When the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government was formed in 1998, with LK Advani as the home minister and Murli Manohar Joshi as the human resource development minister, it was faced with a dilemma – whether or not to work towards dropping the criminal conspiracy charges filed against its top party for the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992.
The popular opinion within a section of party leaders at the time was that since the conspiracy charges were "concocted", the government, or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in particular, should seek a withdrawal of these charges in the designated court of law.
The other option was to take a moral stand on the issue and not interfere with the functioning of the CBI, and other law enforcing agencies, irrespective of the fact that the accused were top leaders in the ruling dispensation.
An argument in favour of this stance was that the cases – against Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiar, Sadhvi Rithambra, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Ashok Singhal and Vishnu Hari Dalmia among others – did not have any merit and would thus fall flat in the court of law. As we know, the Vajpayee government decided to follow the latter course.
Advani was subsequently elevated to the position of deputy prime minister in 2002. Later, the Raebareli court hearing the case absolved Advani, Joshi and other leaders of all conspiracy charges. The Lucknow High Court, subsequently, upheld the lower court's verdict. Another case, against "unknown persons" for their alleged role in the Babri mosque demolition (except for conspiracy charges) continued to be heard in a Lucknow court.
The Supreme Court, on Wednesday, allowed the CBI to revive the conspiracy charges levelled against the leaders in 1992, essentially turning back the clock. The apex court has clubbed two cases, the one fought in Raebareli court with the other case filed in a Lucknow trial court (minus the criminal conspiracy charges).
The apex court has issued a two-year deadline, starting sometime in the next four weeks, to the designated court, directing it to hold daily proceedings without any adjournment.
Given the intensity and gravitas of the Supreme Court verdict, Advani, Joshi and others could very well be ruing their 1998 decision – of not imploring the then BJP government to contest the charges levelled against them. After all, there have been several instances in the past when Congress governments have not shown great enthusiasm in pursuing cases related to its leaders.
It seems that BJP's decision to take the moral high ground 19 years ago has come back to haunt Advani, Joshi, Uma and others.
In 1998, the leaders assumed high offices at the Centre even as the charges levelled against them continued to hold. Subsequently, they were acquitted by the Raebareli court. But on Wednesday, as the apex court turned back the clock, they were placed yet again under the accused category by the CBI, albeit this time under the Modi government at the Centre. It should be noted that criminal conspiracy charges were not part of the original case filed against BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders after the demolition.
This raises some pertinent questions: Could CBI have diluted its argument or pleaded for the dropping of charges, had the circumstances been different? Was CBI acting on its own or was it working with a 'hidden guidance' from the government? Though the reasons behind its move are based purely on conjecture, the fact remains that something did propel the CBI to push for the reopening of the trial.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, whose advice on legal issues weighs heavily on the central government and BJP, said, "This matter is on since 1992... the status remains the same." He also ruled out Bharti's resignation and rejected Congress' demand for the same by saying that if a chargesheet was enough to act on, then many Congress ministers and chief ministers would be in trouble.
Wednesday's Supreme Court order has inadvertently brought the focus back on the Ram temple issue and has set the tone for renewed public discourse on the subject. The issue had already come to the fore, with BJP's landslide victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
Advani and Joshi have not spoken on the issue and it remains to be seen how they will respond. There is immense public curiosity around the case, as it will be interesting to see how the CBI would argue its case and how hard it would push for the prosecution of Advani, Joshi, Uma, Katiar and others. The Supreme Court has directed the CBI to ensure that at least one prosecution witness appears daily in the trial court for the recording of his/her testimony.
This is where the problem lies for the Modi government. The Ram Mandir issue has for long been an article of faith for the BJP. Advani was not just the architect and charioteer of the infamous Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, but was also the founding father of the BJP. He made it possible for the party to catapult from a negligible two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984, to 85 in 1989, to 120 in 1991 and then on to becoming the single largest party with 187 seats in 1996 (forming a 13 day government) and then to forming a coalition government in 1998. Advani is still honoured in the party and is frequently seen sharing the stage with Modi and party president Amit Shah in all meetings.
It wouldn't augur well for the BJP to force prosecution for Advani, Joshi and others. The argument that the CBI was just following an old case and was acting autonomously isn't very convincing.
More so, Advani turns 90 in November. The optics generated from him appearing in courts and being prosecuted by the CBI will have its own damaging implications.
Recent electoral successes prove that a large number of people are buying the BJP's philosophy of mixing Hindutva with development. In short, the Modi government cannot be seen taking an official position against its own margdarshaks, especially on an issue that brought the Hindutva debate to the forefront.
Bharti has already taken a strong position and is going to Ayodhya on Thursday, to walk from the River Sarayu to the disputed site in Ayodhya, for a darshan of Ram Lala, and then onto Hanuman Garhi, to "express gratitude" for what she has achieved.
"There was no conspiracy... everything was khulam khula (out in the open). I was present there and participated in the Ayodhya movement, but that can't be a reason to charge me with conspiracy case. If that is the case, then Sonia Gandhi should be prosecuted on conspiracy charges for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots."
The Modi government would be wise in handling this issue carefully, as it has a tricky situation at hand.
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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2017 18:57:36 IST