"Ram Lala hum ayenge mandir wahin banayege" was a common war cry issued by Sangh Parivar leaders and Ram temple enthusiasts in the early 1990s. Two decades later, Ram Lala remains exactly where he was, in a small yet well-guarded makeshift structure. But now it seems that with a full majority Narendra Modi government at the Centre, Ayodhya is set to get a Ram museum.
In days to come, pilgrims and other visitors to Ayodhya will witness frantic construction activity in order to build a grand Ram museum; possibly equipped with a state of the art audio-visual system and other artificial wonders, something which the Akshardham temple in New Delhi boasts of.
The banks of river Sarayu would also possibly be remade and beautified. But everything will remain quiet on the temple front. It has to be all quiet. There is no other option. Even if the Modi government and Sangh Parivar want to do something over the temple issue.
Under the circumstances, Modi government's idea of constructing a Ram museum – spread across several acres of land, with beautified landscapes mimicking the look and feel of a temple – is undoubtedly a smart move.
The fact that this move has been proposed right before the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls makes it a political one. The BJP, though, cannot be blamed for any wrongdoing, except for the charge that the timing of the move is politically motivated.
The BJP leaders would be at ease to counter such charges based on merits and rhetoric alone. It is an administrative and cultural project, one from which the BJP will have no qualms in harvesting political yields – if any.
No one can really challenge the building of a museum on Lord Ram. This cannot be termed as a communal project. One can challenge the historicity of it but, in issues of faith, mythological beliefs always trump historical facts.
More so, if a museum on Ram had to be built, there couldn't have been a better place than Ayodhya – his supposed birthplace and kingdom.
The brass in the Modi government and the BJP would have known beforehand that the move would make a lot of waves in the news, for it had all the right ingredients – a BJP government at the Centre, the name Ram, Ayodhya as the venue and the timing of it all matching with the UP elections. BJP leaders would be very pleased with how things have unfolded over the past two days.
Another thing that has turned out in the party's favour is the handling of the issue by Minister of State for Culture and Tourism, Mahesh Sharma.
Sharma, who has often spoken out of turn and is prone to have foot-in-the-mouth moments has in fact been quite articulate this time around, sticking to his brief and talking as a responsible minister of the government. He managed to limit his words to just the administrative aspects of the project and let the media engage in all the speculations and debates.
The minister also covered his ground well by linking the Ram museum with the development of pilgrim tourism for Buddhist and Jain divinities. The move to make the museum was officially placed on record a year ago, but nobody cared for it back then and things have blown up now only because Mahesh Sharma visited Ayodhya to inspect the proposed site recently. It can be concluded that the timing of his visit was carefully planned in order to get the desired publicity and public hype.
Things were looking quite good for the BJP, but in came Vinay Katiar, BJP's Rajya Sabha MP, a resident of Ayodhya and a onetime prominent Ram temple protagonist. With his intemperate remarks, the founder president of Bajrang Dal has now for all practical purposes become irrelevant in the BJP's organisational structure.
Talking to CNN-News18, he likened the Ram museum project in Ayodhya to a 'lollipop' and said we want nothing short of a temple in the city. "Ram Mandir ke liye prayaas hona chahiye, yeh lollipop se kuch nahi hone wala (Efforts should be made to build a Ram Temple , other projects will not do)."
His 'lollipop' remark is rather interesting. The BJP's political rivals might pick it up for targeting the ruling party but it has its own manifestations. The fact that Katiar has gone on talking like this on more than one news channel on Tuesday indicates that the BJP brass has not restrained him from speaking.
After all, the party needs to respond and keep up with the sentiments of radical elements in BJP and the Parivar, as well as supporters outside of the organisational boundaries. Katiar and Uma Bharti, another BJP leader who was closely associated with the Mandir movement, made remarks that serve that purpose well.
For the moderates in BJP and in the outside support base, a lollipop (museum) would come as a sweetener and would serve well to quench the thirst (when nothing else is in sight) while leaving a good lingering taste.
This would also cater to the sentiments of temple enthusiasts and keep their hopes up that someday, maybe in some other generation, their demands would be fructified by a favourable government at the Centre.
While the debate around the issue is gaining heat and momentum, BJP president Amit Shah and other senior leaders have not spoken a word. The prime minister is unlikely to speak on it either, at least for now. They would all perhaps wait and see how the debate on this emotive subject goes and what kind of popular sentiments it evokes.
It appears that the construction of a grand Ram temple will remain as a mirage and an unrealistic lofty slogan for the Ram temple enthusiasts. The idol of Ram Lala continues to exist in a makeshift kachha structure. One has to go through rigorous security checks and unending walls of iron poles to take a glimpse into Lord Ram's childhood. If the security guard posted there does not point you towards the idol, chances are that you might miss it entirely.
But the temporary structure and the elaborate security around it serves as de-facto recognition that the Ram temple exists, irrespective of the final outcome of the case pending with the Supreme Court on the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site.
The rhetoric around the construction of the Ram temple has lost its punch and credibility. The BJP has harvested whatever political dividend it could from the movement.
The Modi government's decision to build a Ram museum in Ayodhya could be seen as a bid to regain some of BJP's lost credibility among people. The voters had otherwise lost trust in BJP over the issue. The ruling party leadership is well aware of that.
In the 2014 Parliamentary poll campaign, neither the party nor its then prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had a talk about it – except for a one-line mention on the subject in the election manifesto.
No sane party leader talks about the construction of the Ram temple. All queries around the issue are addressed in a standard template: "For us it's a matter of faith, not a political issue. The matter is pending before the Supreme Court and our position is well known."
They known that any rhetoric around the Ram temple would yield diminishing returns in the electoral arena. The problem for the BJP is that even though it cannot be seen as cheering for the construction of the temple, it cannot abandon this emotional plank altogether either.
After all, this issue was pivotal in helping them reach BJP's present day glory – from just two parliamentary seats in 1984, to 85 in 1989, to 120 in 1991, and so on. From the late 1990s till date, the party has cleverly moved away from the Mandir issue while managing to keep its Hindutva credentials intact.
The BJP is treading a cautious yet meaningful path as an obvious attempt to polarise the temple issue would be counter-productive. The party has therefore found a convenient alibi in the museum; bringing Ram and Ayodhya on the forefront, with all its latent implications, while staying away from the obvious.