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December 17, 1998


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Vande Mataram row still resonates within BJP

Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow

Vande Mataram, the nationalist song that inspired hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians to challenge the might of the British Empire, is today causing a schism within the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

When a countrywide row broke out last month over the compulsory singing of the national song and the Saraswati Vandana in government-run primary schools in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Kalyan Singh sacked Ravindra Shukla, the minister for basic education, for "misleading the prime minister and the state cabinet".

But that has not ended Singh's troubles. While his action ended one controversy, another looms, with a hurt Shukla in a belligerent mood.

"I am not bothered about the minister's chair," says Shukla. "If the chief minister had asked me to step down, I would have done so without giving it a second thought. [But] what has hurt me is the chief minister's accusation that I misled the prime minister."

Shukla's dismissal has stirred the proverbial hornet's nest by giving Kalyan Singh's many detractors within and without the government an opportunity to try and settle their own scores with him. A virtual war has begun within the state BJP, especially after Shukla threw down the gauntlet by demanding a high-level probe into who misled the prime minister. The usually aggressive Singh has thus been cornered.

Shukla says he had explicitly told the chief minister's secretariat on telephone from Bombay (where he was attending to his ailing wife) that "in no circumstances should anyone give erroneous information to the prime minister".

"I had made it loud and clear to the chief minister's principal secretary, Anurag Goel, that an order making Vande Mataram compulsory had been issued way back in July 1997 when Mayawati was heading the BJP-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition," Shukla told Rediff On The NeT. Besides, he explained that recitation of Vande Mataram and Saraswati Vandana was part of the Kalp Yojna (the new education plan charted out at the highest levels in the Sangh Parivar) which had already been implemented in several schools in the state.

Yet, Vajpayee was told that there was no government order making Vande Mataram and Saraswati Vandana compulsory in primary schools. He, in turn, told a media conference the same thing, repeating it in Parliament.

Thus, when Shukla returned to Lucknow and admitted that the Kalp Yojna had already been put into effect, Vajpayee was embarrassed.

The prime minister sought an immediate explanation from Kalyan Singh who flew to New Delhi the next morning and passed the buck on to Shukla, pleading ignorance about the inclusion of Vande Mataram and Saraswati Vandana in the new curriculum.

The next move came within minutes of Singh's return to Lucknow. The Kalp Yojana was scrapped and Shukla was shown the door.

But the young minister has refused to take the slur lying down and is mobilising support for himself. And with Singh already drawing much flak from within the party, that support has not been hard to come by. For the powerful lobby that had been looking to train its guns on the chief minister, Shukla's challenge has come in handy.

All those who had been gunning for Singh for their own reasons have got together to give him the final shove. Political circles are agog with talk of a change in leadership even as Singh denies it. "I know this rumour about my removal is circulated systematically three times every day," he told Rediff On The NeT, "but it doesn't bother me. Because my leadership has full faith in me."

But that too is not the whole truth. Kalyan Singh is not even on talking terms with some senior BJP politicians, including state unit chief Rajnath Singh, who is a key aspirant for the top job in the state now. Kalraj Mishra, Rajnath Singh's predecessor in the party post, has maintained a studied silence, but observers believe he is merely biding his time.

Mishra, who holds the prized portfolios of public works and tourism, was an aspirant for the chief ministership until he got trapped in the Rs 1 billion Ambedkar Park scandal with former chief minister Mayawati. Another man to watch is Lalji Tandon, minister for housing and urban development and a confidant of Vajpayee. The three are believed to have teamed up to dislodge Kalyan Singh.

While the chief minister claims the Vande Mataram controversy has not caused any damage to the party and proposes to declare 1999 as Vande Mataram Year, insiders confess the row has created a gulf between the party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Shukla, an RSS activist, has the full backing of the swayamsevaks (volunteers) who are annoyed with Kalyan Singh for backtracking on Vande Mataram. No wonder Singh has been trying to effect a patch-up, saying, "I am all for Vande Mataram. But if the central and state governments as a whole feel it is not right to make it mandatory, then I have to abide by the decision."

Singh has also desisted from joining issue with Shukla. But Shukla insists: "Let a probe be ordered so that the truth prevails." What he is keen to prove is that not he but the chief minister misled Vajpayee.

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