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RIGHT ANGLE

Clarifying Clarification

Why Vajpayee seeks acceptance of those who will never vote BJP

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are some taunts that disorient even the most unflappable of people. Atal Bihari Vajpayee doesn't mind parliamentary barbs. A formidable debater, there is nothing he enjoys more than a robust round of political sparring. But if there is one thing that gets his goat it is being called a mukhauta (mask). When, in 1998, a gossip column attributed such a remark to the former BJP general secretary K.N. Govindacharya, Vajpayee blew a fuse. He demanded action against Govindacharya and it required the intervention of the big guns of the RSS to cool him down. At that time Vajpayee was not prime minister and didn't enjoy the pre-eminence he does now. So it was two years before Govindacharya was removed from the BJP leadership and banished on study leave.

Last month it happened again. Confronted by headlines that his utterances on Ayodhya left "Vajpayee unmasked", the prime minister admitted being "pained". He devoted part of his New Year break in the backwaters of Kerala to rebutting charges that he had sold his soul to the "hardliners" and that his liberal image was just a facade. "(Al)though the movement for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was an expression of our national sentiment, this sentiment became narrow, and its inclusive character became restrictive," he clarified in My Musings from Kumarakom, "because of the unfortunate demolition ... on December 6, 1992."

Though he has kept many exit routes open, the assertion that the Ram temple movement has become "narrow" and "restrictive" after the demolition is a departure. Using a historical analogy, his critics say it's a bit like Mahatma Gandhi turning his back on swaraj after the hideous massacre of 24 policemen at Chauri Chaura in 1922. Not that Vajpayee realised his Himalayan blunder instantly. He led the BJP campaigns in 1996 and 1998 when the building of a Ram temple figured in the manifesto. So, has the prime minister belatedly discarded-as distinct from putting it on hold due to a commitment to the NDA-the BJP's entire Ayodhya plank? If so, what was the compulsion, given that the parliamentary debate had extricated him from a controversy he triggered by unilaterally forcing the "resignation" of Harin Pathak? Equally strange is that Vajpayee opted for the written word over his natural preference for sound bites.

The suggestion that the prime minister was anticipating the Dharma Sansad's ultimatum to the Government doesn't wash. The Government must be aware that the VHP is unlikely to press for temple construction on the disputed site at this juncture. It will probably demand the construction of some gates in an undisputed corner of Ayodhya. This may well be the proverbial thin end of the wedge but the issue won't be provocative enough to trigger a political fallout. At best, Vajpayee could have told the VHP where to get off without undertaking a convoluted exercise in revisionism.

The prime minister's latest flip-flop on Ayodhya can best be explained in two ways. First, he was under intense pressure from his inner circle to re-ingratiate himself to that section of the upper-crust that viewed his earlier statements as a monumental blunder. This had less to do with politics than the social awkwardness of his dining table. Second, the mukhauta taunt touched a familiar raw nerve. Once again he hit back. This time pleasing those who won't ever vote BJP but leaving his party utterly confused and quite resentful. That is, till he clarifies his clarification yet again.

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