The National Executive constituted a twelve-member working group to examine these two questions. Krishan Lal Sharma, Vice President, was made the Convener of this group, from which senior leaders like Atalji and I were consciously left out to facilitate free and open discussion.
The report submitted by this working group, in my opinion, is the most in-depth and useful of all the review documents in the party’s history. It reaffirmed that neither the Jana Sangh’s decision to merge into the Janata Party in 1977, nor our decision to leave it three years later, was wrong.
Another significant recommendation made by the working group was in the sphere of ideology. The report said: ‘The statement that the BJP is a party with a difference means that the party, amongst other things, possesses an ideology which is not fully shared by others. In ultimate analysis, the strength and spread of a political party will also depend on its ideological appeal’.
Accordingly, the group recommended that ‘Integral Humanism’, propounded by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, be enshrined as the basic philosophy of the BJP. The group recommended adoption of the following ‘Five Basic Commitments’ of the BJP. (1) Nationalism and National Integration; (2) Democracy; (3) Gandhian approach to socioeconomic system—that is, a society based on equality and freedom from exploitation (samata-yukt and shoshan-mukt); (4) Positive Secularism—that is, Sarva Pantha Samabhaav; and (5) Value-based Politics.
TAKING THE BATON OF PRESIDENTSHIP FROM ATALJI
It is against this backdrop that I took the baton of party presidentship from Atalji.
As party President, I gave top priority to bring in fresh and young blood into my team of office bearers. Thus, Pramod Mahajan was made one of the four General Secretaries, along with Kedarnath Sahni, Krishanlal Sharma and Dr Murli Manohar Joshi. Although Pramod was only thirtyseven years old then, he had attracted the attention of all the seniors in the party as a young leader of exceptional organisational and oratorical abilities. Other young activists whom I inducted into the team, and who later went on to become prominent leaders in their own right were Sushma Swaraj, M Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh and K.N. Govindacharya. An important new entrant into the BJP, who did not come from the RSS background but, nevertheless, emerged as a prominent leader soon, was Jaswant Singh.
RAJIV GANDHI RAISES HOPES WITH HIS MR CLEAN IMAGE
When I became the BJP President, the domestic political climate was extremely challenging. Rajiv Gandhi, who was in the second year of his premiership, was at the peak of his popularity. In contrast, my party, at least in terms of numerical representation in Parliament, had only a peripheral presence in national politics.
I must admit here that Rajiv Gandhi had endeared himself phenomenally to the people of India in the first year of his premiership. His charismatic appeal transcended the barriers of caste, creed, class, region, age and gender. This can be attributed to several reasons. Firstly, the sympathy wave that brought him to power was still operative. Secondly, since he was India’s youngest ever Prime Minister, the youth were naturally drawn towards him. But the most important reason for his mass appeal was what was captured in a new term coined by the media: ‘Mr Clean’. Rajiv was seen as incorruptible and idealistic, qualities which were not generally associated with Congress politicians.
THE BOFORS SCAM AND ITS COVER-UP
Sadly, I discovered just after a year or so that the change was more in style than in substance. Rajiv’s ‘Mr Clean’ image received a huge jolt when the Bofors corruption scandal broke out. Our party’s National Executive was meeting at Rohtak in Haryana on 17 April 1987. The previous day, the Swedish State Radio had broadcast a startling report about an under-cover operation carried out by Bofors, Sweden’s biggest arms manufacturer, whereby sixteen million dollars (equivalent to rupees twenty crores at the time) were allegedly paid to ‘members of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress’ in connection with the purchase of 155 mm Howitzer guns by the Government of India.
The Swedish radio’s report hit India as a thunderbolt. It was, expectedly, dismissed by the government as ‘false, baseless and mischievous’. However, the murky details of the payoffs in the Bofors deal soon came to light thanks to a meticulous and sustained journalistic investigation carried out by N. Ram and Chitra Subramaniam and published in the Hindu, a respected national daily headquartered in Chennai.
In what must certainly rank among the finest examples of investigative reporting anywhere in the world, Ram and his colleague presented voluminous documentary evidence to show that the middleman was indeed an Italian named Ottavio Quattrocchi.
Rajiv’s credibility received a severe blow when V.P. Singh, a senior minister in his government, raised a banner of revolt. Singh’s portfolio had been shifted from Finance to Defence in January 1987 amid speculation that the Prime Minister was not too happy with his crusade against certain corporate wrong-doers. In his new ministry, Singh immediately ordered an investigation into an alleged scandal involving the acquisition of German submarines. This was criticised by the Prime Minister, who said he had not been consulted. Singh resigned from the government, alleging a cover-up.
Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from the Congress party. Two more close lieutenants of Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammed Khan, also abandoned him to join Singh. In October 1987, they formed the Jan Morcha, which metamorphosed into a full-fledged political party called the Janata Dal a year later. Singh made the Bofors cover-up the main plank of his political campaign, which gained phenomenal popularity in a short span of time and earned him the epithet ‘Mr Cleaner’, one who promised to reveal the truth about ‘Mr Clean’.
SURRENDER TO MINORITYISM IN THE SHAH BANO MATTER
If over the Bofors controversy Rajiv Gandhi’s integrity reached its nadir, his capitulation in the Shah Bano case, once again placed a question mark over his maturity as a leader.
Shah Bano, a sixty-two-year-old Muslim woman from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, was divorced from her husband in 1978. Since she had no means to support herself and her five children, she approached the courts for securing maintenance from her fairly wealthy husband. However, he refused to pay even the paltry amount of Rs 500 per month that the lower courts had asked him to pay. He appealed in the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of Shah Bano, invoking Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which is applicable to everyone regardless of caste or creed.
The apex court’s ruling enraged the orthodox leaders of the Muslim community, who argued that it was an encroachment of the Sharia’h, the Islamic religious law.
Rajiv Gandhi’s initial reaction to the demand for nullifying the Shah Bano judgment was quite praiseworthy. Like most people in the country, including the progressive sections of the Muslim community, he believed that the Supreme Court had done the right thing by upholding the maintenance rights of a divorced and needy woman.
Within two months, however, the Prime Minister started to vacillate.
THE INDIAN PEACE KEEPING FORCE FIASCO IN SRI LANKA
Rajiv Gandhi’s next big blunder was in sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987. This was done under the peace accord signed between the Indian Prime Minister and the President of Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene, to end the conflict between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan armed forces.
The Indian troops got increasingly dragged into the ethnic conflict of another country, and at their peak the Indian soldiers in Sri Lanka numbered nearly 100,000. However, even after India had lost over 1,100 soldiers, the political and military stalemate in the island country could not be diffused. Consequently, the IPKF came to be viewed as an invading force by the Sinhalese and an oppressing force by the Tamils. Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lanka policy had ended up as a failure both diplomatically and militarily.
CONGRESS DEFEATED, BJP SURGES AHEAD
The multiple blunders of Rajiv Gandhi’s government made the Opposition feel increasingly confident, after 1988, that the Congress could be defeated in the parliamentary elections scheduled for the following year. The BJP launched a nationwide satyagraha in January 1988 demanding Rajiv Gandhi’s resignation and holding of mid-term elections.
I was re-elected as party President on 3 March 1988. In August 1988, seven Opposition parties, excluding the BJP and the Left parties, came together on a common platform called the National Front (NF). N.T. Rama Rao became its President and V.P. Singh its Convenor. In October of the same year, another significant political development took place. Taking the process of political aggregation forward, the Janata Dal was formed with the merger of V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha, Chandrashekhar’s Janata Party and two factions of the Lok Dal, one led by Devi Lal and the other by Ajit Singh.
When the results of the 1989 parliamentary elections were announced, the Rajiv Gandhi government was expectedly thrown out. The Congress managed to secure only 193 seats—a precipitous comedown from the 401 seats it had won in 1984. By bagging 141 seats, the Janata Dal emerged as the single largest opposition entity and was invited by the President, R. Venkataraman, to form the government. Although the Janata Dal would lead the coalition government, it was the BJP’s spectacular performance that caught everyone’s attention. Our tally went up from two MPs in 1984 to eighty-six MPs in 1989.