Thursday, 7 July, 2022
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Narasimha Rao felt betrayed over Babri, he avenged it by trapping Advani in hawala scandal

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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.

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  1. This article reads like an appeal to muslims to forget about the past and vote for congress. Well timed too, just before Guj elections.

  2. PV Narasimha Rao trusting Advani is like Chamberlain trusting Hitler with “Peace” after Munich Pact. Rao had seen how peaceful was Advani Rathyatra. Did Rao ever go to temples and sing bhajans with people holding axes? And how did he and his Home Minister handle the riots after the demolition of the Babri Masjid? Why did he allow a” free market ” of rioting by the Shiv Sena and the saffron brigade? And putting Advani in “hawala” is a great atonement of the above sins?

  3. The disputed structure at Ayodhya is already certified as mosque by the pliable press.They would have been more than happy if Modi Govt would have also met the fate of Vajpayee Govt.But the common public is street smart and least concerned about such armchair coffeebook discussions.Wait for unstable political atmosphere for next stream of such pearls of wisdom

  4. The author implies that somehow discharged is worse than acquitted. How so? Discharged means that there was not even sufficient evidence to conduct a prima facie trial. Acquitted means that there WAS sufficient cvidence to conduct a trial but not sufficient for a guilty verdict. Acquittal does not mean that the person is innocent, simply that they are not guilty.

    And how exactly did a lonely Rao who was abandoned and out of power manage to trap Advani?

    Whose assurance did Rao take to not act in 1984? Rajiv? So then going by the same author’s thought process, did Rao engineer his assassination?

  5. Well, all the media were warning Rao that the BJP leaders could not be trusted. That Kalyan Singh could not be trusted. That despite official statements, VHP were telling it’s cadre that this was more than a big assembly. Those were the days when Centre could dismiss state governments on a whim. Indian Express talked about some constitutional provision under which the area could be taken over. Everyone thought once a large number of people gathered there, all options were closed. If you are right, despite all these fears, Rao trusted his friends.

  6. Shekhar you wrote: “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, ….” Have you ever thought of spending some time with Lal Krishan Advani after the conversation about Babri Masjid dies down.

  7. Sikh say they can’t forget the destruction done to Golden Temple,which today stands taller than ever,Muslim will never allow any other religion to even enter Mecca and meddina,christians have founded a country within a country to safeguard Vatican city,Jews show no sighn of leaving claim of Jerusalem,Even Bhudist are still fighting to restore Tibet but when it comes to Ayodhya every one advises Hindus to have a big heart and forget it.
    These leaders have brought Lord Rama a divine figure and made him stand in a courtroom against a bloodthirsty Islamic invader.All this is happening in a country where so called 70% population is Hindu and even after this people say Hindus are doing injustice.
    In this whole scenario it’s Hindus who have been backstabbed.

    • hindus 80.5 %, muslims 13.4 %, christians 2.3 %, sikhs 1.9 %, other 1.8 %. source cia world factbook – india page.

  8. A nice defence for inaction. Mr. Rao was Home Minister when Mrs. Gandhi died and he did not act for two days against the anti Sikh rioters. Was he given a promise by Congress leaders that no riot will take place and then felt betrayed?

    • Shekhar, Mukunthan said it in a perfect and concise way. I hope you will write about Narasimha Rao’s inaction in 1984 while politicians such as HKL Bhagat and others were leading the ward leaders who in turn were leading the gundas and the mobs of people to kill Sikhs in an extremely organized effort. I always thought that Sonia Gandhi was mad at Narasimha Rao because of his inactions in 1984.

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