Saturday, April 08, 2017

Modi vs Advani: The touché moment

The Babri Masjid demolition case turns into a dirty war inside BJP

It is 24 years since the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by a violent mob of kar sewaks. The estimated figure ranges from a few thousands to a two hundred thousand. The leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were sitting on a dais in front of the mosque as the monument was razed to the ground by an irate crowd. Among the leaders were L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, the now marginalised elders of the party.
There has been a change of guard in the BJP, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the new brigade and comfortably ensconced in power at the centre after a historic win in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The change in leadership was not a smooth affair. The clumsy and bitter battle of succession was fought between June and September of 2013, when Modi was named the chairman of the campaign committee and then declared the prime ministerial candidate of the party in the teeth of opposition from Advani.
The drama that unfolded in the court-room of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Rohinton Fali Nariman on Thursday was riveting because of this background of the internal and inter-generational feud inside the BJP. The differences have not been buried and peace has not been made between the warring factions. Advani, who was once the master manipulator of party affairs, is now a lonely man with no followers and very few friends in the party. Joshi has always been a non-competitive man who gained the top rung at a time when there were not enough claimants for leadership in the party.
If the Supreme Court allows for the revival of conspiracy charges against Advani, Joshi and others in the Babri Masjid demolition case, and the judges indicated that they are inclined to return the two leaders along with 12 others to the dock, then what is of consequence is not so much the legal outcome, which would include possible conviction of Advani and Joshi at the special court in Lucknow that would come back to the Supreme Court in the form of an appeal, but what it means to the inner peace of the BJP. The internecine strife will leave the party with difference with bruised memories, and which would leave a bad taste in the mouth. It is quite evident that the faction led by Modi has undisputed advantage, and Advani and Joshi are literally down and out, defending themselves standing on the ground.
Modi has shown greater political cunning than his opponents have given him credit for. He could turn the case against Advani and Joshi to score decisive political brownie points. On the one hand, he would prove to his detractors outside BJP that he is the man bound by rule of law and he would not use his position as prime minister to bend the law and rescue his party elders from legal perdition. And he would use the opportunity to exclude the faint prospects of either Advani or Joshi for the upcoming presidential election in July this year. It will be readily argued that as an unchallenged leader of the BJP, Modi does not need a ruse to outmanoeuvre either Advani or Joshi. He can overlook their claims and choose person of his own liking.
Quite a few disagree that Modi is the monarch of all he surveys. According to sources he is not really his own man in the party, and he has to respond to pressure groups inside the party as well as in the extended Sangh Parivar. The example cited is that of the choice of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. He was not Modi’s first choice. Apparently, he had to bow to pressure, especially from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and agree to the name the mahant from Gorakhpur for the job.
This being the case, he would need a strong reason to overlook the claims of either Advani or Joshi to the office of the president, and the two facing a conspiracy charges in the demolition case would serve his purpose perfectly.
The other argument is that Modi wants the Babri Masjid demolition case to be taken to its logical, legal conclusion so that his party could with clean hands facilitate the construction of the Ram temple on the site of the mosque in Ayodhya.
There is no doubt however that both the BJP and Modi are burdened with the legacy of the Ayodhya mosque-temple dispute. It was easier for the party to inflame passions when the party was in the opposition but the temple issue is a liability for the Hindutva party when it is in power. Modi sees himself, rightly or wrongly, as the post-Ayodhya-dispute BJP leader, who wants the party to win elections and rule the country on the basis of a nationalist and developmental agenda. He sees himself as a modernist and a nationalist and not as a devout Hindu. As a matter of fact, even Advani looks upon himself as modern, rational nationalist. When BJP was in power from 1998 to 2004, Advani displayed no great enthusiasm for the construction of the temple. Modi has moulded himself in the Advani mode. And in a tragic-ironic sense, Modi has to take a call whether he would use his powers to protect his mentor-turned-rival, or leave him to the harsh blows of the legal system.
The issues of the case are based more on technicalities rather than legal subtleties and intricacies. The first issue is whether there should be trials in separate courts about the same episode – the demolition of the mosque. The judge of the special court had separated the case involving the act of demolition by “unknown karsevaks”, about a 100,000 of them, from that of the conspirators. Justices Ghose and Nariman are of the view that there should be a single trial of the conspirators as well as that of the arsonists. And they are sure that Article 139 empowers the Supreme Court to merge the separate trials and assign to a single special court.
Modi can afford at the moment to remain a passive spectator as the legal process unfolds, and weigh his political options with regard to Advani and Joshi, and with regard to the construction of the promised temple in Ayodhya.

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