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November 2, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Clever, Crude, Communal

To L K Advani goes the credit for inventing the concept of the Sangh Parivar. Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party -- and before that the Jan Sangh -- was a political party with its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh but with a distinct ideology of its own. When that ideology, a mildly Hindu, slightly rightwing view of the world, failed to get the BJP more than a couple of seats in the 1984 election, Vajpayee was pushed aside and Advani's vision took over.

In essence, this consisted of shifting the party further into the Hindu camp. The BJP now made common cause with other Hindu organisations, some of RSS origin, some quite independent. When the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched an agitation in Ayodhya, the BJP was able to derive political benefit from the issue without risking the damage that a communal agenda could inflict on the party's image. When the issue did take off, then of course the BJP claimed it as its own and Advani went off on his famous rath yatra.

Vajpayee has never been keen on the concept of parivar (family). He was not at Ayodhya when the masjid was pulled down and is believed to have referred to the frenzied kar sevaks who followed Advani's Toyota rath as a vanar sena (army of monkeys). But equally, it is hard to deny Advani's Hindustuisation of the BJP yielded political dividends. Advani took the party from the nadir of 1984 to power at the Centre in 13 years.

But while it is easy to cut corners in an effort to gain office, the same compromises come back to haunt you once you have reached government. So it has been with the BJP and the extended Sangh Parivar. The party's official position is that the Hindu phase is over and that a new moderate agenda is in place. As if to prove this point, Vajpayee is back in charge and the vanar sena is on holiday.

The problem with this cosy now-you-see-them-now-you-don't view of the parivar is that the BJP is never willing to cut ties with the more extremist members of its family. In the 1989 election and thereafter, Sadhvi Rithambara (of the Ek dhakka aur do fame) campaigned for BJP candidates. In each speech she abused Muslims and suggested that they should be sent to Pakistan. I remember asking Advani about her speeches.

"She is not a member of the BJP," he stated firmly.

"But she is campaigning for BJP candidates," I retorted.

"I can't be held responsible for the views of all our supporters," he said. "I can only speak for the BJP."

This was turning out to be extremely convenient. "Fine," I said. "Then you should have no problem condemning her for what she says."

"No, why should I condemn her?"

"Will you at least dissociate the BJP from her statements?"

"No. I can't dissociate myself from everything everybody says. All I can say is that she is not a member of the BJP."

For 10 years, this kind of uneasy compromise has endured. The BJP makes full use of the worst kind of communalists and then denies that they represent the party. This way it taps into the communal vote and still claims to be secular. The only problem it faces is when it is asked to condemn the views expressed by its supporters. After all, if you are genuinely secular then it shouldn't be too difficult to condemn a woman who says that all Muslims are dirty because they don't wash properly and that they should be deported to Pakistan. But if you condemn Sadhvi Rithambara, then you can't use her and win the votes of her supporters. Hence the tightrope walk. Hence the classic Advani compromise: these are not our views but we won't condemn them.

I remind you of all this recent history because another constituent of the parivar has now landed the BJP in a Rithambara like dilemma. A month ago, some nuns were raped in Madhya Pradesh. Shortly afterwards, B L Sharma Prem, VHP central secretary, issued a statement that the rapes were the natural outcome of the people's resentment against Christian missionaries.

By any standards, this was unforgivable. Accordingly, journalists asked Venkaiah Naidu, one of the BJP's spokesmen, if he condemned Prem's statement. There was no question of that, he said, Prem had been misquoted. He had made no such statement.

Would he condemn it if Prem had been accurately quoted? Naidu was dismissive; why make such a fuss over a non-issue, he asked.

Naively I believed Naidu. Nobody could have justified an act of violence, I thought. Prem must certainly have been misquoted. Then, a few weeks ago, Prem appeared on the television programme I anchor. Had he been misquoted, I asked.

Absolutely, said Prem self-righteously. What he had actually said was this: "All cases of robbery and assault on Christian missionaries were perfectly understandable because the people resented these missionaries and their zeal to convert Hindus."

"But that's exactly what you were quoted as saying," I said.

"No," said Prem triumphantly, "I only said robbery and assault. Show me where I said rape."

"Are you saying it's perfectly all right to assault a nun, even if it's not okay to rape her?"

"The people hate these missionaries," said Prem solemnly. "They are just showing their anger." He added, warming to his theme, "In any case, who commits these crimes? They are all Christians only! Eighty per cent of these crimes are committed by lower caste Hindus who have converted to Christianity."

I was appalled. "Not only are you a communalist, you are a casteist as well."

Prem nodded delightedly. "Who are the converts? Brahmins were never converted. Kshatriyas were never converted. Only lower castes were converted." He paused to point at some Christian members of the studio audience. "You are all lower caste Hindus," he shouted at them.

There was more, all in a similar vein, though I am not sure that it would all get past Star TV's ethics and standards department. But by the end of the recording, we were left in no doubt that Prem saw all Christians as traitors. "You have no loyalty to India," he shouted at the hapless audience. "Your loyalty is to London and the Vatican."

It is easy to dismiss Prem as a crank. But he is no such thing. He has twice been BJP member of Parliament for Delhi -- he is the man who defeated H K L Bhagat. He resigned from the BJP of his own volition ("they are all banias, there is no room for a Brahmin like me," he confided after the shoot) and continues to hold an important position in one of the most important constituents of the Sangh Parivar, the VHP.

I expect that Advani will use the Sadhvi Rithambara-defence when it comes to Prem as well. But the usual test applies. Is the BJP willing to condemn him? Is it even willing to totally dissociate itself from his views? So far at least, the party has been willing to do no such thing. Venkaiah Naidu has slithered out of taking a position by making the Clintonesque point that Prem was misquoted ("I did not specifically mention rape" sounds lot like "Who says oral sex is sexual relations?"). The BJP member on my panel seemed pained by all the things that Prem said but no, he didn't want to condemn him either.

It is this refusal to take a stand on communalism that worries me. I have no doubt that if pushed, Vajpayee would probably condemn Prem. But I am as sure that Advani will do no such thing. Nor will Kushabhau Thakre and the rest of the RSS. If the BJP took the stand that it had nothing to do with the VHP, then this wouldn't matter so much. But as long as the Advani-esque vision of the Sangh Parivar endures, the BJP cannot escape responsibility for the VHP's utterances.

And until Vajpayee is able to demonstrate that his party shares his disdain for such crude communalism, the suspicion will endure that at the end of the day, he is no more than a liberal mukhota.

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