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How Rajiv Gandhi scuttled Ayodhya deal

July 10, 2003

Karmanye vadhikarasthe, ma phaleshu kadachana

Even those Indians who have never taken the trouble to read the Bhagvad Gita in its entirety may be familiar with this admonition from the Lord -- 'You have the right to act, but do so without lusting after the fruits of your action.'

I think most of us would agree -- hypocritically or otherwise -- that running after money or power is ignoble. But what if those 'fruits' are something as intangible as publicity, approving headlines read out on television or a few banners in the daily newspaper? Sadly, the Bhagvad Gita's warning is an absolute. Seeking publicity for doing a good deed can do as much harm as never doing anything at all. And if you seek proof of that, look no farther than the current impasse over

The Kanchi Shankaracharya's effort was doomed to fail almost from the minute that news of his efforts reached the media. How could it be otherwise? Predictably, someone from the Muslim community would accuse his leaders of 'selling out.' This in turn would lead to extremists from the Hindu side saying that the Shankaracharya had conveniently ignored the disputes in Kashi and Mathura. He would then have to bolster his own credentials by raising the issues. At which point even the moderates in the Muslim community would decide that talks were nothing more than a waste of breath. And so it proved.

I know that in an ideal world all deals would be made out in the open rather than behind closed doors. But there are some things that simply cannot -- should not -- be revealed until the last 'i' is dotted and the last 't' crossed. The Ayodhya issue is one of them. Despite the best of intentions the Shankaracharya's gambit has proved disastrous; if anything, the situation today is worse than it was a month ago, with both sides hardening their respective stands.

I make no claim to any special insight into human nature when I say that this sequence of events should have been foreseen, that is the lesson of history. The Ayodhya tangle was never closer to a solution than in the winter of 1990-1991 when untimely publicity blew all conciliatory efforts out of the water. And the worst of it was that the mediators themselves were not at fault in that instance..

The somewhat unlikely trio behind the move to strike a deal were Justice V R Krishna Iyer, Father B G Verghese and Swami Agnivesh. Working very quietly, they went around meeting everyone who mattered for about two months or so. Finally, they thought they had thrashed out a solution approved by Hindu and Muslim leaders alike.

It was decided that the most vexed issue -- the ownership of the land on which the disputed structure stood -- would be referred to the Supreme Court under Article 143 of the Constitution. Everyone agreed that an impartial enquiry would examine the question of whether anyone had paid for the land. The Muslim leadership agreed that their community would voluntarily vacate its claim if there was no proof of a legal sale, and the Hindu leadership stated that their followers would yield any claims on other areas if that happened.

Justice Krishna Iyer took the proposal to Chandra Shekhar (then prime minister). He agreed to the deal in principle, but stipulated that he wanted advice from the law officers. It was at this point -- before the Attorney General entered the picture -- that fate intervened. A Congress-I leader who had gone to visit the prime minister saw the proposal lying on Chandra Shekhar's table. He seized his chance to prove his loyalty to his party leadership.

Running to Rajiv Gandhi, he persuaded the Congress president to oppose all this on the ground that it would boost Chandra Shekhar's ratings. The prime minister, who had barely 60 members from his own party in the Lok Sabha, was completely dependent on Congress-I support -- a situation that chafed on him. Rajiv Gandhi fell for the argument, and the Congress adopted the stance that it would oppose any reference to the Supreme Court. Rajiv Gandhi later regretted his impulsive decision but it was too late by then. The last chance to resolve the Ayodhya  squabble before the disputed structure came down had been lost.

Is there any moral to the tale? Simply this: however good anyone's intentions, any publicity before a final deal is struck is absolutely fatal.


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