in Saeed’s name. The home minister couldn’t tell the difference between a real terrorist and a joker.
The situation worsened significantly three days after the arrest when a mob of lawyers, some with professed BJP sympathies, assaulted journalists and JNU students and faculty in the Patiala House court. The Delhi Police refused to intervene.
At around the same time, a BJP MLA was caught on camera beating up a protestor outside the courtroom. Later, he boasted that he would shoot dead anyone who raised anti-India slogans. The BJP brazened it out. I was on a TV show where a party spokesman endorsed the MLA’s stand and said it was the BJP’s position.
Two days later, though the lawyers had threatened further violence on social media, the Delhi Police did nothing to stop lawyers from assaulting Kanhaiya in court. The Supreme Court dispatched a panel to Patiala House and it reported that the police were colluding with the lawyers.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, BJP spokesmen went from channel to channel playing a video purporting to show Kanhaiya raising anti-India slogans. The BJP’s media/IT cell also tweeted the same video.
We know now that the video was a fake. Forensic experts have proved that it was stitched together from two different videos. We don’t know who doctored it. But we know who circulated it.
Through it all, the Prime Minister has remained silent.
The nation’s tweeter-in-chief has put his smartphone away and issued no statements. The Delhi police chief has seemed cheerfully unperturbed by the venality of his force.
So, nearly 25 years after Ayodhya, people are asking Modi the questions they once asked Advani. How involved were you in this sordid saga? Did you know about the framing of Kanhaiya, the assaults on innocents, and the doctored video?
My sense is that Modi really did not know. All this happened during his precious Make in India celebration and completely overshadowed it. Far from hailing India for its stability, justice, and rule of law, the global press has highlighted the cynical manipulation of our police and the shambles outside our courts.
Modi, who like Advani, wants to be regarded as a statesman had nothing to gain and much to lose from this mess.
But people are also asking the second question: Given that you raised passions to this level, have you now lost control of the mob you created? Are you unable to control the rampaging, Bharat Mata-chanting lawyers? Have your pet Twitter trolls stopped listening to you? Do your IT people fake videos without even checking with you? Do your spokesmen go on TV to justify brazen assaults without bothering about the line you want broadcast?
At some stage, Modi will have to find answers to these questions. He is eager to erase memories of the mobs of 2002. But to do that, and to be regarded as a statesman, he needs to demonstrate that he can control the passions he has unleashed and restrain the mobs that owe loyalty to him.
If he fails to do that, then this could well be Narendra Modi’s Ayodhya moment.