BJP desperately needs a controversy, Sabarimala will do

BJP desperately needs a controversy, Sabarimala will do

On the face of it, Sabarimala and Ayodhya are poles apart, and this is not just in geographic terms. And yet, they have been ratched up as issues with the onset of the election season. Sabarimala is now being dubbed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as the “Ayodhya of the South”.

The issue of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya has determined the trajectory of politics in the last three decades, and helped as no other single issue has, the BJP’s rise. It also contributed to the decline of the Congress — which fell between the two stools of Mandir and Mandal in the late 80s -- and it led to coalition governments at the Centre for a quarter century, from 1989 to 2014.

“Ayodhya” was about the construction of a new Ram temple, on the site where a masjid built by Emperor Babar in 1528, had stood. Sabarimala is an existing shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala.

The country’s apex court gave a ruling in the Sabarimala case, allowing women of all ages entry into the temple, upholding the principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution.

In the Ayodhya case, the court is yet to give a ruling whether a mandir had existed on the site before Babar built a mosque over it. The Babri mosque was demolished by Sangh Parivar-instigated crowds on December 6, 1992. Thirty years have elapsed and no solution is in sight. The Supreme Court could start hearing the land title suit in January 2019.

The BJP’s interest in starting a movement to keep women of menstruating age out of Sabarimala has come after the court verdict on the matter. The movement for the construction of a Ram mandir preceded a court verdict.

But, there is also a striking similarity between the two —Sabarimala, an existing temple, and Ayodhya, representing a demand to build one: both present an opportunity to the BJP to mobilise Hindus in its favour. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad raised the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1984. Curiously, this demand was upped  about the time when the BJP was virtually razed to the ground, in the general election that year. It won only two seats in the Lok Sabha, and the party was faced with extinction. It was six years later that the BJP formally adopted Ram temple as part of its manifesto, in 1990. In 1992, two years after LK Advani had begun a successful ‘Rath Yatra’ for the construction of the mandir, hotheads destroyed the mosque with pickaxes.

Subsequently, the party put ‘Mandir’ on the backburner whenever it came to power -- in 1996, 1998, 1999 and in 2014 — because it had to build and keep the NDA coalition together to be able to form a government.

It kept paying lip service to the Mandir cause. But many knew, and this was articulated pithily by one if its senior leaders, that “a bullet cannot be used twice”— that it may not be possible to flog the Ayodhya issue again as it had done in the polls held in the early 90s. 

But now, with the BJP facing disaffection on several fronts, be it on its handling of the economy, with the massive rows spilling out into the open in top institutions of government, like the CBI (also linked to the Rafale probe), RBI (linked to the handling of the economy), ED, with distress continuing among farmers and unhappiness amongst the Dalits, the party brass is turning once again to its tried and tested strategy that has paid it rich electoral dividends over the decades. And that is to try and consolidate Hindus in its favour. 

Sabarimala and Ayodhya, now being talked up again as nearing its triumphant endgame, are two issues that can help it polarise voters. Initially, the party, and the RSS, had welcomed the court verdict on Sabarimala. But soon, there was a change in thinking -- and in strategy.

So also was the case with Ayodhya. When the Supreme Court in September decided to hear the title suit from October 29,  senior BJP leaders said, though privately, that Mandir as a vote-catcher would not add up to much if that happened. It was being held aloft only to keep the sadhus and sants happy. They were also skeptical about ‘development’ as an issue that could rake in votes, though in the last few months Narendra Modi and his team of ministers have bent over backwards to put out facts and figures about their various programmes, like Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala, Ujala, etc. At the end of the day, the party felt, it will be “gaali galauj” by both sides -- attack on Modi and defence of him, which will go to make Modi the central issue in the 2019 elections.

Hypothetically speaking, were the Ayodhya issue to be settled in favour of the Hindus by the Supreme Court—that the temple should be built on the disputed site—it will cease to be a poll issue, except with the party’s hardcore supporters. And somewhere, as with Sabarimala, so also with Ayodhya, the BJP strategy seems to be to hype it up once again -- hence, the slew of recent statements and demands to bring in a law, or an ordinance, or move a private members’ bill, urge the Supreme Court to “keep in mind Hindu sensibilities” while taking a decision, or accusing the court of not taking “an urgent view” of the matter.

It is only when the issue becomes controversial, and a feeling begins to grow that there is an attempt to obstruct the temple from being built, that the BJP knows it will get electoral traction.

(The writer is a senior journalist and political commentator)