Saffron’s diminishing returns

By flaunting RSS-associated leaders in its line-up for the 2014 general election, the BJP fails to see that voters will reject politics not focussed on bread-and-butter issues

April 01, 2013 01:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

DEFINING BATTLELINES: Election results across key States show that saffron power does not translate into votes. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

DEFINING BATTLELINES: Election results across key States show that saffron power does not translate into votes. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

One of the abiding myths created and sustained by the media is the huge dividends reaped by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Hindutva card in general and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in particular. Indeed, the six-year long rule of the BJP at the Centre is almost invariably attributed to the massive mobilisation by L.K. Advani to build a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya, at the supposed site of Ram’s birth. The link between the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1991, the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and the BJP’s rise to power in 1998 has virtually never been questioned, never mind all the contrary evidence that stares one in the face.

Bofors and V.P. Singh

To begin with, the six- or seven- year gap between Advani’s rath yatra , the demolition of the masjid and the formation of the government in Delhi by Atal Bihari Vajpayee itself should cast some doubt on the viability of the notion. The massive rise in the number of BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha from a miserable two in 1984 to 88 in 1989 had occurred before Advani went on his yatra and the upsurge of support was conditioned by V.P. Singh’s challenge to Rajiv Gandhi’s government, its image tarnished by the Bofors deal. The support was not for the BJP per se but for all parties that stood on the other side of the Congress. The anger among the people was uncontrollable partly because in Rajiv Gandhi they had visualised an unblemished, honest, almost innocent young man, thrust reluctantly into politics, his good intentions intact. When the charge of what had then appeared to be a massive scandal of wheeling and dealing was seen to stick on a clean face, the sense of being let down caused a veritable eruption. The one who led the charge in turn, V.P. Singh, had that clean image which the voluble middle class adores, if only to absolve itself of the guilt of its own massive, daily corruption. V.P. Singh had the image but not the organisation to bring about the fall of the ruling party and government on his own in a very short time; nor perhaps had he the capacity to build one. He was happy to ride a ragtag coalition of whichever party helped him, including the BJP on the right and the Communists on the left (from the outside).

When tensions within the ragtag coalition grew over the question of the BJP’s links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP felt threatened, it began to look for its own ideological moorings. V.P. Singh in turn threw it a challenge by unleashing the Mandal issue and reserving 27 per cent government jobs for the Other Backward Classes. It thus became a Mandal vs the Mandir issue, heightened by the rath yatra and soon enough, the demolition of the masjid in Ayodhya.

Falling tally

What was the political end result of the rath yatra in 1991 and the demolition of the masjid in 1992? Elections were held to several Assemblies in 1993. The BJP lost the election in Uttar Pradesh where the masjid was located, its tally of MLAs falling from 221 in 1991 to 177 in 1993 in the assembly of 425 members, and in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly as well for the next 10 years falling from 220 seats in 1990 to 117 and 119 in the next two elections; in Rajasthan it barely survived with a considerably reduced majority, helped in part by Chief Minister Shekhawat’s moderate image.

More significantly, it has never returned to power in U.P. since the demolition of the masjid, except as a junior partner of the Bahujan Samaj Party and that too for a brief period. The BJP thus suffered heavily in the Hindi belt where it had hoped to reap the richest harvest of votes. In U.P. it sought to revive its fortunes in the last elections by flashing the saffron colour of Uma Bharti’s robes; in the elections over a year ago, it has sunk to its lowest depth there. At the Centre, barring its 13-day rule in 1996, for its six-year long rule from 1998 to 2004, it had to abjure its Ram Janmabhoomi agenda as the irrevocable condition for running the 24 odd parties coalition, reinforced by making Vajpayee the Prime Minister. The past 10 years have seen no movement on the issue in the BJP camp. Lesson learnt? Not really.

For 2014

Once again, Rajnath Singh has announced with loud drum strokes that the BJP will flaunt the saffron colour for 2014. By bringing Narendra Modi, and, even more significantly, Amit Shah, Varun Gandhi and Uma Bharti to the forefront in his preparations for the next general election, and by sidelining tall leaders like Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha who are from a non-RSS background, he has let it be known that he has nothing more to offer to the electorate than one or another shade of the saffron colour. The fact that besides the minorities, large swathes of the majority community’s voters have repeatedly demonstrated their disdain for saffron as the dominant political colour has not convinced the BJP’s leaders that voters are keen on going on with life and not with causing bloodshed for a temple at a site that was surreptitiously occupied on December 22, 1949, as has been so brilliantly brought out by Dhirendra K. Jha and Krishna Jha in their recently published book, Ayodhya, the Dark Night . Carrying out puja for a revered god at a site captured with a mountain of lies and deception is in itself an insult to him; seeking his blessings to get power piles on more insults on him, for he was one forever ready to give up power for the truth and general good.

(Harbans Mukhia is a historian and former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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