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December 21, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Babri Masjid case: Vajpayee's lonely escapism

It may not have been a drama as alleged, but it was certainly a deception -- self-deception at that, if not deception of the nation as well.

The so-called offers of resignation by three of the country's council of ministers in the matter of their perceived involvement in the Babri demolition case was as much hype as hypocrisy -- by the political Opposition that raised the issue two years too late, by the ministers themselves who hastily scribbled notes of intent in the heat of the moment, and by the prime minister who didn't pause his usual long pause before pronouncing finis to the issue in the manner he did.

Indeed, Vajpayee's outright rejection of even the offers of resignation by three of his BJP ministers showed, yet again, how forgetful he has become of what the BJP's commitment was in its last election manifesto and of what kind of ethics our lay countryman expects from him, the tallest and cleanest political leader of our time.

The bare facts of the Babri Masjid demolition case as they stand today are clear enough:

* The CBI filed chargesheets in October 1993 against 57 people who had been arrested before being released on bail.

* The judge of the special court had, in September 1997, found prima facie evidence of criminal offence against 47 of the accused. These 47 included L K Advani, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti -- all of the BJP and all ministers in the Vajpayee government of 1998 as well as of 1999.

* Before the formal trial could begin before the special judge, his preliminary verdict was challenged in the Allahabad high court.

* The CBI's case for proceeding with the trial is currently being presented by two special public prosecutors appointed, be it noted, by the very government of which the three ministers concerned are a part and parcel.

Should the three ministers then continue to hold office? That is the question.

For an answer, consider first what had transpired during Vajpayee's earlier government of 1998. Sedapatti Muthaiah, a Cabinet minister belonging to the AIADMK, had to quit because of a chargesheet against him. Some time later, Buta Singh, another minister, exited because of his involvement in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case. Neither had been legally convicted, mind you. Yet, Vajpayee hadn't paused a wee bit in accepting those resignations.

But with regard to his own chargesheeted three musketeers -- with adverse prima facie evidence, moreover -- what did Vajpayee do the other day? He chose to give importance to money rather than to morality. In his statement in the Lok Sabha negating the Opposition's call for the exit of the three ministers, Vajpayee said he was rejecting the demand because the charges against his colleagues did not involve corruption or malfeasance of public funds.

His point was that the case here was of a "political" nature and hence there was nothing wrong in their continuing as ministers. This is tragi-comic logic, if it is logic at all. How, in the name of Ram, can a criminal offence under a "political" garb be any less reprehensible than a criminal offence under a "financial" visage?

As far as our own Representation of the People Act 1951 goes, one of the disqualifications for becoming a member of Parliament is if s/he has been meted a conviction for an offence resulting in imprisonment for two or more years. Note that the conviction is related to the fact of imprisonment, not to the offence being "political" or "financial" or otherwise.

Vajpayee went on to shut out the matter totally first by making that statement of his in the Lok Sabha and thereafter by reportedly telling his parliamentary affairs minister outside it to tear up Advani's "resignation letter" and throw it in the dustbin. That was perhaps the signal for his party to assume a nauseating political offensive.

Venkaiah Naidu, a BJP general secretary, castigated the Opposition's raucous demand for ministerial resignations on the Babri Masjid issue as "vote bank politics" and as a ruse for obstructing parliamentary proceedings. Not quite happy with this accusation which, however true it many have been, side-tracked the cardinal issue at the core, Naidu hit out at the Congress. They are asking our ministers to resign, he said, but what did they do after Indira Gandhi was convicted in 1975, he asked.

That question was answered a couple of days later in Calcutta by Dr Joshi, one of the three musketeers, remember. He reminded the Congress that Indira Gandhi had refused to accept the Allahabad high court judgment holding her guilty of indulging in corrupt electoral practice and, instead, changed the law.

Yes, Dr Joshi, Mrs Gandhi did amend the Constitution in 1976 whereby the subject of disqualification of a member of Parliament was thenceforth to be decided by the President on his own -- meaning on the advice of the council of ministers -- and not be bound by the opinion of the Election Commission as was the earlier provision. But then Dr Joshi, the physicist that you are, two wrongs do not a right make, do they? And you must concede, Dr Joshi, that whatever Mrs Gandhi did in 1976, however heinous morally, was backed by a brutal majority of people's elected representatives in Parliament. On the other hand, what Vajpayee did the other day was no better than poetic licence that sought to create a difference between "political" and "financial" motives behind a criminal offence.

Which brings us to poetic platitudes, ethics and morality.

Take morality first. A sudden trauma had hit L K Advani some three years ago when his name came up in the Jain Diary as one of the politicians involved in the hawala racket. His reportedly sensitive nature was so deeply hurt that he promptly decided to quit his Lok Sabha seat and avowed that he would not fight elections till he had been cleared of the charge. That surely was ethics, morality.

However, the same Advani, as the nation's home minister, does not think it immoral and incongruous that he is personally staving off the Babri chargesheet being pursued by his own government's public prosecutors. It is the same Advani who, for decades, has been with the RSS and its holier-than-thou attitude that seeks to inculcate discipline and character building in its cadres as paths to nation building. Ditto for Dr Joshi.

Let's now go to platitudes cast in angelic words in the BJP's election manifest, 1998. Page 8 of that document says, 'The BJP believes that morality and ethics form the underpinning of good governance.' It also says 'The BJP will seek to…set an unimpeachable accountability and impeccable probity in public life.' And there's the clincher that 'For a clean public life, the BJP will,' among other things, 'Introduce extensive regulations to ensure that conflict of interest does not influence decisions taken by those holding public office.' Now, now, 'conflict of interest' --- isn't precisely what it is when a home minister is being tried for a criminal offence by two public prosecutors appointed by the law minister or the attorney general if not entirely by himself? Et tu Advani of the Jain Diary fame?

What about Vajpayee himself?

In December 1992, the frenetic and fateful month of Babri Masjid, he, the liberal and the moderate, had walked out of a BJP national executive meeting in sheer disgust. He had not cared to attend the kar seva at Ayodhya and was in a state of sulk and dismay after the mosque's demolition.

In 1996, when quitting after his government of 13 days, he sounded holy and puritan about horse-trading to boost the strength of his supporters in Parliament.

And in 1998, when a BJP committee was set up to discuss Kalyan Singh's coup in Uttar Pradesh entailing a ministry of 93 including several history-sheeters, Vajpayee refused to have anything with it. But on the other day he was not the same politician who had gone on a fast unto death to protest against the UP governor's dismissal of Kalyan Singh. Rather, he now seemed almost frightened of treading the correct path of determined action.

If Vajpayee had even a bit of the grit of Indira Gandhi, the manipulator, and Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of morality, he would have seized the Opposition's demand for ministerial resignations with both hands. He would have prevailed upon all the three ministers concerned to quit office, RSS consequences notwithstanding.

With the BJP looking out desperately for a new party president, Advani would have been ideal for the badly needed organisational work he's been so excellent at. Dr Joshi could have been asked to immediately park himself in UP sans Kalyan Singh and to totally resuscitate the party for the coming assembly elections. Uma Bharti, already afflicted by back trouble, could have been assigned the task of scouting and grooming female BJP talent --- a job less demanding than ministerial responsibilities but of great importance to the party considering that the Women's Reservation Bill will become law sooner than later.

The substitutes were also available. Sikander Bakht, the ignored Muslim, would have fared as well -- or as badly -- as Advani has, besides winning accolades for the National Democratic Alliance government's secular credentials. The experienced and sober V K Malhotra would fare as well -- or as badly -- as Dr Joshi in the HRD ministry, and his appointment besides would have assuaged the BJP's Delhi outfit smarting under total exclusion from ministry formation. As for Uma Bharti, her tourism portfolio would have been ideal for the exuberant Shatrughan Sinha, the long-neglected but faithful, whose recharged batteries would have been invaluable in the coming Bihar assembly election campaign.

Yes, Vajpayee would seem to have blown away a golden chance given him on a platter by the Opposition -- the chance to pre-empt the impact of the impending findings of the Justice Liberhan Commission as well as the Lucknow court ruling on the mosque demolition, and the chance to hike the image of the RSS and the BJP while simultaneously redeeming his lay countryman's faith in politics. All this in just one go, imagine. Instead, the prime minister retreated to his known weaknesses of being a lonely escapist, a phlegmatic philosopher and a pessimistic poet.

It really seemed a silent replay of his old lament, Jaoon to jaoon kahan? (If I have to go, where do I go?). Pity this, because Vajpayee always has two wonderful options: making inspiring speeches from the Opposition benches or penning soulful verses in Hindi.

Arvind Lavakare

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