By Swapan Dasgupta
AFTER DECEMBER 6, 1992, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP overnight became the Indian media’s Enemy Number One. This was not on account of the Fourth Estate arrogating to itself the role of a custodian of India’s multicultural inheritance but because frenzied kar sevaks, irked by what they perceived was the media’s onesided coverage of the dispute in Ayodhya, chose to beat up photographers (remember this took place before the invasion of the TV crews) carrying out their professional duties. The relationship between the media and saffron outfits turned so sour that when the police unleashed water cannons on BJP demonstrators who tried to violate a ban on a scheduled rally on Delhi’s Boat Club Lawns in February 1993, a gaggle of journalists actually cheered and muttered ‘serves you right’.
The wheel, it would seem, has turned full circle some 17 years later. In hindsight, the Sangh Parivar, particularly the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has reason to be extremely grateful to the media for getting it out of a pickle over the long-delayed Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri structure.
The government had planned to table the Liberhan report in Parliament around December 22, the penultimate day of the winter session. It rightly calculated that the ensuing fuss would make it impossible for Parliament to function and, therefore, it would be more prudent to minimise the time lost in disruption. The plan to defer the tabling of the report till the very end of the session was also premised on the belief that it would make it possible to announce some tough measures in the Action Taken Report.
These calculations went awry on the morning of November 23 when the Indian Express “leaked” the broad findings of the Liberhan report. This disclosure, quite predictably, created a storm in the House over the ethics of bypassing Parliament. But even before the disruption was complete, NDTV announced that it now possessed a copy of the report. To prove its authenticity, the channel even broadcast actual passages from the report.
The government’s hand was forced. With the PM in the US, it could not afford a political explosion that exposed sectarian fissures
For any government, keeping a high-profile report of a commission of inquiry is an occupational hazard. The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Jain Commission report on Rajiv Gandhi’s murder had witnessed media leaks which had derailed government calculations and led to unintended consequences. The media “leak” of what Home Minister P Chidambaram described as the “purported” Liberhan report had a similar effect. First, it focussed parliamentary discussion on the apparent breach of privilege, a procedural issue that diverted attention from the report itself. Secondly, it gave the BJP and the RSS sufficient time to prepare a response to what they always knew would be a strong indictment of their conduct in Ayodhya 17 years ago. The “leak” took away the surprise element from a report that had been too long in the making.
Finally, and this was probably the biggest jolt to the government, the “leak” enabled the media to paint the report in a way it wanted rather than how the government hoped for. In the normal course, a 1,000-page report would have been accompanied by an executive summary that would package the report in a way the government thought was politically prudent. What happened instead was that the surprise inclusion of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the list of 68 people “culpable” of spreading communal disharmony and the not-so-surprising exoneration of the PV Narasimha Rao-led government at the Centre became the talking points of the debate. In determining the political packaging of Liberhan’s reflections, the government had no hand.
The extent to which the enterprise of the media came to the rescue of the RSS is incalculable. The Liberhan report was a devastating indictment of the entire Sangh Parivar. It claimed the demolition was a meticulously planned criminal conspiracy involving the entire saffron family, including “pseudo-moderates” such as Vajpayee. It suggested that the BJP was merely a front organisation for the RSS — shades of KN Govindacharya’s infamous description of Vajpayee as a mukhauta (mask). Worse, it maintained that the civil administration of the states where the BJP was in power was suborned by the RSS.
Digging up the past Kar Sevaks performing the foundation-laying ceremony in 1989
Photo: HC TIWARI
It is immaterial that many of Liberhan’s conclusions were in the nature of assertions, not backed by empirical evidence. At times the report read like a pamphlet rather than the pronouncements of a judicial officer. What matters is that Liberhan had prepared the ground for any government to go beyond criminal action against those of the 68 still living. After 17 years of deliberation, Liberhan offered the government the ammunition for an outright ban on the RSS, if not the BJP.
At this point it is unlikely that the government would have exercised this draconian option. A commission of inquiry isn’t a judicial body and its pronouncements have no statutory significance. Any legal action against the RSS would have had to be a considered political decision and based on today’s ground realities. Any ban based on the perceived criminality of the organisation 17 years ago wouldn’t have been sufficiently persuasive, particularly as it was bound to be perceived as an attempt to cripple the BJP.
Few in the BJP — a section of which had forewarning of Liberhan’s dim view of the men in khaki shorts — seriously expected the government to ban the RSS. However, they didn’t anticipate harsh strictures against LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi either. What they did expect was that the government would extract every ounce of propaganda mileage from the report and paint the whole movement in the darkest of colours. This wouldn’t matter to the committed but many in the BJP feared the fallout of the Liberhan report on a generation whose perception of the party had been discoloured by the Gujarat riots of 2002.
There is no evidence to suggest that the RSS leadership had a similar appreciation of the possible complications the Liberhan report would create for it. It had been alerted to the possible ominous implications of the Liberhan report but it didn’t gauge its significance. Living in a cloistered world and more or less dependant on information volunteered by fellow swayamsevaks, it was too caught in the headiness of its new role as the overlord of the BJP to worry about extraneous developments. Having spent the past three weeks planning its takeover of the BJP, it was inclined to see politics through a narrow prism. It was merely concerned that the Liberhan report would resume the focus on Advani, revive his political importance and derail the planned removal of the Leader of Opposition.
THIS MAY explain why the initial RSS response to the Liberhan “leak” verged on the absurd. A section of the RSS that deals with the BJP came to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that the media was acting at the behest of those in the BJP who are uneasy with the RSS’ intrusive ways. Their suspicions were directed at what they perceived was the Advani camp in the BJP. Throughout the evening of November 23 and the morning of the next day, there were calls to journalists by an individual attached to the party president suggesting that the leak had been managed by Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley with some help from fellow-lawyer P Chidambaram. The suggestion was so bizarre that no one cared to grace even the gossip columns with it. But it did indicate that the RSS faction was completely at sea and unable to cobble together a coherent response. After an initial appearance on TV last Monday morning by RSS spokesman Ram Madhav — when he echoed the larger opposition concern over the violation of parliamentary privilege — the RSS disappeared from public view for a full 24 hours till it was known that the government was content with a feeble ATR.
It was a different story in the BJP. Although caught by surprise by the timing of the “leak” — which was conspiratorially attributed by the less informed to the government’s desire to break opposition unity over sugarcane pricing and the indulgence shown towards the alleged corruption of former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda — it honed in on the two things that would become its main weapons of aggressive defensiveness.
Charioteer Advani helped the BJP ride to power on the Ram mandir plank
The first, quite understandably, was the issue of the leak itself. Thanks to a casual line in the Indian Express report citing a Home Ministry source, some BJP members targeted Chidambaram. It is interesting that Jaitley, whose connections with the higher echelons of the media makes his BJP colleagues envious, chose to point an accusing finger at the Commission.
The second theme of the BJP counter-attack centered on the harsh observations against former prime minister Vajpayee. That Vajpayee had serious misgivings over the BJP’s direct involvement in the temple agitation and was perhaps the only senior BJP leader to express regret over the demolition was well known. Also in the public domain was the knowledge that Vajpayee had done his utmost to keep the RSS from interfering in the running of his government. That such a leader was, in effect, described as a stooge of the RSS and pilloried for vitiating the atmosphere in the country was clearly unexpected.
Anupam Gupta, the estranged counsel for the Commission, has claimed that Vajpayee’s name was cleverly introduced by Liberhan to dilute the strictures against Advani. The veracity of his charge is still unproven but the fact that Vajpayee was excused from appearing before him by Liberhan, despite pleas by some organisations, made the appearance of his name even more bewildering. It, however, gave the BJP the big opening to use Vajpayee as a shield against the grave charges levelled against it. The assault on the reputation of the ailing veteran, who commands the respect of the entire political class, became the instrument to discredit the report as a whole. Certainly, his presence in the list of 68 culpable individuals was a factor in the government deciding that the Liberhan report didn’t warrant any serious follow through.
THE GOVERNMENT, it must be added, had to respond to the leak by tabling the actual report well before schedule. With the Prime Minister in the midst of an important state visit to the US, the last thing it wanted was a political explosion that would expose the sectarian fissures in India and undermine the country’s claim of being different from its turbulent neighbours. It was the pressure of the occasion that made the government settle for a line of least offence. For this the BJP and RSS must thank an enterprising media.
Next month, when the Liberhan report becomes the subject of a detailed discussion in Parliament, the BJP is likely to offer its version of the politics of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It will revisit the archaeological evidence of Hindu temples that preceded the construction of Mir Baqi’s mosque in 1528; it will re-emphasise the inordinate delay in the judicial process that so exasperated the Hindu nationalists and fuelled the demand for direct action; and it will contrast Liberhan’s harshness towards the Sangh Parivar with his astonishing generosity towards previous Congress governments. Yet, there is certain to be one aspect of the Liberhan report that is calculated to put it on the defensive: the charge that it is not a political party but a front organisation of an unaccountable RSS.
If the demolition forced the return of the liberals, then the belated anguish over a broken shrine may delay an RSS takeover
In the context of the ongoing sound and fury over the BJP’s takeover by the RSS and the alleged selection of the next party president by RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat — who had also named those ineligible for the post — this twinning acquires some relevance. There are many in the BJP who are extremely uneasy over the growing tyranny of the unelected — as one BJP MP described it in private. After the Liberhan report they are equally disturbed by the larger political costs of being perceived as a poodle of the RSS. In Parliament, the BJP can successfully forge a semblance of Oppposition unity, including with the Left and Samajwadi Party, but these gains are offset the moment the RSS enters the equation.
Too little too late Liberhan hands over the report to the PM as Chidambaram looks on
House uproar SP and BJP members scuffle in Parliament over the Liberhan report
At the weekly Tuesday morning meeting of the BJP parliamentary party on November 24, it was a relatively unknown backbencher who set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Uday Singh, a second-term BJP member from Purnea in Bihar, rose unexpectedly from his seat to ask the leadership about this strange animal called the RSS. Why, he asked, is the party being asked to undertake surgery and chemotherapy by an outsider? Why, he added, has the next party president been chosen by those who are not in the party?
The interesting feature of his outburst was that he was neither shouted down nor booed. He was heard in stunned silence until party president Rajnath Singh intervened to placate him with the assurance that “no outsider” would decide the party’s next president. When Uday Singh emerged from the meeting, he was heartily congratulated by many for daring to say what they had been thinking.
In a larger sense, the Liberhan report is unlikely to revive interest in the Ayodhya dispute. Despite the grandstanding by the VHP and Togadia’s apparent willingness to mount the gallows for the sake of Lord Ram, India has moved on from the decade in which mandir fought Mandal and Muslim. There may still be a Hindu desire to see a grand Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya but the nation is not going to do anything dramatic about it. The makeshift Ram temple surrounded by armed guards and steel barricades is likely to define the Ayodhya landscape for the foreseeable future. No wonder realists in the BJP seem more willing to debate sugarcane and Madhu Koda rather than Ayodhya — a discernible change from how the public debate was fashioned two decades or so ago.
The only limited impact of the Liberhan report is that the RSSwill once again become an object of fierce controversy and it will need the BJP to contain the damage. After the initial excitement over the Liberhan report had subsided, BJP workers were quick to point to the irony behind the RSS having to depend on Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — two of Bhagwat’s four blacklisted leaders — to play defence counsel. In a debate carried out primarily in the media, the RSS found that its favourites such as Rajnath were either completely ineffective or completely out of their depths.
The renewed focus on the RSS may give another lease of life to Advani as the only man with the stature to hold back the RSS offensive. Advani has made his last bow as a prime minister-in-waiting, but he is still the party’s favourite to play the role of a reliable parliamentarian, until the next prime ministerial candidate is chosen. Two weeks ago, the forward march of the RSS into the BJP seemed unstoppable. But two weeks is a long time in politics. Just as the explosion at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 forced the return of the liberals to the top leadership of the party, the belated anguish over a broken shrine may force the RSS into reviewing its expansionism. The liberal may be the endangered species inside the BJP but there are moments he can make all the difference between political survival and political irrelevance. The politicians in the party recognise it. Does the RSS?