Poodles, not partners
A little over a year ago, the 23-party National Democratic Alliance appeared a viable entity, steadily sure of completing its term and comfortable with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s leadership. It projected an image of social plurality, regional variety and ideological eclecticism — despite its abject failure to confront the BJP on the Gujarat carnage.
The allies, it was often argued, might be too pusillanimous and power-hungry to demand that the BJP sack Narendra Modi and bring the culprits of that state-assisted pogrom to justice. But they were still not contaminated by the BJP’s communal ideology. It still couldn’t impose its RSS-driven core-agenda upon them. The BJP itself said it had kept ‘controversial’ issues like the Ram temple, Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code out of the NDA agenda out of deference for its ‘secular allies’. It remained dedicated to them, but would pursue them only if it came to power on its own.
A year on, the NDA resembles a moth-eaten, sickly, pitiable version of its former self. Ten partners have deserted the BJP (counting the BSP). The NDA’s secular space has been hollowed out. Its plurality has shrunk with the withdrawal of three Dravidian parties. The NDA’s internal political balance has decisively shifted in the BJP’s favour.
Most important, since April 8, Hindutva has intruded the NDA’s basic programme and foundational policy. The BJP now wields full-spectrum dominance over the NDA as its hegemon. It decides its strategic line-of-march. It determines its campaign tactics. And it imposes its own sectarian trademark Hindu-Rashtra ideology on its ‘secular’ allies.
The BJP takes them for granted. It seldom bothers to consult them. The crucial decision to dissolve the Lok Sabha prematurely was taken unilaterally, not consensually. The ‘India Shining’ campaign and the decision to present an ‘interim budget’ (not vote-on-account) were both its unilateral initiatives.
However, the turning point really came with the NDA manifesto. The document was drafted entirely by the BJP and shown only to George Fernandes. Fernandes claims he read out relevant parts of the text to the other members, who agreed. That very day, some of them, including the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal and the Telugu Desam, distanced themselves from ‘controversial’ formulations, especially on the temple issue. So much for coalition dharma!
The manifesto’s most important component is its formulation on the Ayodhya issue, which the NDA insists, is unobjectionable and non-controversial: it only demands a ‘judicial verdict’ or a negotiated settlement through a Hindu-Muslim ‘dialogue’ conducted with ‘mutual trust and goodwill’.
This claim is nonsensical. The NDA relates the temple issue to the noble-sounding cause of ‘national integration’. But why should the temple have anything to do with ‘national integration’ unless that integration was in the first place menaced by the Babri masjid demolition (on which the manifesto is deliberately silent).
The same ‘secular’ parties took exception to Vajpayee’s statement (e.g. in New York in September 2000, or Delhi in December 2000) that the anti-Babri agitation was a ‘national movement’. NDA ‘secularists’ were also uncomfortable when Vajpayee at Ramachandra Paramahans’s funeral last August vowed “to build the temple”.
Now, to their disgrace, they have fallen for the same proposition — hook, line and sinker. Fernandes wore a beatific smile as Vajpayee ‘clarified’ at the NDA press conference that the temple is a “public and national” issue. The Gujarat carnage was neither ‘public’ nor ‘national’. Nor was the Babri demolition, although hundreds of Indian citizens were killed in its wake.
The NDA formulation on resolving the Ayodhya dispute might appear benignly reasonable. It isn’t. An early court verdict is extremely unlikely. And going by recent formulas (e.g. the Kanchi Shankara-charya’s), a ‘dialogue’ and ‘negotiated’ deal will probably be one-sided: build a grand temple where the razed mosque stood, in return for an assurance that Kashi and Mathura won’t be targeted.
The manifesto does no justice to the aggrieved party. Rather, it amounts to indirect, subtle coercion of Muslims into agreeing to a temple — without the mosque being mentioned. Surely, Muslims will see the formulation as telling them: temple on VHP-BJP terms, or nothing.
Similarly, the ‘foreign origin’ formulation spells crass xenophobia. A minority of Indians might experience ‘shallow’ discomfort with the idea that a naturalised citizen should lead India — itself a sad comment on the closing of their minds. But the rationale of the BJP/NDA’s campaign is far deeper.
The rationale consists in changing the ground-rules of citizenship and subverting fundamental rights. It will create a new sub-category of citizens on the basis of place of birth — a notion repugnant to the universalist spirit of the Constitution, which mandates equality of all citizens irrespective of ethnicity, gender, language or religion.
This will throw us back to ethnic-chauvinist, ‘culturalist’ nationalism, violating the Constitution’s citizenship- and rights-based scheme. Given the vitriol being poured upon Sonia Gandhi because of her origins, it’s clear the BJP/NDA’s agenda is to stoke the basest sentiments about ‘Indianness’ based on ethnicity. This is qualitatively no different from the ethnicity-centred politics of Jean-Marie Len Pen, the Likud or Hitler.
That’s where the ‘new’ Bofors ‘disclosure’ comes in. This is a rehashed version of the surmises of a Swedish policeman who investigated the Bofors scandal but failed to establish corruption charges in Swedish courts. He himself admits: “We were unable to establish the truth...” He has wantonly dragged in Sonia Gandhi’s name although it does not figure in any Bofors-related documents. The ‘revelation’ was carried six years ago in The Indian Express. It’s ludicrous to level charges against Gandhi without a remotely plausible rationale. The ‘expose’s’ timing speaks for itself.
And yet, Vajpayee has applied indirect pressure on the CBI by saying it will look into the disclosures. This is unbecoming of the PM who pretends to being broad-minded. In the past, Vajpayee repeatedly asserted (e.g. April 29, 1999) that he won’t make ‘foreign origins’ an election issue; that would be ‘unhealthy’. He has rubbed shoulders with Sonia Gandhi in Parliament and official functions, and treated her as a normal, legitimate, honourable leader. But he has suddenly turned.
For double standards, it’s hard to match Vajpayee or L.K. Advani. On April 5, the BBC quoted Advani as saying that the anti-Babri Ayodhya campaign had ‘hurt’ the BJP and himself: it “should never have happened...” He also said the BJP would have secured a majority in 1999 but for the demolition. The very next day, Advani said the temple issue had boosted the BJP’s fortunes: “... where we have reached today is only due to the Ram temple...”!
What we are witnessing is not a robust, contentious and yet genuinely democratic election campaign, but a filthy, hate-driven, and prejudice-exploiting enterprise inspired by cynical and profound contempt for democratic decency. Complicit in this are large sections of the media which blacked out well-documented charges against Advani’s son in the AK-47 deal.
This bodes ill for India’s democracy. Democracy isn’t about winning elections alone, certainly not by any means. Hitler and Mussolini too won elections — as did George W. Bush, after a fashion. The damage they did by initiating a circle of violence, hatred, counter-violence and war, resulted in catastrophe. It’s the last case, it’s still unfolding in Iraq.
When the Hindutva worthies were in power in the late-Seventies, their secular allies at least confronted them on ‘dual membership’ (of the Janata and the RSS). The allies have learnt no lessons from this. Rather, after they miserably failed to demand justice for Gujarat, they have themselves come to follow a ‘dual agenda’: a deceptive one — NDA ‘consensus’ — and the real one — Hindutva.