December 6: The Ram Temple dramatis personae and the Vajpayee ambiguity
While other BJP leaders were militant about the Ayodhya movement, Atal Bihari Vajpayee both scorned, and used, it.
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Nearly 30 years ago in 1989, the BJP passed a resolution in the Himachal Pradesh town of Palampur, signalling that it was joining the Ram temple agitation that was being run by the VHP.
By all accounts, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not at all keen on the idea, but he did not oppose the party line either.
One leader was keen on Ayodhya. The other, not so much. (Photo: Reuters)
Years ago, for a story, Uma Bharati, one of the leading lights of the temple movement, gave me this quote: “Everyone wanted a Ram Lalla temple in Ayodhya, including Vajpayee. But we all knew that Atalji did not want to join or lead any movement for this.” Another party leader told me that Vajpayee had no time for the VHP or Bajrang Dal and told many of us that a political party should not be part of this.
Govindacharya was then the RSS pointsman in the BJP and the great ideologue and strategist of the party. He gave me a fascinating account of the planning of the Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra undertaken by LK Advani. The RSS wanted four people to lead yatras that would converge at Ayodhya on October 30, 1990.
Govindacharya approached all four. The late Vijayaraje Scindia, mother of Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje and grandmother of Congress CM-hopeful in Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, was asked if she would lead the rath from the Kamakhya temple in Assam to Ayodhya. She said her health would not allow such a journey. The late Sikander Bakht, once upon a time the most prominent Muslim face in the BJP, was asked to proceed from Mumbai; he said no one would come to hear him. Vajpayee was asked if he would travel from Jammu to Ayodhya. He snapped at Govindacharya: “What nautanki (drama) is this? Main aisi nautanki mein nahin jaata (I do not take part in such a low drama).”
That left LK Advani, and it was proposed that he travel from Kanyakumari. It was Advani who suggested that Somnath to Ayodhya would be “more political”.
The rath yatra harnessed wrath for the Ayodhya movement. (Photo: Twitter/IndiaHistoryPic)
And so, the journey began on September 25, 1990.
Lawyer Apa Ghatate, who was one of Vajpayee’s closest friends and who also put together a volume of his speeches in Parliament, always maintained that Vajpayee was uncomfortable with the agitation. He once told me about Vajpayee’s speech when he had to receive Advani’s rath as it passed through Delhi: “The crowd was shouting ‘Advaniji sangharsh karo/hum tumhare saath hain (carry on the struggle Advaniji/we are with you)’. Atalji seemed a little irritated and said that Advani is not going to Ayodhya to fight Ravana but to do penance. The vanar sena (monkey army) will follow him.”
Vajpayee’s punchline was that: “Sometimes the vanar sena does not know where Ram is going.”
An act of brutality which didn't appeal to Vajpayee, the person. (Photo: India Today)
Years later, after the mosque had been demolished and the movement for building a temple was going nowhere, this correspondent witnessed Vajpayee snapping at a group of over-enthusiastic partymen shouting “Jai Shri Ram”.
Vajpayee stepped out of his car and said: “Bolte raho Jai Shri Ram/aur karo nahin koi kaam (keep shouting Jai Shri Ram and do nothing else).”
At one level, the aesthetics of the movement — the shrieking kar sevaks and the blood-letting along the way — could never appeal to a high pundit like Vajpayee. In February 1991, some months after Advani’s rath yatra had been completed, Vajpayee actually registered a sort of protest at a BJP national executive meet in Jaipur. Sources reveal that he asked pointedly: “Are we a political party or a dharam sansad?”
But a few months later, in the course of the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections of 1991, Vajpayee’s own position began to change. It was becoming apparent that there was a Ram wave in the Hindi heartland (the BJP would eventually rise to national prominence with 120 seats and Kalyan Singh would win in Uttar Pradesh). Vajpayee began to make pro-temple speeches as and when he saw the crowds respond. In the course of touring Uttar Pradesh, Vajpayee did make pro-temple speeches with an ideological edge to them.
Govindacharya, who always had a troubled relationship with Vajpayee, would tell me that “Articulation without conviction was always Atalji’s speciality.”
But he did admire the rhetoric.
“Advaniji may have gone all over India making speeches about the Ram temple. But the best speech about Hindutva, the civilisational context of the Ram movement, was made by Vajpayee on April 4, 1991, at the Boat Club in Delhi.”
Combine that with the speech he made at Lucknow on December 5, one day before the demolition of the mosque, and Vajpayee did play along with the temple politics. In Lucknow, Vajpayee had addressed kar sevaks the night before the demolition, at the Delhi Boat Club, he shared the stage with sadhus and sants of the VHP.
Vajpayee, the politician, had several shades of saffron in his repertoire. (Photo: Reuters)
Yet, privately, Vajpayee kept referring to the VHP-Bajrang Dal lot as the vanar sena!
In February 2005 when I worked in Outlook magazine, the Hindi edition acquired copies of a recording of a speech made the night before the Babri demolition. It was a volatile and rabble-rousing speech that did not fit in with the image of a moderate. The tape and a transcript were sent to him and my editor, the redoubtable Vinod Mehta, asked me to take the editor of the Hindi edition, Nilesh Mishra, to meet Vajpayee.
Late in the evening, we met him for half an hour. Vajpayee pointed out that the speech was made in a certain context. “Mera Ayodhya andolan mein zyaada role nahin tha (I did not have much of a role in the Ayodhya movement).” He then picked up the transcript to stress that there was nothing in the speech that could be questioned in a court of law. Questions about his so-called differences with Advani over Ayodhya — and Narendra Modi over the Gujarat riots — were met with a vague smile and a long pause.
We never got a direct answer.