BJP was a struggling political party in mid 1980s. But the roots of BJP actually traces back to 1950s when the right wing party was called “Bharatiya Jana Sangh” (BJS) which was started as a political arm of the RSS (RSS was founded in 1925), and BJS had been gradually increasing its voteshare, but was struggling.
However, the Congress party, in a bid to appease minorities and tap their vote banks, had been giving preferential treatment to the community ever since independence. The Jana Sangh (and it’s subsequent re-incarnation BJP) were formed on the Hindutva movement which opposed this preferential treatment of Congress and insisted on having equal treatment to all, along with the demand for uniform civil code. It was not only the right-wing party which criticized Congress’ politics of appeasement but even eminent Congressmen were, and still are, pretty much vocal about it. The following excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s book “Nehru: The invention of India” explains it pretty well.
In order to form a strong opposition to Indira Gandhi’s emergency, Bharatiya Jana Sangh merged with Janata Party in 1977 and after the collapse of the coalition in 1980, it was re-incarnated as “Bharatiya Janata Party” (BJP) at a time when the Congress party had already established itself as the undisputed national party with no significant rival. After the formation of BJP in 1980, the initial years were tough, with the party winning just 2 seats in the 1984 elections although it had 8% vote share (due to the strong sympathy wave resulting from Indira Gandhi’s assasination which filliped the electorate, BJP was not able to convert vote share into seats). Over the next few years, BJP struggled to strike a chord with the masses. The Hindutva movement required momentum but people were in dormant mode and had got used to the tactics of Congress. Appeasement politics had become the norm and people seemed to be fine with it as long as it was at a small scale and within limits.
In mid 1980s, after Rajiv Gandhi came to power, some of his actions indeed helped the struggling BJP (still in infancy stage) get its first big break. 1986 was a landmark year in the history of India due to the communal politics played by Rajiv Gandhi which helped BJP take off.
A 62 year old divorced woman named Shah Bano was entitled for alimony (maintenance money) as per Indian law from her ex-husband, but it was denied to her because being from the Muslim community which followed its own personal law, it did not have such provision of alimony for a divorced woman.
The case was taken to the Supreme Court of India which followed the rule book (Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code of India) & granted the verdict in her favor by ordering her ex-husband to provide her monthly maintenance money. This apparently did not go down well with the orthodox leaders of the Muslim community who saw this as an attack on Islam (because the orthodox leaders did not want the state to interfere in their personal law) which in turn led to a mass outrage among Muslims who began protesting against the Supreme Court & Rajiv Gandhi Govt.
Being an immature politician who was seated on the PM throne after his mother’s death, Rajiv Gandhi lacked political experience to handle such situation and quickly slipped into panic mode. He feared that if he did not intervene into the court judgement, the Muslim community would punish him in the next elections (by not voting for his party) and hence started looking at ways to appease them.
Since Rajiv Gandhi had won 2/3rd majority (due to the sympathy wave after Indira’s assassination), he introduced a bill to modify the Constitution of India in the relevant sections which in turn could overturn (nullify) the Supreme Court’s verdict and hence appease the Muslim community in the name of secularism.
Now this apparently did not go down well with the Hindu community who criticized Rajiv Gandhi for putting vote bank interests above national interests (by rewriting the Constitution just to satisfy one community). For the first time ever in the history of India, Hindus all over India felt intimidated due to Congress surrendering itself to minorities in the name of secularism even at the cost of the nation. Sentiments were running high and they needed an organization & a Hardline Hindu leader who could represent them and channelize their energies & sentiments to oppose the Congress party.
This was precisely the moment when the BJP pitched in & Advani took a hard stand against it. He utilized the party resources & manpower to spread awareness about this to every nook and corner of the nation through cadre at the grassroot levels, and garner support in his favor. This was the beginning of BJP’s rise & prominence of the Hindutva movement. Now that the Hindus were enraged & BJP was riding on the anti-Congress sentiments to consolidate it’s support base, Rajiv Gandhi feared that the Hindus would punish him in the electorate and hence again slipped into panic mode and started looking at possible options.
The Ayodhya dispute which was ongoing for more than 30 years had begun to test the patience levels of Hindu fundamentalists who were demanding for the gates of the disputed structure to be open for worship by Hindus. The matter was in the scope of judiciary but Rajiv Gandhi, with an intention of appeasing Hindus intervened and an appeal was filed to open the unlock the doors. The swiftness with which the Govt & judiciary worked on this matter had amazed everybody. Without wasting any time, Rajiv Gandhi Govt testified that it would be safe (i.e would not affect law & order) to open the gates for worship, and within hours of the verdict, the gates were open. It was a historic moment for Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which felt vindicated after decades of protests & patience. Also, it was a platform for BJP to launch its next mass movement in order to garner a much larger support base among Hindus. This way, Rajiv Gandhi’s Hindu appeasement tactic had laid a platform for BJP to grow.
This was precisely the moment the BJP decided to launch its “Ram Janmabhoomi Movement” (“Ayodhya Temple Movement”) demanding for permission to build Ram temple in Ayodhya.
This issue had the potential to become a Pan-India-Movement which in turn could help the BJP grow its Hindu support base. However, the problem here was the lack of awareness & necessary sentiments among people. Although Advani & his party were confident of building the awareness among the major cities & towns in the form of rath yatras, something more was required to evoke sentiments and to reach out to every corner of the nation. Since Ram was one of the several Hindu dieties, just using the name of Ram would not have the desired effect unless Hinduism had become synonymous with Ram. The BJP needed a medium/platform which could evoke the sentiments of Hindus with respect to Lord Ram. Something which could strike a chord to Hindus right from children to their grandparents.
Interestingly, this medium was handed to BJP on a silver platter by none other than Rajiv Gandhi. In 1985, Rajiv had been ideating over producing TV serials (to be broadcast over Doordharshan) which could depict values of Ramayana & Mahabharata. Rajiv Gandhi himself discussed these in person with the concerned authorities who in turn ordered the Director General of Doordarshan to take it up on priority (because it was very rare for a PM to discuss such initiatives related to TV serials and hence this was a great opportunity for Doordarshan to show their skills & obedience to the PM). This has been explained in great detail in the autobiography of Bhaskar Ghose who was the Director General of Doordarshan during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure.
It was decided to take up the Doordarshan Ramayan project on priority and a contract was awarded to Ramanand Sagar to produce the serial which eventually took the nation by storm. During the telecast, streets were deserted as Indians were hooked to their Television sets. All those who did not have a TV would gather into the neighborhood and watch the serial with bated breath. Hindus who had only heard or read the epic till then, were mesmerized by the special effects in the serial.
During the telecast, the TV set was perceived as a temple and there were even instances of devotees applying tilak & decorating it with flowers & garlands on the TV during the serial broadcast. Being the first ever television serial broadcast throughout the nation, it had instilled the devotion of Lord Ram among Hindus who had begun to correlate it as the de-facto deity/symbol of Hinduism. By the late 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi had successfully (but unintentionally) evoked the sentiments of Hindus and the religious context was set. Sociologists have done sufficient research to prove that the Ramayan TV serial helped in revival of religious sentiments. Following is an interview with the author of one such book (Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Indian Public), which establishes the link between Television, Religion & Politics during late 80s & early 90s:
This was precisely the moment when Advani & his party upped the ante to ride on this religious sentiments (revived due to Ramayan serial) and aggressively propagated the idea of Ram temple at Ayodhya which struck a chord with Hindus all over India. In 1990, Advani hit upon the idea of embarking on a rath yatra which would traverse through hundreds of towns starting from Somnath Temple in Gujarat, to all the way till Ayodhya in UP. The rath yatra was closely tracked & reported by newspaper & media and there was a spurt of interest and feeling of oneness among Hindus across all castes which helped BJP consolidate its support base.
By the mid 1990s, due to the decisions of Rajiv Gandhi & the timely reactions of Advani, BJP had emerged as an alternative to Congress and the rest is history.
- In 1985, the Shah Bano case which had infuriated Muslim community had put Rajiv Gandhi into panic.
- In order to appease infuriated Muslims, Rajiv Gandhi overturned Supreme Court judgement by modifying the Constitution which in turn infuriated Hindu community who called it vote bank politics at the cost of the nation. BJP grabbed this opportunity to become the political face of the Hindu community and protested against it and in the process reached out to more Hindus for its support base
- In 1986, in order to appease the infuriated Hindus, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the opening of gates in disputed structure at Ayodhya and allow Hindus to worship.
- In 1987, upon the instructions of Rajiv Gandhi, Ramayan TV serial was broadcast which apart from its intended purpose of propagating values, actually evoked religious sentiments among Hindus.
- Between 1988 & 1990, BJP used these sentiments and took up the next step of spreading awareness about Ramjanmabhoomi followed by rath yatra by Advani and in the process garner support
- By 1990s, BJP gained sufficient strength and emerged as a strong alternative to Congress.
This way, one can say that Rajiv Gandhi’s decisions helped the struggling BJP to gain strength and emerge as one of the biggest parties in India, and hence it would not be a mistake to call him “Father of BJP”.