On December 6, 1992, Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced the most unsettling challenge of his political career when crazed Hindu mobs demolished the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The violent aftermath of that attack, which led to the loss of over 1000 lives across the country, was a mortifying counter-narrative to Vajpayee’s reputation as a reasonable and moderate, albeit right of centre, political leader. The demolition and deaths deeply anguished the then 68-year-old politician who felt marginalized within his own party.
In that state of mind, Vajpayee granted a remarkable interview on December 10 at his then 5 Raisina Road residence to Tarun Basu and Mayank Chhaya, Chief Editor and South Asian chief correspondent respectively, of India Abroad and India Abroad News Service (which later became IANS news agency).
With his passing away, the interview is an important part of his personal history and India's political trajectory.
Moderates have no place in present-day politics: Vajpayee
By Tarun Basu and Mayank Chhaya
New Delhi, December 10: The Bharatiya Janata leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, says his party's Ayodhya action was the "worst miscalculation" and a "misadventure." He concedes that voices of moderation were overruled by hardliners.
In an interview at his residence on 5 Raisina Road on the crisis, Vajpayee admitted that his party had failed to honor "solemn assurances" to the Supreme Court, Parliament and Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao that the mosque would not be touched during the Dec. 6 "kar seva" (voluntary service for a cause) by Hindu nationalist activists.
The extensive interview on Dec. 10 was marked by Vajpayee's sense of anguish and helplessness that party moderates had been sidelined.
"Moderates have no place," he lamented, adding with a resigned air, "Who's going to listen to the voice of sanity?"
However, he ruled out quitting the party, saying he had a lifelong association with it and "when the ship is facing a storm, you don't desert."
Asked how, despite having been projected as a prime ministerial candidate, he had chosen to compromise his convictions, Vajpayee replied, "I have waited too long (to be Prime Minister)."
He obliquely conceded to a grave error of judgment by the party, saying he had counseled senior leader Lal Kishen Advani not to collect so many people.
"But he was confident (of controlling them)," Vajpayee added.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q. Do you feel a sense of sorrow over the way your party wittingly or unwittingly unleashed this crisis?
Yes, I am a sad person. In Ayodhya something happened which should not have happened. We tried our best to prevent it. Unfortunately, we did not succeed.
Q. Why has the BJP expressed no remorse for the killings that have taken place?
A. We condemn the killings. When innocent people die, we are hurt. But other political parties, including the ruling Congress, cannot be completely absolved of the responsibility for the present state of affairs. The disputed structure should not have been demolished. Obviously, a section of the kar sewaks went out of control, forgetting the solemn assurances given to the Supreme Court, Parliament, the Prime Minister that the disputed structure would be fully protected.
They also forgot that top leaders of the BJP, RSS and even the VHP were committed to protect the structure. They did not listen and we are sorry for that. But the way the other political parties have overreacted, they are not prepared to accept our version of the incident. We are trying to find out who masterminded the whole thing, if there was any agency or group.
Q. Are you talking of internal sabotage within your organization?
A. NO, I am not talking of any sabotage. Obviously, a group of kar sevaks, not very large in terms of number, who thought they had come to Ayodhya again to offer kar seva and were not allowed even to do that at the place where the foundation stone was laid during the time of Rajiv Gandhi. They thought that pent-up feeling...
Q. Are you talking of some kind of internal inquiry process being initiated?
A. It (the outbreaks) has come as a shock for a disciplined organization like the RSS. Advani was almost in tears. This is a serious matter, who did it and why. The people say we rode on a tiger. If we could create a tiger, then we know how to make it a mouse.
Q. How will you do that?
A. We will find out (who were guilty), we will enforce discipline. This should not have happened and this should not be allowed to happen again.
Q. Do you know that the whole world is condemning India?
A. It is because of the overreaction, and I blame part of the media also. Instead of saying that a disputed structure was demolished, they concentrated on the mosque part. There was also a temple that was a functioning, and for the last 40 years nobody offered prayers there. But the media said `Babri Masjid demolished,', and that had its repercussions. The whole problem of Ayodhya was never put in a proper perspective before the international community.
Q. Why didn't you wait until the court judgment on Dec. 11?
A. We wanted to wait. That was the plan. But obviously a group didn't like this. They were expecting a judgment before Dec. 6 and they thought that if the judgment goes against us, even then they will be free to offer kar seva and the disputed structure will not be touched. That question would be solved later. Even that did not happen.
Q. The attack seemed planned.
A. Yes, they were very determined to do away with the structure. At that time, they did not even think of the temple.
Q. You said these people, whoever they were, did not listen to the leaders. But what kind of leaders are they who cannot discipline their flock?
A. We have taken the moral responsibility. Why did Kalyan Singh resign? Why has Advani resigned as leader of the opposition?
Q. Hasn't the BJP been accused of blackening the image of India?
A. I don't agree with that word.
Q. The entire Hindu community has been branded as a bunch of criminals before the eyes of the world. Will it take quite a while to bring down this image?
A. If places of worship are demolished in a Muslim country, there is no such reaction. Recently a group of Keralites were tried and put behind bars for staging a drama in Sharjah, and not a finger was raised. It is our posture that is responsible for this reaction, a posture of being more secular than those secular countries that had a tussle between state and church.
Q. Do you think your party grossly miscalculated the consequences of the kar seva?
A. We thought that everything would go on peacefully and there would be kar seva. By then, the judgment would come. The structure would be left alone and the kar seva would be done. That would take two to three years, and in the meantime, you know, we accepted the formula of single point reference of the issue to the bench of the Supreme Court under article 143. If we had known what was going to happen in Ayodhya, this talk would not have had any meaning.
Q. Then what went wrong?
A. Everything went haywire.
Q. You know that Rao has spoken in terms of deceit and betrayal?
A. We are sorry he believed us. He believed us and we believed that our workers would behave. So we were also betrayed in that sense. And now we realize that it was a miscalculation. I had told Advani not to collect so many (people), but he was confident that they would be our men and we would ask them (to observe restraint). Obviously, these were not RSS people.
Q. How many people were enough for a purpose like that?
A. Naturally, a stage came when we had to ask the people not to come to Ayodhya. There were too many. On Dec. 4, we were asking all the state units not to send any more people.
Q. Were not these people secretly happy and the mosque was gone?
A. No. But what about our (BJP) image, what about our credibility?
Q. Do you think that is the worst miscalculation your party has made in your time?
A. Yes, that is the worst.
Q. How long do you think it will take to change this image?
A. We are going through a process of soul-searching: How did it happen? Why could we not have prevented it and how to prevent any repetition of this misadventure. Nobody is happy.
Q. How do you see the sociological outcome of this? People are worried about the equations between the two communities.
A. Suddenly and unexpectedly, we are face to face with a situation that came during 1947, and now again we stand at the crossroads so far as Hindu-Muslim relations are concerned.
Q. Do you know that your party has been accused of brinkmanship on Ayodhya, with an eye on the elections?
A. Listen, if that was the case, why did the demolition take place? We could have left it after causing some damage.
Q. Isn't it unconvincing that a party aspiring to form a government is now saying it cannot control its cadre?
A. You did not blame the Congress party after its leaders (who were responsible for) mass killings of Sikhs after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. Please, don't be too harsh. We realize we failed.
Q. Doesn't it seem that a section of your party has turned that guilt into a virtue by going on the offensive?
A. It is offensive because of the government's dirty tactics of banning the organizations on the basis of one incident, when the top leadership of these organizations keeps on saying that they are sorry, that this should not have happened.
Q. Has anybody publicly said he is sorry?
A. I have said this.
Q. You are known to be a moderate, but no one else.
A. Prof. Rajinder Singh (RSS general secretary) has said it goes against the ethos of the RSS.
Q. But why hasn't the BJP said it is sorry?
A. I have said it. Advani has given his resignation.
Q. How do you see post Ayodhya? The problem has not been solved, the government wants to rebuild the mosque, you are going to protest it. Can the nation go on like this?
A. Now a solution should be found, a permanent solution. The structure is down but the temple, maybe in a makeshift manner, does exist. This new situation should be used to bring about a permanent reconciliation between the two communities, and that can be done on the basis of give and take.
Muslims should realize how strongly Hindus feel about the temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram, and Hindus should offer to help in constructing the mosque in Ayodhya, but not at the same place.
Q. Does it really mean the Muslims giving and the Hindus taking?
A. No, no. The mosque has no special significance for the Muslims. It is like any other mosque. For Hindus, the place is sacred.
Q. Couldn't this give and take have been done earlier?
A. Maybe at critical moments like this, solutions are hammered out.
Q. Are you working toward that? Has something begun?
A. No, not yet. It is too early.
Q. Has there been any dialogue with the government on the post-Ayodhya situation?
A. No, nothing.
Q. Your party has no other issue except Ayodhya. How come you never talk about jobs, education, health, pollution or issues that touch the people directly?
A. We have been raising these issues also, but the support we got in the last general elections was mainly due to Ayodhya. It was an emotive issue for other political parties, also. Everyone had their eye on the Muslim vote. So this game goes on. Let us solve the Ayodhya issue, then concentrate on other issues.
Q. How do you visualize the scenario in the months ahead? What do you think will happen to India?
A. India will come out of this crisis united and stronger. I am sure of that.
Q. Along with the minorities?
Q. Do you see this as one of the gravest challenges to India since 1947?
A. We are facing a serious crisis, not the gravest. That is why we had been impressing upon the government to find an early solution. The Prime Minister lost two months and did nothing, and when he started doing something, he tried to divide the sadhus. So the Congress Party cannot be absolved of blame.
Q. Do you think there is anybody in the Congress Party who has the solution, other than the Prime Minister?
A. No, it is for the Congress Party to decide. You see, whatever the Prime Minister did, he just failed. But his bona fides cannot be questioned. He tried to find a solution and he wanted to avert the crisis. He thought that we would be in a position to adhere to our promises.
Q. Do you mean you failed to adhere to your promises?
A. Yes. He says we betrayed him, that it was a deliberate attempt. It was not done deliberately.
Q. But you did fail to deliver on your promises.
A. Yes, that is what we have said; promises made to Parliament, to the judiciary. That is why Kalyan Singh resigned.
Q. Are you going to get in touch with the Prime Minister?
A. No. Not in the near future.
Q. Do you think it is time that the voice of moderation in your party asserts itself?
A. It is time for the entire party to stand united and face the challenge.
Q. And take on a more moderate role?
A. No, not a moderate role, but we have to take a reasonable attitude.
Q. Why are you shying away from the word moderation?
A. What have we done?
Q. Over a thousand people have died?
A. I don't think I can do much in that. I have been accused of lacking courage. You don't require courage to split your party or join hands with the Congress. On the first day, I did say let us condemn the happenings in Ayodhya, but others did not help me. They said what we have done is quite enough. It must be adequate.
Kalyan Singh has resigned. Advani has also tendered his resignation. That should be enough. Then I decided to go with the majority. That is how we function. After all, I have a sense of discipline. And you don't sever lifelong associations like this. And when the ship is facing a storm, you don't desert the ship.
Q. Even at the cost of your principles and convictions?
A. No. Not principles and convictions. If Seshadriji, Rajendraji had not come out openly against, then there would have been a crisis in the party. Now I am convinced that the top leadership in the RSS did not want this. They were in the dark.
Q. But doesn't what happened personally worry you?
A. It does worry me.
Q. After all, haven't you been projected as a prime ministerial candidate?
A. I have waited too long. Moderates have no place in present-day politics. Who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?
Q. Do you think you are too tired to assert yourself in the party?
A. No, not tired.
Q. Is it a feeling a resignation?
A. Yes, a feeling of resignation.