The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling on April 19 to press criminal charges against senior right-wing politicians is a watershed moment that is likely to influence political events in the coming years.
The court has ordered a day-to-day trial of 89-year-old L.K. Advani who has been accused of hatching a conspiracy to demolish the 16th century Babri mosque that was razed to the ground on December 6, 1992, triggering nationwide communal violence that killed thousands of people.
The mosque was demolished by a mob because Hindus claim that it was built by Mughal dynasty founder Babar at the very spot where Hindu deity Ram was born in the northern city of Ayodhya. Advani and 19 others are accused of not just hatching a conspiracy to demolish the structure but also inciting the mob of thousands on that day, considered a defining moment when the nation’s secular fabric was torn asunder.
To understand the implications of this order against Advani, who was India’s deputy prime minister and held the home portfolio in the Vajpayee Cabinet, it is important to look at his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The investigative agency that is pressing charges against Advani reports to his protege Modi. Along with Advani, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will also prosecute other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh, all of them Modi’s seniors and considered the old guard of the BJP.
The order came after the CBI told the Supreme Court that it has compelling evidence to prove Advani, credited with the growth of right-wing parties, attended a meeting in 1990 to plot the mosque’s demolition. Earlier in 2010, a high court had quashed charges against Advani and others.
So why is a federal agency, infamous for taking instructions from its political masters, so keen to prosecute members of the ruling party? The CBI’s sudden interest in the case that has dragged on for 24 years has surprised observers. The CBI, dubbed the “caged parrot” by the Opposition, works closely with the government and takes the opinion of the attorney-general in high-profile cases. Therefore, it is equally baffling as to why the Modi government has taken a stand that may send his own party leaders to jail.
Modi owes his political growth and survival to Advani. He saved Modi when he was on the verge of being sacked by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 following deadly riots in Gujarat, a state ruled by Modi before he emerged on the national scene. On a plane trip to Goa in April 2002, Vajpayee had made up his mind to sack Modi, who many say failed to stop marauding mobs from killing Muslims in Gujarat. According to some BJP leaders who documented this incident in detail, it was Advani, who was also on the flight, who warned against Modi’s ouster. Soon after this conversation, the entire party rallied around Modi and Vajpayee, a moderate face of the right-wing party, stood isolated. It was this incident that elevated Modi’s stature and saved his job as chief minister of Gujarat.
While the government is yet to publicly react to the court order, the ruling is likely to bring political windfalls for the BJP and benefit Modi himself in many ways. First, a day-to-day trial will ensure that this deeply-polarising mosque-temple issue is kept on the boil for the next two years until 2019 when Modi seeks re-election.
This high-profile trial at a court in Lucknow is likely to dominate headlines and occupy the social media space, further polarising public opinion. A polarisation of this kind will help the BJP as Hindus are likely to consolidate in favour of the right-wing party.
Two, a successful conviction, a kind of closure for India’s Muslims, would immensely benefit Modi personally and may help him wipe off the stains of the Gujarat riots. It may also help blunt attacks from liberals who accuse the Modi government of persecuting Muslims.
Therefore, it won’t harm Modi to take credit for a successful conviction and jailing of the ‘old guard’ sidelined by him since his landslide victory in 2014.
The trial may also open up possibilities for the resolution of the century-old Ram Temple-Babri Masjid dispute that has shaped the country’s politics for the last three decades. Again, this opportunity would most likely come from the Supreme Court where a title suit is pending on who owns the land where Babri mosque stood.
Hindus say the land — an 80x40 foot plot — is the birthplace of Ram and have been demanding the construction of a temple there, an emotive issue the BJP has tried to encash in every election since the ’90s. Recently, the Supreme Court suggested an out-of-court settlement and said it was ready to arbitrate the talks between Hindus and Muslims.
Having ensured a speedy trial in the demolition case, the Modi government would be in a stronger position to negotiate with Muslims because a conviction may help subdue Muslim anger to some extent.
While the trial is under way, the government would want to open a line of communication with the Muslim community in order to persuade them to give up their claim to the disputed site.
If Muslims relent, all hurdles for the Ram temple would be cleared, a tantalising possibility Modi and his advisers may have already spotted.