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March 7, 2002

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Do we really need the ISI?

Those growing up in the dreary decades of the seventies and eighties will remember the government's favourite whipping boy that was blamed for any and every ill afflicting the country, from failed monsoon to border terrorism: the 'foreign hand'. And given that the establishment was in thrall to the socialist shibboleth, it left no one in doubt, least of all the spooks in Langley, Virginia, who the reference was to. Truly, the CIA, as many things American, was a four-letter word then in India.

We have come a long way since. The 'foreign hand' of course remains a favourite scapegoat, but it refers now to Uncle Sam's erstwhile hanger-on, Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, known better simply as the ISI. Few disasters have not been laid at the ISI's doors: India's hockey debacle in Kuala Lumpur, the Bharatiya Janata Party's drubbing in Uttar Pradesh, and of course the death of Lok Sabha Speaker G M C Balayogi.

Among the long list of crimes India holds the ISI responsible, the most egregious of course is the nurturing of Islamic extremism within the country. From Azamgarh to Mumbai, Uttaranchal's Terai to Kozhikode, the ISI, we are told, is busy building an army of fifth columnists, populated by disgruntled and disenchanted Muslim youth.

Now why Muslim youth, or infants or the old, would be disgruntled and disenchanted with India is something that eludes me -- since the government of the day has come to power selling the line that the Muslims in India are appeased, they are a pampered lot. Can a pampered, appeased individual, or community, be disgruntled?

If the Muslims are indeed pampered, it follows that the Hindu youth must be the ones who are disenchanted by the scheme of things and who must be willing to play the ISI's game.

Maybe they are doing just that. But let me explain.

The Hindus are certainly disenchanted, but with the BJP and its brand of politics that promised a lot and delivered little. This disappointment goes back to the late eighties, when L K Advani set out in a Toyota van to mobilise support for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri mosque. Although it was not the main issue in the subsequent election, it packed enough punch to exponentially multiply the BJP's strength in Parliament. There could not have been many takers for the view then that the BJP was riding a tiger when it adopted Ram as its motif, but it was.

Ram may have been munificent in his time, but there was no way he was going to grant the BJP its wish, an absolute majority in Parliament. Woefully short in the numbers game, the BJP quickly put the issue on the backburner and settled for governance 'with a difference', thanks to a little help from regional political parties.

The 10-odd years the Ayodhya issue has been alive have seen the BJP's fortunes swing. At its height the BJP seemed unstoppable. Today, the chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the BJP's allied organization, calls the prime minister a 'naya Mussalman'.

What has changed in these 10 years is the nature of the Indian polity. Thanks to its shrill campaign, the BJP's core vote bank expects nothing less than a temple at the site of the Babri mosque. The BJP realises there is no way this can come about so long as the law of the land is supreme, hence the recourse to negotiations. But the karsevak who had pulled down the mosque in Ayodhya through brute force in 1992 fails to see why the same party that egged him on in his demolition mission is hindering his efforts to build a temple at the site.

What the BJP has realised is that in the journey from the Opposition benches to the Treasury benches in Parliament, issues acquire clarity. What seems doable while rabble-rousing out of power suddenly becomes impossible when in power -- be it a claim to identify the Bofors kickbacks suspects in 30 days or to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The system is simply bigger than any ideology or political party. Having tasted power, having experienced the rigid system of checks and balances, the BJP, when it goes back to being in the Opposition, will think twice before raising the ante on anything, leave alone Ayodhya.

It is the voter's disillusionment at what he thinks is the BJP's change of politics that has seen a shrinking of its base. It is this disillusionment that has cost the BJP its state governments. And it is this disillusionment among its vote bank that will deny it federal power in the next round of general elections.

And, more importantly, it is this disillusionment that the party bosses decided to address by handing over Gujarat to Hindu mobs. These were not people who happened to be Hindus -- these were crowds who were not only avenging the outrage in Godhra but who were also determined to teach the Muslims a lesson they will not forget.

Independent India's recent political history is replete with such instances where instant provocation brings to the surface accumulated baggage of pique, resentment and, often, local enmity. To recall just two: Sikhs were taught a lesson in 1984 after Indira Gandhi's assassination for supposedly winking at the reign of terror unleashed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; Muslims were put to the sword in Mumbai, Surat and elsewhere in January 1993, because they were an appeased lot.

But there is a difference. Two months after the carnage of Muslims in 1993, retaliation came in the form of the Mumbai serial blasts. The Muslim underworld and the ISI engineered the horror, but it needs to be asked if it would have come to pass if not for the riots that destroyed ordinary Muslims' lives. So who played into the ISI's hands then? The victims of the riots, or the perpetrators?

Similarly, only the na´ve would believe that the Gujarat mayhem will not elicit a horrific response. If and when it does, the happiest will be the top brass of the ISI. After all, with enemies like us, why do they need friends to do their bidding!

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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