A more liberal stance will strengthen Mr Vajpayees image

Updated: Jan 9 2002, 05:30am hrs
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees main strength lies in his liberal image. The party he belongs to, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is outright communal and most of its leaders are parochial. But he has been seen rising above them and reflecting the spirit of pluralism. However, the manner in which he, at times, flaunts his loyalty to the Sangh does not go down well. Yet, he is acceptable because he seems far more accommodating than anyone else in his party.

At the recent meeting of the BJPs National Executive , Mr Vajpayee was the only person who could rebuke the hawks for wanting to go to war against Pakistan. On our side also people talk irresponsibly, he admitted publicly. Again, on December 25, his birthday, he took his party workers to task when they raised the slogan to undo Partition.

Yet the general impression is that Mr Vajpayee is pally with the RSS. Whether it needs him or he needs it, the equation between the two is seldom doubted. He puts up with its most provocative statements. RSS chief KS Sudarshan has urged the government to impose a fortnight-long economic blockade on Bangladesh to stop the atrocities against Hindus. What the fundamentalists did in Bangladesh in the wake of electoral victory by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is deplorable. I was recently in Dhaka and found regret and shame writ large on the faces of Bangladeshis who admitted that the administration had failed to protect the minorities. But the recipe that the RSS chief has suggested means that the entire nation must be punished for the act of some goons. Will he accept similar action by other countries in India

Extremists in Bangladesh are hell-bent on a confrontation with New Delhi, and the RSS chief is only playing into their hands. Why the RSS chief alone, even human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi is a sacred cow for Mr Vajpayee. The latest from Mr Joshi is that historians, against whom he has started his jehad, are more dangerous than the terrorists who attacked Parliament. Mr Vajpayee has not said a word against him. Is it because Mr Joshi is close to the RSS or is it because Mr Vajpayee does not want to add to the number of opponents he already has in the BJP

Mr Vajpayee can strengthen himself only by being more liberal. His credibility in the neighbouring Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, is high. It can go higher were he to speak out against all elements that are trying to saffronise the Indian society. Mr Vajpayee is still considered a force against the rising tide of Hindu chauvinism. Last week when people in Bangladesh feared war between India and Pakistan they expressed confidence in Mr Vajpayees sagacity to me. They were confident that he would not allow things to go out of hand.

I find a proof of that in Mr Vajpayees article on New Years Day. He underlined the same message of peace and understanding as in his musings from Kumarakom, Kerala, last year. His appeal to Pakistan not to get bogged down in the issues and debates of yesterday requires a response. People in Pakistan should note his reiteration that in our search for a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem, both in its external and internal dimensions, we shall not traverse solely on the beaten track. How I wish Mr Vajpayee had applied his advice to rise above the debates of yesterday to issues relating to India.

But his government has promulgated the same Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) which evoked a countrywide protest and criticism. The National Human Rights Commission said that such a measure was unnecessary. Parliament was divided. The government was so sure of being defeated in the Rajya Sabha that it did not introduce the measure in either House. It is sad that the President has signed the ordinance without asking any questions. People pin a lot of hopes on him. He should have at least returned it to the government for reconsideration.

Even legally, the re-promulgation of the ordinance is questionable. The Supreme Court has come down heavily on state governments which have reissued ordinances after the assembly has ended. Under the Constitution, an ordinance lapses after six weeks if Parliament or an assembly does not endorse it. The Vajpayee government has done the same thing that a Laloo Yadav government in Bihar would do. The former cheated Parliament, the latter the assembly. That is the only difference.

In his article, Mr Vajpayee has said that India will not advance any partisan agenda at the expense of others but protect and promote mankinds most cherished universal ideals. Indeed, very laudable thoughts. But they should apply to domestic situations as well. Tolerance is a worldwide belief. It is applicable against even the hiss of hatred against minorities.

But the Sangh parivar, to which Mr Vajpayee belongs, is already igniting the fuse of hatred. A campaign is building up to erect a temple at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished nine years ago. How can this partisan agenda go with a pluralistic society the ethos of India

The Prime Minister is quite right in saying that either the court should settle the Babri Masjid problem or the two communities Hindus and Muslims should be involved in some kind of give and take. As far as the court is concerned, there is not even a semblance of effort to speed up the proceedings on the part of policy-makers and the parties concerned.

Eminent Muslim opinion, however, does not seem to be in favour of building the mosque even if the court gives a decree against the Hindu claimants. Regarding the settlement between the two communities, I believe some effort is being made. But it is too little and too slow. The jingoism of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal is standing in the way of a quick settlement though the government has given an assurance to Parliament that the temple will not be allowed to come up unless there is a settlement.

True, after the demolition of the Masjid the demand for destroying the mosques adjacent to Mathura and Varanasi temples has receded. But the agitation can always be revived if the matter is not put out of the way. There has been a suggestion to amend the Constitution to guarantee that no religious place existing on August 15, 1947the day when India was partitionedwould be altered in any way. At least such a provision in the Constitution should have been included after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Even now, this should be done unilaterally to evoke confidence. The Prime Minister should initiate a constitutional amendment on these lines on the very first day of the budget session in the third week of February. The VHP, the Bajrang Dal and other members of the Sangh parivar should also submit affidavits on behalf of their organisations to reaffirm the constitutional amendment when effected. This may mollify the Muslims. If their faith is restored, they may make some gesture.