Explaining the frightened silence of Congress on 25th anniversary of Babri. The party can’t shake off its self-inflicted guilty conscience unless it accepts Narasimha Rao’s innocence.
Justice Liberhan delivered only two real surprises in his report on the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is understandable why only one has usually been taken note of. That, surprisingly, was his repeated censure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the other real surprise, in fact even bigger and more significant than what I see as a gratuitous indictment of Vajpayee, has gone unnoticed for 15 years. And it is entirely understandable too.
In fact, the Liberhan Commission’s total exoneration of Narasimha Rao has left the BJP cold, the Left-secular intelligentsia stunned, and the Congress confused.
So confused that today, on the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition and with a polarised Gujarat campaign raging, the Congress is silent as if Ayodhya never existed on the map of India. Using this frightened silence, the BJP has now completely reset the terms of the debate: from who demolished the mosque, to how and when will the temple be built.
In the familiar way of our retired judges heading inquiry commissions, Liberhan took his time – almost 17 years – and delivered a document you could describe as sugar-free and decaffeinated: no zing, no energy. The indictment of Vajpayee was a surprise, but it was also a safe thing to do. You can understand why the BJP did not care. For the party’s core, Vajpayee was expendable by now.
You can also understand the indifference of the Left-secular intelligentsia, because they had always led the canard that Rao was somehow complicit, that he was a closet Jan Sanghi. Pull down his dhoti, and you will find a pair of khaki shorts, they would say. But why was the Congress silent, and unwilling to even acknowledge with a sense of vindication if not joy that they, their government and their prime minister were not to blame, and had been unfairly pilloried and punished for a crime Justice Liberhan said they never committed?
That’s because Liberhan destroyed the canard they themselves have built against their own party, more specifically against Rao. They did it not because they really believed Rao was a bigot and complicit in the destruction. Most of them (remember the ones who broke away from the party in the name of genuine secularism then?) saw it as a great excuse to persuade a still-outsider Sonia Gandhi to bless an insiders’ coup, and replace Rao, preferably with Arjun Singh.
Sonia, as Natwar Singh confirmed in his interview to Kalyani Shankar at ThePrint earlier this week, steadfastly refused to oblige. Rao survived this, and many other internal coup attempts, but never recovered from the damage. In 1998, Sitaram Kesri even denied him a ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha because of the Babri taint.
Those who knew Rao well, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would never doubt his secular commitment. That he was a believer, visited temples and participated in rituals is also well known. But these did not undermine that commitment. It is simple for a non-believer to be secular. It becomes a clearer ideological commitment in the case of a believer.
Rao was also cast in the old mould of Indian politics. So he would keep open communication and relationships with all sides, including the BJP. In fact, he had a particularly warm relationship with Vajpayee. I remember that exchange at a political event where he described Vajpayee as a guru in politics. Vajpayee responded saying Rao, instead, was the guru of gurus, “guru ghantaal”. The moment the Babri masjid came down, he knew that politically he was a dead man walking. He wasn’t suicidal to help along, and then celebrate his fatal failure.
His proximity to senior BJP politicians gave his enemies much gossip to carry to 10, Janpath and plant on their friends in the media. His increasing dependence on Chandraswami strengthened their campaign. Yet, to say that he celebrated secretly when Babri fell, or that he remained fast asleep, does this complex and fascinating, wise but cynical, and patriotic but venal, old-style politician great injustice.
For a long time, there were so many stories about his complicity and these were mostly believed. Why did he take the BJP leaders’ word that the Babri Masjid won’t be harmed? Why did he not go over the state government’s head to order Central forces to open fire? Why did he not at once dismiss Kalyan Singh’s government and take control of Uttar Pradesh? The conclusion, therefore, was that deep down he was happy that Babri had been destroyed.
Politicians become much nicer beings when out of power, particularly if you are willing to go spend time with them in their lonely years. I did that a few times with Rao, particularly during some periods of great crisis, notably the war in Kargil. I would land up at his Motilal Nehru Marg home and ask him: so how would Narasimha Rao have handled this crisis? He was a man with six decades of experience and a remarkable memory. So as a student of political history you always learnt something.
He was facing many court cases, from corruption to bribery and was left to fend for himself. He was eventually acquitted in all. Lonely, in a mostly empty home with some books, newspapers, an old treadmill and just a few pieces of creaky furniture and a computer as his only possessions, he was usually happy to see me. He enjoyed telling stories like a lonely grandfather. Sometimes he laughed at his own fate. His most memorable line to me, talking about the many cases he was facing, was: koyi kehta hai maine murgi churayee, koyi kehta hai murgi ke ande, par sab kehte hain ke hoon toh chor (some say I stole the hen, some say I stole the eggs, but they all agree I am a thief). He would then laugh, almost giggle, for just about 15 seconds.
One afternoon, when I had dropped by in the middle of the Kargil war in the summer of 1999, he opened up on Ayodhya. Why did he not ask the Central forces to open fire?
“What were the mobs attacking the mosque shouting,” he asked, and then answered, “Ram, Ram?” He went on: “What would the soldiers firing at them chant to themselves while following my orders to kill maybe hundreds, but Ram, Ram?”
He read the confusion on my face.
“What if some of the troops turned around and joined the mobs instead? It could have unleashed a fire to consume all of India,” he said.
Then, why did he not dismiss Kalyan Singh? Mere dismissal, he said, does not mean you can take control. It takes a day or so appointing advisors, sending them to Lucknow, taking control of the state. Meanwhile, what had to happen would have happened and there would have been no Kalyan Singh to blame either. He said the home ministry had indeed kept some contingency plans ready. But he took Advani’s word that nothing untoward would happen, seriously. Then, the turn of events was too sudden and catastrophic.
Why was he so gullible to trust BJP’s leaders? “It was Advani,” he said, “and (he) was made to pay for it.”
This was obviously a reference to how he had later trapped an innocent Advani in the Jain hawala case. It took away many years of Advani’s political life until the court discharged him – discharged, mind you, not acquitted, meaning there was no chargeable case against him. One thing you wouldn’t associate with Rao was forgiveness.
His failure as prime minister to save Babri was colossal. But his rivals within crippled the Congress by spreading the canard that his (and their) government was complicit. This, more than anything else, lost them the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It gifted Mulayam Singh and Lalu the M for their M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) vote bank. It is this lost vote bank that Rahul Gandhi has been trying to win back for a decade, with poor success.
Why would the Muslims trust him when the Congress has itself built a mythology whereby the Muslims have come to hold their party as responsible for Babri and not the BJP?
Justice Liberhan’s report is the last authentic document on Ayodhya-Babri. He has indicted so many BJP leaders. If you take that seriously, why do you dismiss his exoneration of Rao, and his government? Unless the Congress does that, it will remain frozen in fright, with a self-inflicted guilty conscience evident in its shameful silence on the 25th anniversary of the most divisive day in our independent history.