The Case For Real Issues

Updated: Aug 17 2003, 05:30am hrs
Just before Saint Valmiki wrote his Ramayana, or contemporaneously, there were other works written by Buddhist scholars on a legendary hero called Rama. Likewise, there were stories of Rama written by Jain scholars belonging to the two schools of the Jain religion. Since neither Buddhism nor Jainism recognise God, the hero of these accounts is a human endowed with noble qualities. Rajaji (C R Rajagopalachari), a devout Hindu, also describes Rama as the Emperors son (Chakravarthi Thirumagan).

Tamil thought was different. Kamban, the great Tamil poet, wrote his Story of Rama in the 8th century. Long before that, another great Tamil epic, the Silappathigaram, described Rama as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Kamban followed the Tamil tradition and endowed his hero with divine qualities and powers. Yet, in verse after verse, Kambans hero displays the frailties of an ordinary mortal. Was Rama the incarnation of the god, Vishnu, or was he a human being Kambans epic is a fascinating account of a legendary king who is sometimes god and sometimes mortal.

If Lord Rama can be claimed by Buddhists and Jains and Hindus, how can the Hindus alone appropriate him as their own god More pertinently, how can a political party appropriate him as its mascot How is it relevant where Lord Rama was born or whether there was a temple at the site believed to be his place of birth

In the last few months, under a mandate given by the High Court of Allahabad, the Archaeological Survey of India has been excavating the site on which the Babri Masjid once stood, until it was demolished in an act of perfidy that has no justification in a democratic society. The ASI has made excavations on 160 days. Over 1300 objects have been recovered. According to reports, there is no evidence whatsoever of the remains of a temple on that piece of land. If this is the final conclusion of the ASI, and if this conclusion is accepted and affirmed by the High Court, that would knock out the whole foundation of the case put forward belligerently by the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and sundry organisations.

Since 1992, the country has been deeply divided by the mindless campaign launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Look back on the thousands of lives lost in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Look back on the number of young men drawn into different streams of militancy Muslim and Hindu.

Look back on the polarisation of society and the inevitable ghettoisation of many towns and cities in India. Look back on the many sub-plots spawned by the main story revolving around the place of birth of Lord Rama. One of the sub-plots is the law to prohibit forcible conversion from one religion to another. Last year, Tamil Nadu passed such a law. Neither before or after the law, have there been incidents of forcible conversion. Thousands of children in Tamil Nadu go to schools and colleges run by Christian missionaries (Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and this writer were among them), yet there has been no case of forcible conversion. The law passed in Tamil Nadu has only widened the gulf between people belonging to different faiths and has engendered mutual suspicion and bitterness.

Another example of a sub-plot is the demand for a uniform civil code. An impression has been created that the Hindus have a civil code and the Muslims have a civil code, but there is an irreconcilable conflict between the two. A further impression has been created that a common civil code will bring the two communities together. These are superficial and misleading impressions. Let me ask, is there a common civil code for all Hindus There is a Hindu Marriage Act, but the Act recognises many customs and exceptions. For example, in South India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Padesh, consanguinous marriages is not only recognised but is an almost invariable custom among many sections of the people. However, the very thought of a consanguinous marriage is abhorrent to Hindus in the States of North India. Will Parliament make a law bringing about uniformity in the law of marriage as practised among different sections of the Hindu people Will such a law be possible I doubt it. There are hundreds of civil codes in India among the people and within people belonging to the same religion. There are age-old customs practised by the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In my view, it is not possible to draft a common civil code for all the people of India. Any misguided attempt in this behalf will only result in the imposition of a Hindu code on the rest of the people.

The more important question is, are these issues the most relevant issues in the making of a modern India In my view, the real issues are issues concerning employment, investment, infrastructure, empowerment and discrimination against the weaker sections (based on gender or religion or caste or income). Yet if these unreal issues are raised from time to time, it is because these issues hold the promise of bringing electoral windfalls. In 1996 and 1998, the BJP was the unquestioned gainer. The BJPs hopes of making further gains were dashed in 1999. The BJP was faced with an unexpected glass ceiling of 180 seats. After calculating the pros and cons, the BJP seems to have come to the conclusion that by raking up these issues it will be able to pierce the glass ceiling. The BJPs confidence stems from the fact that its allies do not question the position and postures of the BJP. Old socialists like George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav and parties born out of the self-respect movement like the DMK and MDMK fail to realise that these non-issues challenge the very core of the beliefs of these parties. While they may be able to help the BJP make gains for itself, they will have to pay a very heavy price through erosion of support for their own candidates.

The truly secular parties the Congress and the Left parties should challenge the ruling formation on the real issues. There are some Congress leaders who seem to think that they can beat the BJP at its own game. They are hopelessly wrong. The Achilles heel of the NDA government is the economy. In three out of the five years it has been in power, the NDA government has delivered less than 5 percent growth. The consequences are high unemployment, stagnant agriculture, tottering small and medium enterprises and an infrastructure on the verge of collapse. These are the issues which concern the young voter and it is the young voter who will decide the fate of political parties in the next elections.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)