The Supreme Court order on Advani in the Babri demolition case is a win-win for Modi

Dhirendra K Jha

Until the Supreme Court reinstated criminal conspiracy charges against Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani and others in the Babri Masjid demolition case on Wednesday, the saffron outfit appeared to be caught in an intense debate: would Prime Minister Narendra Modi back the architect of the Ayodhya movement for the post of president? The chances of that happening were not high as Modi is said to have not forgotten Advani’s reported attempts to thwart him from emerging as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Yet, opting for someone other than Advani for India’s top post, which falls vacant in the last week of July, seemed difficult for Modi – it would have looked like a historical injustice to a man whose rath yatra in 1990 paved the way for the BJP’s rise to power.

In September that year, Advani set out from Somnath in Gujarat for Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, travelling in a Toyota vehicle fitted to look like an ancient chariot, to press for his party’s demand for a temple to be built on the site in the northern town in which the Babri Masjid stood. They claimed that the mosque stood on the exact birthplace of Ram. Advani’s campaign sparked an estimated 166 riots around India, which left more than 550 people dead.

On December 6, 1992, tens of thousands of BJP workers, or karsevaks, stormed the mosque and demolished it. Advani and other senior BJP leaders were on hand to witness the destruction. More riots followed across the country, killing more than 2,000 people.

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It is questionable if the BJP could have survived politically – after getting just two seats in the Lok Sabha in the 1984 polls – had Advani, through his rath yatras, not created sufficient opportunity for the saffron party to use religious discourse and mass-scale ritual actions in the political arena.

Publicly, Modi has maintained a calibrated silence on the subject of the BJP’s presidential candidate, but the pressure on him was too intense to be ignored.

More wiggle room

In one stroke, though, the Supreme Court’s directive has freed Modi of his tricky situation. The reinstatement of serious charges against Advani makes it difficult for him to remain in the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will now be charged under sections 153A (promoting enmity between classes), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505 (false statements, rumours circulated with the intent to cause mutiny or disturb public peace) of the Indian Penal Code.

Politically, the BJP is unlikely to be the loser even if its leaders are indicted in the case. That could turn Advani, his BJP colleagues Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati, and others into martyrs to the cause of the Ram temple and thus become one of the dominant themes of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

Alternately, if they win the case, the BJP will be able to claim a high moral ground, presenting their victory as that of the cause of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and turning it directly against their opponents.