BJP national spokesperson Shazia Ilmi’s reference to “tension” between the party and VHP, while distancing Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the remission of the accused in the Bilkis Bano case and their felicitation on being released, was a reference to the strained ties between the two Sangh Parivar organisations since Modi’s rise, starting from Gujarat.
With the VHP hitting back, Ilmi said she apologised for claiming the Parishad had been involved in the felicitation, and clarified that she was talking about the tension between the two Sangh Parivar outfits that existed when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. “I did not at all refer to anything going on in the present.”
The VHP, however, demanded that the BJP should clarify whether her statements were personal or reflected the party’s view.
If Modi was the BJP face of that tension which Ilmi referred to, the VHP’s was its senior leader Pravin Togadia. The two even worked together in Gujarat under the first term of the Keshubhai Patel government until their falling out.
The VHP, which had spearheaded the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, till then saw a natural home in Gujarat, where the Sangh Parivar had a close, symbiotic relationship with the ruling BJP. In 1990, it was from Somnath in Gujarat that BJP national president L K Advani started his Ramjanmabhoomi Rath Yatra.
The consequent Hindutva wave helped the BJP rise to power in the state in 1995, with upper caste Hindus such as Patidars and Brahmins, who felt neglected under the Congress, flocking to the BJP. The Congress had been winning elections in Gujarat largely on its KHAM formula, or mobilisation of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim votes.
The BJP also gained from the entry of firebrand leaders from the VHP like Gordhan Zadaphia, as well as those from the VHP’s women’s wing, Durga Vahini, like Maya Kodnani and Bhavna Dave. Under the Keshubhai Patel administration, VHP and Bajrang Dal cadres went unchecked as they organised trishul distribution, dharma sansads and street protests against ‘anti-Hindu’ symbols. These included attacks on MNC brands like Coke and Pepsi, and on art shows held in the gallery Amdavad ni Gufa.
Among the most prominent faces of this Hindutva consolidation was Ahmedabad-based oncologist and firebrand leader Pravin Togadia, who was credited with helping the VHP rise and with mobilising funds for the Ram temple.
It was around this time that Narendra Modi also returned to Gujarat as the BJP general secretary. As he rose to the CM post in 2001 after Patel’s unceremonious exit, conflicts with Togadia built up.
Soon after, came the 2002 riots.
The violence that followed the Sabarmati train fire which killed 59 people, mostly kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, saw many members of the VHP and Bajrang Dal being booked. Among those arrested were Jaideep Patel of the VHP and Babu Bajrangi of the Bajrang Dal, along with former BJP minister Maya Kodnani. Even as the SIT formed to investigate some of the riot cases questioned both Togadia and Modi, many in the VHP and Bajrang Dal felt they had been thrown under the bus by the BJP administration.
While Jaideep Patel is out on bail now, even as trial against him and Kodnani and Bajrangi continues in the Naroda Gam case, Kodnani has been acquitted in the Naroda Patiya case and is active in the BJP again.
In the elections that followed the 2002 riots, the Modi-led BJP soared to 127 of 182 seats – which remains its highest tally ever. Togadia himself addressed several rallies in favour of the BJP, while to cash in on the Hindutva wave, tickets were given to others such as Bajrang Dal leader Haresh Bhatt, who won from Godhra. Zadaphia also won but crucially did not get a ministry a second time.
Sources say Togadia felt under-compensated for the “contribution” he felt that outfits like the VHP and Bajrang Dal had made in Modi’s rise.
It was after this that the Modi-led BJP began its distancing from the VHP. With Gujarat’s industry-friendly impression taking a hit in the wake of the riots, Modi wanted an image makeover, and an association with the VHP did not help. In 2003, he launched the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investment Summit.
The distance between Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar grew even wider when the Supreme Court directed reopening and reinvestigation of the riot cases.
In 2007, Zadaphia launched the Maha Gujarat Janata Party (MGP) to challenge Modi, which had the backing of Keshubhai Patel and Togadia, but the outfit did not win a single seat.
In 2008, the late Ashok Singhal, then the VHP international president, came to Gandhinagar following large-scale demolitions of illegal shrines and temples in the state capital, and famously said that such demolitions were not carried out even during the times of Mahmud of Ghazni.
In 2011, Modi launched a Sadbhavna fast, seen as a bid to woo the minority communities, after the Supreme Court said it would no longer intervene in riot cases. Togadia, by then the VHP international working president, criticised this, saying Modi was “dumping Hindutva”.
However, while Modi’s star continued to rise, propelling him to power at the Centre, Togadia saw an ignominious decline. In January 2018, when the Gujarat government withdrew a case of attempted murder filed against him and BJP leaders following a violent clash in 1996, Togadia thanked then Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani, while taking what was seen as a swipe at Modi, saying: “One should not break the ladder that helps you climb.”
In 2018, while Modi was hosting then Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Ahmedabad, Togadia “disappeared” – in what was seen as a bid to embarrass Modi – only to resurface 10 hours later to claim a plan to kill him in a police encounter.
Months later, in April 2018, in the first ever election held in the VHP, Togadia’s nominee was defeated and he quit to launch an Antar Rashtriya Hindu Parishad. In 2019, he announced a Hindustan Nirman Dal political party and said he would contest the Lok Sabha elections against Modi himself from Varanasi. He never did.
Now almost a persona non-grata in Gujarat, Togadia has been campaigning for his outfit in the Northeast and South.
With the Modi government having put its weight behind or accomplished pet Hindutva agendas such as construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370, the importance of the VHP has diminished.
As per a VHP leader, “We have moved on from andolankari (protester) to nirmankaari (builder), as this is the time to rebuild.”
All along, while Togadia barely hid his rancour at how he had been “sidelined” under the Modi dispensation, the latter has never spoken in public about his former comrade.