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The leftover outfit

The VHP is assailed by the lack of a new leadership and strategy and the declining political draw of religion

Written by Manjari Katju |
September 2, 2013 3:10:25 am

The VHP is assailed by the lack of a new leadership and strategy and the declining political draw of religion

Once again,elections are round the corner and once again,the Vishva Hindu Parishad ,the militant member of the Sangh Parivar,is making headlines on the Ayodhya issue. The VHP,through relentless campaigns for a Ram temple at Ayodhya,contributed in a major way in transforming Hindutva from an idea to a broad and forceful movement in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In independent India,the extensive involvement of people in Hindu right-wing politics was unprecedented. This mass involvement also reflected people’s dissatisfaction with the Indian state. The inadequacies and underachievements of the developmental state led to the channelling of support for militant Hindu positions. The VHP’s arrival on the centrestage of Indian politics in the early 1990s led to it articulating its views on issues of politics and policy — both domestic and foreign — and these received wide coverage.

In subsequent years,especially after the mid-1990s,its activities were unable to generate the same kind of mass support. Whether it was Ayodhya,conversions or cow protection,no issue was able to pay the same dividend. Its own image declined. To make matters worse,the VHP found it difficult to get state support even from its sibling in the Sangh,the BJP,which it had helped bring into power. The BJP’s public distancing of itself from the “extremist” VHP is an interesting development during the NDA regime (1998-2004). Extremist positions work better from the sidelines,from outside positions of power. Yet,the VHP has failed to raise mass fervour. Why have things come to such a pass? Why has it become so difficult for

the VHP to bring Hindutva and itself to centrestage once again?

Before going to the larger processes,let’s look at issues internal to the VHP that explain this decline. The VHP’s growth as a noticeable organisation can be attributed to RSS pracharak Ashok Singhal,through whose leadership and organisational acumen the VHP developed into a militant and masculinist entity. He worked towards extending its reach by chalking out its work plan,centred on Ram Janmabhoomi,which made the VHP a household name. Under his leadership,the anti-conversion drive and educational programmes of the VHP gathered force.

He was aided by Sadhvi Rithambara,Uma Bharti,M.M. Joshi,Vinay Katiyar,Giriraj Kishore,Sadhu Ramchandra Das Paramhans,Mahant Avaidyanath and a few others,all fiery personalities who derived their power from a mass following. The energies of this leadership gradually ebbed over the years. Many of them became involved in their political careers as BJP legislators and parliamentarians.

The VHP of the present has not seen the emergence of many new leaders. The few who have come lack a mass base. They have been unable to devise new and innovative strategies to build another movement. What the VHP calls its welfare and civic work in towns and rural areas,to which it has turned with renewed vigour in the past few years,is also part of the original work plan. This lack of new strategies and leadership has had an adverse impact.

In recent years,the VHP has tried to work on these inadequacies and devised new programmes like the construction of a Bharat Mata temple,but despite its efforts to build countrywide support,these have been unable to create a stir except locally and through the help of the BJP.

The VHP’s relationship with the BJP has come under strain in the last decade. Relations with the Vajpayee government became quite hostile in 2002-03 over Ayodhya. Severe curbs were imposed on the movement of VHP activists in Ayodhya. The VHP planned a shila daan ceremony at Ayodhya in March 2002,but was not allowed to go ahead. Then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that he represented the nation and not the interests of a community. Similarly,in October 2003,the VHP planned another meeting at the Ayodhya site,but was again prevented from moving ahead. The then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh,Mulayam Singh Yadav,took a tough stance and the VHP’s top leaders — Singhal and Ram Vilas Vedanti — were taken into preventive custody. The VHP felt Vajpayee did not come to its help,which made it bitter and openly critical of the latter,whom it accused of “abandoning Ram” and taking the BJP “closer to secularism”.

The VHP has not had a smooth relationship with Narendra Modi,either. The “development-friendly” state of Gujarat had to keep the VHP in check after the violence of 2002 to project a picture of good governance and investment friendliness. Subsequently,to widen his image as a national leader and future prime minister,Modi has kept the VHP at arm’s length. Modi’s fallout with VHP leader Praveen Togadia has been widely reported. The VHP feels that Modi is out to weaken it organisationally.

Looking at the trajectory of Indian politics in the last two decades,it has become amply clear that religion or issues of religious identity are not able to generate a mass wave or even sway electoral verdicts on their own. In politics,people are not coalescing around religion as an identity marker in the same numbers as before. The “Hindu community”,the VHP’s constituency,seems less threatened about its religious identity than in the past.

Attached to this is the fact that issues of material well being are increasingly playing a role in people’s political preferences. We are living in an India where the political terrain is marked by demands for better life choices. The demands are not merely for education but higher education,not merely for skills but technical skills,not merely for livelihoods but electricity and roads. For instance,women are looking for equal education,democratised work and living spaces,lowering of discrimination and protection from violence.

Ayodhya or other religious issues do not seem to work,even as a proxy platform,in these changed circumstances. It needs to be recalled that largescale violence was expected after the Allahabad High Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute three years ago. The Central government had issued advisories to states to be extra-sensitive to law and order. But the verdict,delivered on September 30,2010,did not cause much furore.

What this implies is that efforts at mobilisation on religious grounds,however emotive,will not bring the same successes as some years ago. This is a lesson as much for the VHP as for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

Katju teaches at the Department

of Political Science,University of Hyderabad and is the author of ‘Vishva Hindu Parishad and Indian Politics’

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