Senior journalist and author
When the Gulf War broke out due to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Rajiv Gandhi embarked upon a peace initiative to Tehran and Moscow in the early half of 1990. When Rajiv, as Leader of the Opposition, was leaving for Tehran, Mani Shankar Aiyar was present at the airport with Youth Congress activists. As Rajiv boarded the plane, they thundered, “Khadi yudh ke do hi naam, Rajiv Gandhi aur Saddam.” Khadi signified the Gulf region. By the time Rajiv reached Moscow, belligerent Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been tamed by the American military’s support to Kuwait. When Rajiv returned to New Delhi, a different slogan greeted him. This time, the chorus was, “Khadi yudh se do hi khush, Rajiv Gandhi aur George Bush.”
The ease with which the Congress under Rajiv and Aiyar changed stands on the Gulf war indicates the party's flexibility and near-absence of ideology. On November 9, 2019, when the Supreme Court delivered a judgment in favour of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Congress was quick to say that it favoured the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala observed, “The Indian National Congress is in favour of constructing a temple for Lord Ram,” and sought to remind everyone how the entire land in the dispute was first acquired by the Congress government in 1993 through the Ayodhya Act.
Minutes before the court delivered its judgment, AICC interim chief Sonia Gandhi ensured that the Congress Working Committee heard the verdict together and spoke in one voice. However, this gesture is not enough to gloss over a long and chequered history of flip-flops involving Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul, who spoke in different languages on different occasions on Ayodhya dispute.
Twenty seven years ago, Congress President and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had sat through pouting, watching Doordarshan when zealots pulled down a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Rao then waited till a year after his death (2005) to hit back at his Congress colleagues, accusing them of playing a devious game during the Babri Masjid demolition. “They (Congress leaders) had already made up their mind that one person had to be made historically responsible for the tragedy. They got a stick to beat me with. I understood it,” Rao wrote in his book Ayodhya, December 6. He added, “Brave words are being said after the event and people look like sages who knew everything beforehand. I must say that this is a pose because, having been authors of the crisis and enacted the whole drama of destruction, they wanted to have some specific role assigned to themselves in history, something even wrongly to be proud of.”
Days before the mosque was pulled down by kar sevaks, Arjun Singh, Rao’s Cabinet colleague and a challenger of sorts, had met Uttar Pradesh’s the then BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh in Lucknow and declared that all would be fine. Arjun subsequently led a sustained campaign against Rao, accusing him of allowing the demolition to happen.
The thrust of Rao’s argument in the book is that while the Kalyan government and BJP were solely responsible for the ‘wanton vandalism’, his Congress colleagues, too, had been guided by ‘political and vote-earning considerations’. Rao takes a dig at Rajiv Gandhi, too, debating whether shilanyas that Rajiv allowed in Ayodhya in 1989 took place on the ‘disputed’ or ‘undisputed’ land. Rao cited several government records and statements to indicate that it was the latter. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi, as outgoing PM, had launched his Lok Sabha campaign on the bank of the river Saryu in Ayodhya, promising ‘Ram rajya’. Rajiv and his team had even performed shilanyas at the ‘disputed’ site, as pointed out by Rao in his book. But the 1989 electoral defeat and loss of Muslim votes forced Rajiv to stop talking about ‘Ram rajya’. After the Babri demolition, Rao’s credibility from within and outside the Congress took a beating.
On December 6, 1992, when the Babri mosque fell, Sonia was heading the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF). Sonia had overruled P Chidambaram and other members of the trust and issued a strong statement that day, saying that had Rajiv been alive, he would not have allowed the Babri demolition. Chidambaram, a minister in the then Rao government, and a few others had argued that there was no need to make a comment on a political issue. A member of the trust who was present then recalls that Sonia was uncharacteristically belligerent and told them that she would be belittling the Nehru-Gandhi legacy if the RGF failed to express its sense of outrage. Rao, who too was a member of the RGF, had to swallow the reprimand.
In January 1998, when Sonia formally joined politics, she repeated the comment in Hyderabad. Addressing a gathering of a predominantly Muslim audience in Hyderabad, she said exactly the same thing and which Rahul later said in Uttar Pradesh in April 2007: that had any member of the Gandhi family been in power, the Babri structure would not have been demolished. Apparently, a month before his May 1991 assassination, Rajiv had told Sonia that should any attempt be made to touch the Babri masjid, he would stand in front of it and they would have to kill him first.
In 2004, in a rare TV interview, given to Shekhar Gupta, Sonia had again talked about the Babri demolition, recollecting, “Well, I wasn’t in politics. As the chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, we issued a very strong statement. That was again a day I shall never forget. In fact, that brought not just tears, we were all distraught.... Well, the Congress was in power in the Centre, but don’t forget there was a BJP government in UP.”
Interestingly, Sonia had made an unsuccessful bid to resolve the Ayodhya tangle. In February 2002, she had encouraged Swami Swaroopananda to take on the Hindutva forces on the contentious issue. She shared a platform with three Shankaracharyas at Dighauri in Madhya Pradesh to take an independent line on the dispute. The conclave, a brainchild of the then MP CM Digvijay Singh, was aimed at breaking the VHP’s hegemony over the Ram temple movement. Singh, with Swaroopananda’s help, had roped in the respected Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peeth, Swami Jayendra Saraswati and his Puri counterpart, Swami Nishchalananda.
Sonia’s visit to Dighauri had caused uneasiness within the Congress. Some CWC members had initially sought to caution her against taking part in the conclave, but she countered by asserting that the party should not shy away from taking a stand on the vexed issue. Sonia even told the members that she had decided to play an active role in the debate after realising that the Congress would continue to be irrelevant in UP till it took a firm stand on Ayodhya dispute. “We are saying that we will abide by the court verdict. We are also saying that in case the majority community gets the legal mandate to construct the temple, the Ramalaya trust should build the temple instead of the VHP,” a top Congress functionary had quoted her as saying.
Sonia’s stand had upset the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too. Reacting angrily to her proximity with the Shankaracharyas on the Ram temple issue, Vajpayee chose to speak about it in the Lok Sabha. On the vote of thanks to the Presidential Address, he wondered why he was being criticised for holding parleys with the VHP sants when Sonia had bowed before the Shankaracharyas. “If she takes Shankaracharyas’ blessings, why should I be deprived of getting blessed by Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans?” Vajpayee had quipped.
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