No legal shield for the leader
When L.K. Advani set out on his Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra in September 1990, his hope – apart from mobilising the communal-minded Hindus in the Bharatiya Janata Party's favour – must have been to emerge as a leader in his own right, away from the overarching shadow of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then the undisputed No. 1 in the party. For the next two months till his arrest in Bihar, Advani's yatra, marked by communal tension and violence, did fulfil his dream of becoming a major figure in national politics.
But, now, the reverie has suffered a jolt. Advani's trial in the Supreme Court on the charges of criminal conspiracy for demolishing the Babri Masjid means that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement will come under scrutiny. As the man who set the ball rolling for the demolition, Advani can be said to bear a large part of the blame for the shock to the "secular fabric", in the court's words, caused by the attack on a protected monument.
When Advani began his journey with offerings of bowls of blood from prospective Kar Sevaks or the saffron demolition squad, he was warned of the possibility of dire consequences by Vajpayee, the so-called right man in the wrong party who was always known as a moderate while Advani revelled in his hardline image. The warning has now proved to have been prescient.
However, Advani and his fellow hawks in the BJP do not seem to have anticipated the immediate worrisome legal fallout. Instead, they evidently believed that the party had finally found its key to success based on holding the Muslims responsible for all that had gone wrong with India since their entry in the eighth century. Arguably, the BJP's electoral victories since the 1990s and its crowning glory in 2014 confirm the perceptions of Advani and Co even if they have now been sidelined by a later generation of leaders.
But it is also undeniable that in the process of assuming power at the Centre and in many states, the BJP has come much closer to Vajpayee's hallmark moderation than at the time of the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation. Evidently, the responsibility of running a diverse country has made the party aware of Vajpayee's advice on following "raj dharma" or the neutrality of rulers which he gave to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 riots in the state.
True, there are elements in the BJP and in the affiliated Sangh Parivar organisations who continue to hark back to the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian belligerence of the 1990s, which was in line with the saffron brotherhood's worldview of regarding the minorities as essentially aliens since, as V.D. Savarkar said, their "punyabhu" or holy lands were in Mecca or Rome even if their "pitribhu" or fatherland was India. However, notwithstanding their occasional depredations, as by the gau rakshaks or cow vigilantes, the BJP continues to insist that its focus is on development goals and not on working towards a Hindu Rashtra.
Unfortunately for the BJP, its latest change of heart – at least in the party's top echelons - does not absolve it of the original sin of orchestrating the demolition of a mosque. And, as the man who gave the clarion call for the act of desecration during his chariot ride, Advani has turned out to be the fall guy. There are several others in his company such as Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti. But the focus during the trial will be mostly on the former deputy Prime Minister. Moreover, he will be seen to have started out on a journey without knowing where it will lead if only because he was so overwhelmed by the "popular" response to his mission that he did not see – or chose not to - that the cheering crowds comprised only the Hindus.
All that he was aware of was "a sense of reverence normally bestowed on religious men". In this pseudo-religious atmosphere with its political overtones, he also chose to ignore the communal outbreaks which marked his journey and which culminated in countrywide riots after the demolition of the mosque. Advani's subsequent regret, therefore, about the "saddest day" of his life because of the harm which the demolition inflicted on the "cause which the BJP was promoting when it supported the Ayodhya movement" only underlined a monumental miscalculation.
As a result of this misstep a quarter of a century ago, Advani will now have to pay a legal price which can undo much of the BJP's political gains, for it will show that its rise was based on an act of criminality. The ascent of no party other than that of the Nazis in modern times has been similarly associated with the demonisation of a community and attacks on their places of worship.
The BJP may claim that the targeting of the mosques in Ayodhya, Varanasi, and Mathura was the expression of the centuries of rage felt by the Hindus over the destruction of temples by the Muslim invaders. It was only the BJP which could channelise this anger since all other "pseudo-secular" parties – Advani coined the word – were pandering to their minority vote banks, argued their votaries.
But it will be for the courts to say whether the answer to medieval barbarism is an act of modern vandalism and that, too, by a political party which has taken upon itself the task of retribution by the Hindus for past injustices.