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October 26, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Will Vajpayee be the millennium man?

Most columns owe their conception and actual execution to something someone said or heard of someplace, even though most writers would rather conceal this fact than tom-tom it. Since most of my email these days seems to come from irate readers appalled at my knocking the BJP and Sangh Parivar, I am doubly thankful to regular Sajid Bhombal for providing me with this nugget and shoving me down the path I had been mulling over for some time, at least ever since Vajpayee became prime minister for the third time.

The new government has announced in no unclear terms that its priority number one is and will remain the economy. Which is the way it should be, for it is shocking that a nation of India's potential, size and talent -- and some would say nuclear arsenal *lol* -- should find itself clubbed with the likes of Congo, Somalia and even Pakistan and Bangladesh, kindred as the last two nations maybe, in terms of development.

It's shocking, especially when one realises that the same set of people who are unable to rise above sectarian, communal considerations in their land of birth and/or origin, meld so well once they reach foreign shores where they often are in the vanguard of development. Obviously, the economic underpinnings of civil strife back in India cannot be ignored, nor should its role in bogging down the nation as a whole be underestimated. And, Vajpayee and his team are on the right track in giving prime concern to the economy.

And if they succeed in infusing confidence in the nation, among investors here and abroad, among the working and toiling classes, a major battle will have been won.

But not the war. That will have to be fought on a different plane, although once the economic indicators turn positive the task should not be all that difficult.

It will be a war that can be won only by Vajpayee as the head of a BJP government, for it involves the single issue that has contributed to the visceral division of Indians since Partition, an issue that was lit by the Congress party and which was fanned to wildfire intensity by the very party that is at the centre of governance in New Delhi today. The Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue cannot be allowed to dominate the national psyche in the new millennium, or dictate the contours national interest in the century that lies ahead.

If the BJP is the party widely recognised as the party able to usher in genuine peace with Pakistan, it is also the government that is distinctly placed -- with Vajpayee heading it -- to tackle the Ayodhya controversy once and for all. The reasons for saying so are quite a few, and I find that Sajid and I agree on the reasons, so let me list out his:

1. This government is headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And he is a respectable leader who can be comfortable in having a dialogue between both the parties. He was also the one BJP leader who had publicly expressed his displeasure on what happened on December 6, 1992.

2. The home minister is L K Advani, the very person who led the Rath Yatra that culminated in the demolition of the mosque. Being home minister, he has his responsibilities cut out for him. He can't be the Advani of 1989-93. And further, he will be useful link between the government and fringe outfits like the VHP, BD etc.

3. This maybe a BJP-led government, but supported by huge numbers of outside MPs (approximately 40 pc) who are what is commonly known as "secularist". These non-BJP MPs have among them some of the self-appointed champions of minorities (Sharad Yadav, Vilas Paswan etc) who will stand guarantee for the right thing being done.

4. Self-appointed Muslim leaders will be more pragmatic in dealing with a BJP government than with any other government. Say, it is a Congress government, then vote-bank politics will play havoc with real discussions. This kind of thing will not happen with the BJP-led government. As most of the Muslims are reconciled to the impossibility of the mosque being rebuilt on the original site, if a sincere, honest and sensitive compromise is offered, the leaders will come to terms with it.

5. The BJP's long-standing partner in Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray had himself proposed that a monument be erected at the disputed site and that a mandir and masjid be built near the spot. This government can initiate a dialogue on the proposal. As the BJP (1999) is close to VHP, it will be much easier for them to deal with it than any other political party.

These are all valid arguments as to why the BJP government, more than any other, is ideally placed to tackle this problem. After all, it was also the party that had run with the ball once Rajiv Gandhi breathed life into the controversy, and a solution can only come from it, not from the Congress party -- which, incidentally, is tainted by its vote-bank politics among Hindus and Muslims alike. And the Vajpayee of 1999 is not what he was in 1996, or even 1998, when he was hanging from a southerner's sari strings when he was not genuflecting to Nagpur. Today, Vajpayee has shown that he alone is the vote-catcher from the RSS ranks, and there is no one around to challenge him for the leadership.

And Vajpayee, like all chief executives, is looking to leave his mark on history. An economic turnaround during his prime ministership is all right, but that is not something for which he alone can take credit. After all, if the economy has been able to survive the political misdirection, the Western economic sanctions and other roadblocks, a lot is to be said for its inherent strength, for which the Congress party, having governed the nation for 40 out of 52 years, can rightfully take credit.

But bridging the Hindu-Muslim chasm, which has remained deep despite a post-Partition generation coming up in the country, is something that will be to Vajpayee's credit alone. And this is a process, I suspect, that has already been set in motion, and it is a question of time before a fait accompli is announced.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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