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Wednesday, Nov 17, 2004

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A breather for the BJP

Rasheeda Bhagat

At the NDA meeting... An easy consensus.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party has been facing turbulent times, with the party reeling from one shock to another right from the unexpected defeat of the National Democratic Alliance it led in the general elections in April, through the loss of the Maharashtra Assembly elections to the tantrum thrown by the fiery sanyasin Uma Bharti resulting in her suspension from the party for six years. So, it must have been a relief for the BJP when the NDA constituents decided to toe its line on Ayodhya at the coalition's meet held in Delhi on Monday.

After the sharp reaction of some NDA members, particularly the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (United) to the BJP President, Mr L. K. Advani's announcement at the BJP National Executive on October 27 that a Ram temple would indeed be built at Ayodhya, their falling in line at the NDA meet came as a bit of a surprise. After Mr Venkiah Naidu stepped down as the BJP president and the party turned once again to its "tallest leader" to rekindle its political fortunes, Mr Advani had made it evident to everybody, including the NDA allies, that it could return to the Hindutva plank.

At the National Executive, Mr Advani had said that the party would not compromise on its promise to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya. "The BJP's growth is reflective of the national will and desire of crores of people of this country that a magnificent temple be constructed at the Ram Janamsthan at Ayodhya in the place of the existing makeshift temple," he told the Executive that endorsed his appointment as the new party president. Intriguingly, he even said that "if the Vajpayee Government had been re-elected the construction would have started very soon."

Anyway, the strident note was not missed, least of all by the BJP's allies, which asked for a meeting presumably to thrash out this issue. But those expecting fireworks at the meeting must have been disappointed because the "secular allies" quietly toed the BJP's line that a Ram mandir would be built at Ayodhya through a negotiated settlement. Expectedly, the BJP also toned down its pitch at the NDA meet where it pushed its agenda for a Ram temple but only by "a negotiated settlement though dialogue between representatives of the Hindu and Muslim communities in an atmosphere of peace, trust and goodwill."

So for the moment, at least, there may be no change in the NDA composition. In fact, the NDA meet presided over by the Alliance Chairman, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also endorsed the BJP line on the arrest of the Kanchi Sankaracharya Sri Jayendra Saraswati. The NDA Convenor, Mr George Fernandes, who has undertaken any number of trips to Chennai to pacify the AIADMK supreme, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, when her party was a constituent of the Alliance in the 1990s, will now be coming to Chennai to call on the Sankaracharya.

If any question begs an answer, it is why did parties like the Janata Dal (U), which were raring to go at the BJP and leave an NDA that cannot bring them the trappings of power for now, keep a low profile? Bihar politics may offer some answers. Disenchanted by the Bihar strongman, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, who grabbed the Railway portfolio in the UPA Government, the Lok Janasakti Party (LJP) chief, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, started warming up to the JD(U) leader, Mr Sharad Yadav, who made a strategic appearance at the former's Iftaar party a few days ago. Of course, the timing was significant as the Bihar Assembly elections are barely three months away. As expected Mr Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal saw red and urged the UPA Government to get rid of Mr Paswan from the UPA as he was supping with a BJP ally.

For Mr Paswan, an alliance with the JD(U), which still has considerable clout in Bihar, would be very welcome. For the Assembly elections, Mr Paswancannot continue his alliance with the Congress and the RJD as Mr Lalu Yadav has spared no chance to humiliate him, and the LJP and RJD leaders have been openly trading charges for a few months now.

But for Mr Paswan the problem in allying with the JD(U) is that the latter is still an ally of the BJP and a constituent of the NDA. He would have pinned much hope on some fireworks at Monday's NDA meet and of the JD(U) walking out.

But that did nothappen. On the contrary, the BJP has, in a thinly-veiled call to Mr Paswan, invited all "anti-Lalu forces" to unite to rid Bihar of the RJD rule. But to do this, Mr Paswan will have to quit the UPA Government and it is doubtful if he is as yet ready to do so, because there has been nothing amiss in the way either the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, or the Congress(I) president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, have treated him.

Anyway, in the rough and tumble of Indian politics, one cannot rule out new combinations and permutations and three months is quite a long period for this to happen. Even a split in the JD(U), with Mr Sharad Yadav walking out cannot be ruled out.

Even as the BJP must be contented that its "secular allies" are reluctant to leave the Alliance it leads, even when it is out of power, it must be taken aback by the arrest of the Kanchi Acharya by a natural ally like the AIADMK chief Ms Jayalalithaa.

The arrest has got the various sadhus and sants up in arms, though she is yet to come out with any statement on the arrest. But, then, nor have Dr Manmohan Singh or Ms Sonia Gandhi. On a two-day tour of her constituency Rae Bareilly on Tuesday, the Congress(I) chief refused to comment on the arrest saying the matter was sub judice. But when reporters said that the BJP and Hindutva outfits were attacking her on the issue, she smiled and said this was nothing new as they had always attacked her on all kinds of issues, and the more they attacked her the more popular would she and her party become.

It remains to be seen what turn this case takes. But whatever the outcome, it may have given the BJP a chance to tell the Hindu samaj that if any of its religious icons is in trouble, it can always count on the BJP to speak up for them. On Tuesday, senior BJP leader, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, called on the Sankaracharya at the Vellore jail and came down on the Tamil Nadu Government for making the arrest..

The entire episode has also taken the media attention away from Ms Uma Bharti, and surely the BJP is not complaining. `The party with a difference' must still be smarting over the manner in which Ms Bharti challenged the BJP president and dared him to expel her from the party.

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