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Left luggage - India Today

Swapan Dasgupa ()
January 12, 1998

Title: Left luggage
Author: Swapan Dasgupa
Publication: India Today
Date: January 12, 1998

Neither Rome nor Ram, today's issue is stability. The
construction of the temple is no longer a BJP issue; today, it is
the last refuge of the secular forces.

The BJP President, L. K. Advani, is understandably angry that a
news agency misreported him in Vijayawada on December 28 and
quoted him as saying that the Mathura and Kashi disputes were
very much on the party's agenda. It has taken the BJP a great
deal of nimble footwork to dispel the impression that it is a
single-issue party wedded to furthering communal antagonism. As
such, even the slightest suggestion that the robust war cries of
Jai Shri Ram will be overwhelmed by new, bloodcurdling chants of
Har har Mahadev is enough to disorient those floating voters who
have decided that the BJP is the best bet this election.

Advani was lucky that the damage from this misrepresentation was
nominal. But he cannot count on his luck holding throughout a
long and vicious campaign. If the BJP maintains its initial
momentum, it is more than likely that its "secular" antagonists
will rake up issues of Hindu-Muslim conflict to justify their own
existence. They realise that the 1998 BJP offensive can be
checked in two possible ways: either by scaring the electorate
into believing that Atal Bihari Vajpayee leads an army of
stormtroopers or by the voters reposing faith in dynastic
democracy. The ragtag United Front (UF) Will do its utmost to
further the first agenda while the Congress will spiritedly sell
Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow.

In view of the low priority attached by the electorate-last
week's INDIA TODAY-ORG-MARG opinion poll is an indication-to the
Ayodhya controversy, it may be difficult for the BJP's opponents
to convince the electorate that Vajpayee is just the benign face
of Hindu bigotry. Even Bal Thackeray's recent pronouncements
offer little by way of ammunition to secular fundamentalists.
There is a widespread feeling that Vajpayee deserves a chance,
for the sake of fairness and natural justice. If he messes it
up, the electorate will get even with the BJP the next time.

Likewise, Sonia Gandhi is certain to be a powerful crowd-puller.
There is a natural curiosity, and lots of sympathy, for a foreign
bahu who has endured tragedy and grudgingly met her obligation to
the family firm. This sympathy would even have translated into
votes if India was confronted with a leadership vacuum.
Vajpayee's formidable presence has ruled out this possibility.
Sonia will be greeted with adulation and hysteria but may not
make a substantial difference to the Congress' ultimate tally.

Sonia's objective is simple: deprive the BJP of a majority and
ensure another hung Parliament where the Congress and UF cobble
together a coalition that is susceptible to the influence of 10
janpath. It is an eminently self-serving goal. Unfortunately, it
can only be reached if the electorate discards its yearning for
what the BJP quaintly calls ability and stability. As things
stand, there is nothing in the Congress to inspire this reckless
gamble with India's future. The only thing that could alter the
equation is if the BJP is suddenly perceived as comprising a
bunch of extremists. Paradoxically, the greatest danger of that
happening comes from the Ayodhya issue-an issue that contributed
to the BJP's great leap forward in 1991. There is a time and
place for every issue. In 1998, temple construction is not a top
of the mind concern. It is not even the BJP's priority. By
labouring too hard on this natural shift, Advani is sending
confused signals and even getting reporters confused. In 1991,
Ayodhya was a BJP issue; today, it is the last refuge of the
secular forces. It should be allowed to remain that way.

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