Mandir drums beating again

Last Resort: BJP is falling back on Ram Temple issue to polarise voters ahead of LS polls

A statue of Hindu god Rama is pictured during a rally prior to a public meeting "Janagraha Sabhe", in Bangalore on December 2, 2018. - The public meeting was held seeking public support in the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIR

The Sangh Parivar has suddenly upped the ante on the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. 

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat did not mince words when he asked the Narendra Modi government to frame a law for the construction of the temple and not wait for the Supreme Court to give its verdict. Some in the BJP  have called for the government to promulgate an ordinance immediately. 

Bhagwat was impatient with the apex court, which postponed the next hearing of the case to the end of  January 2019. The RSS chief expressed his unhappiness in no uncertain terms at the lack of urgency shown by the court. 

Another senior Sangh leader Dattatreya Hosabale went to the extent of questioning why a law could not be passed in Parliament to build “a giant temple”  when Prime Minister Modi could move purposefully to build ‘Statue of Unity’, billed as the tallest statue in the world, in the likeness of Sardar Vallabhai Patel on the banks of the Narmada in Gujarat. 

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath added to the hype when he gave details of the 211-meter tall statue of Ram that he proposes to build on the banks of the river Saryu in Ayodhya.

The RSS is undertaking yatras, including cycle rallies, all over the country to mobilise public opinion on the construction of a temple at what they consider to be Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace). It organised a meeting of thousands of sants in Ayodhya to set a timetable for the construction of the temple.

Given the symbiotic relationship that exists between the BJP/government and the RSS, it was perfectly possible for Mohan Bhagwat to pick up the phone and speak directly to the PM and urge him to bring a law on the subject. The RSS and the BJP brass are, after all, in constant touch with each other on a host of issues, apart from the quarterly coordination meetings that are held between them. But the Sangh Parivar has chosen to “influence the government” by “going to the people”.   

The government has been silent on the subject. The prime minister had not spoken of Ayodhya for a year, the last time being in December 2017 during the Gujarat election campaign. He opened the topic again, that too not frontally but indirectly, only during another poll speech this month in Rajasthan,  when he pointed the accusing finger at Congress for trying to delay the temple.

He said the Congress party was playing a “dangerous game”, in an obvious reference to Kapil Sibal’s argument in Court last year that the Supreme Court hearings be postponed till after the general elections in 2019 because they could influence elections. Also, on  December 6 this year,  the anniversary of the demolition of
Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, the prime minister chose to speak instead on Ambedkar, the date marking his death anniversary. 

The BJP’s line has been to await the verdict of the court, which is hearing petitions on the title suit, challenging the
Allahabad high court verdict in 2010 dividing the disputed 2.77 acres three ways among the Sunni Waqf Board, Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla, the three sides in the case. 

Taking the legislative route at this juncture can cause problems for the BJP with its allies, present and potential. The Shiv Sena will welcome it and Uddhav Thackeray went to Ayodhya with his cry of “pehle mandir phir sarkar”. But will JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar go along with it? Or the Akalis? Or Ram Vilas Paswan? And what about the potential allies the BJP is trying to woo — Telangana’s K Chandrasekhar Rao and his TRS, Odisha’s Biju Patnaik and his BJD or the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu?

While silence might suit the BJP at this time — a constitutional authority legitimately waiting for the court to take a view of the matter and, after all, that has been its stated position — it would have everything to gain from the creation of a “mahaul” in favour of the mandir.  The Ram temple is part of  the party’s commitment since its Palampur resolution in 1989. And any issue that helps to consolidate the Hindus in its favour is a tried and tested method to use in elections.

More so at this juncture when the government is facing huge challenges in the shape of farmers’ distress and they are making this known in state after state; the joblessness of youth — and the Congress is playing this issue to the hilt; the disaffection of the upper castes around the policy of reservations in jobs or promotions and against the amendment the government brought in the SC/ST atrocities act to undo the Supreme Court’s verdict; or the growing unhappiness amongst traders against demonetisation and GST — and this has become more strident, and evident, in recent elections.

Hypothetically speaking, if the court were to give a verdict tomorrow that could allow the construction of the Mandir, the electoral potency of the issue would be over. It remains a hot potato as long as it can agitate Hindus, and they get the sense that there are people and institutions — courts, political parties, or sections of society — wanting to obstruct its construction. So, it can be electorally beneficial to keep the pot boiling.

The BJP may favour the creation of a “mahaul” in favour of a mandir, without directly coming into the picture at this stage, because it would go to placate its core constituency, which is restive on this issue that despite almost five years in power of Narendra Modi who was, after all, an RSS pracharak, there has been no forward movement on building the  temple.

It could also help emphasise the “Hindu identity” of the upper castes and traders, and thereby keep them on the BJP’s side. These sections  have been the mainstay of BJP support but are becoming increasingly unhappy with it today. The upper castes, Dalits, who are also disaffected, and Muslims were at one time the vote base of the Congress, which is showing signs of revival.

One of the senior BJP leaders had once said about polarisation based on the Mandir issue that “a bullet cannot be used twice”. In other words, it may not have the traction today that it did in the nineties when it had catapulted the BJP from a fringe player to becoming a mainline party.

It is possible that older people who have seen the way the BJP has used the issue politically without building the temple may not be so excited. It is 26 years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the period has seen two BJP prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi,  in the saddle for 11 years. But what will be the impact on the first-time Hindu voter, between the ages of 18-23? That remains to be seen.

Above all, the construction of the Mandir in Ayodhya can put  a “Hinduising” Congress on the spot. BJP insiders say that the party may make an announcement on the Mandir just before the 2019 elections which would show a serious intent on its part to construct a temple, irrespective of the court.  An ordinance? With a promise to convert it into a law if the party comes back with a majority?  Only time will tell.

(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst)

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Mandir drums beating again

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