It looks like there is going to be a battle of icons versus counter-icons in poll bound Uttar Pradesh. As the euphoria surrounding the festival of Dussehra ebbs away and the election fever catches up in North India, it seems that the historic Ram versus Ravana battle is going to be sidelined. This time around, the God-incarnate king of Ayodhya, Lord Ram, will be pitted against Dalit icons like EV Ramasamy Periyar, Jyotiba Phule or BR Ambedkar.
There is a strong possibility that the Samajwadi Party (SP) would play along with BJP's brand of 'soft Hindutva' politics. The reason behind such a move is not that difficult to perceive. The SP would not hesitate to rediscover socialist ideologue Ram Manhohar Lohia’s love for Lord Ram as a ready made antidote to BJP’s move of constructing a Ram museum.
The BSP supremo Mayawati, on the other hand, cannot tread the same path. Adept at discovering powerful Dalit icons all across the state in the past two decades, she cannot let BJP’s narrative go unchallenged.
If you have any doubt, scratch your memory and recall the events that took place post 2 June, 1995, that saw the coalition of the BSP-BJP alliance install Mayawati as the chief minister for the first time.
A group of BJP leaders acted as saviours for Mayawati, who was literally under siege for hours on end, surrounded by goons unleashed by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP.
The bonhomie between BJP-BSP was all too evident as Mayawati tied rakhis (ties of a sisterly bond) to two BJP leaders – Murli Manohar Joshi and Lalji Tandon.
But that dramatic move was the end of it. In less than a month, she unravelled her agenda and began to name parks and museums after social reformers known for their iconoclastic deposition. Though the Babri mosque had been demolished, the Ayodhya issue and Lord Ram were still at their prime in the Hindutva agenda. Back then, Mayawati’s tactical shift caught the Hindutva leaders practically off guard.
For instance, in UP’s collective consciousness, Periyar was an unknown entity. Within a month of taking over as chief minister – with the help of BJP’s support – Mayawati stirred the hornets’ nest by declaring the launch of a Periyar memorial and study centre. The objective behind the move was to conduct comprehensive research on the preachings of Periyar, whose powerful exposition countering Ramayana’s narrative had led to the emergence of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.
A saffron clad social reformer known for his radical views against godliness and the greatness of Ram, Periyar’s name evoked strong protests from the Hindutva fold. But Mayawati remained unfazed.
Over the past two years, she established Periyar and Maharashtrian social reformer Phule as counter-icons to Hindu gods. Phule consistently challenged the Brahmanical vision of the Hindu religion and outrightly rejected the dogmas and rituals associated with it, much to the chagrin of the Chitpavan Brahmins of Maharashtra.
Of late, Periyar and Phule have acquired iconic statuses in the Dalits’ consciousness – for breaking the exploitative clutches of the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins. These leaders weaved an effective narrative and discovered new idioms that ran counter to the preachings of established religious Hindu texts, like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
At first glance, the BJP seems to be caught up in a time warp. The party’s decision to cash in on Ram, by declaring to build a museum in his name, is a puerile political act on many counts. Perhaps BJP’s poll strategists have greater faith in the naivety of people than in relying on their own politics.
Since 1993, the issue of Ram and Ayodhya has only brought diminishing returns for the party. Then why did the BJP rely on an issue which is rendered electorally futile?
It seems that BJP has lost the plot in the country’s most populous state. The manner in which BJP president Amit Shah has been roping in those with criminal antecedents within the Hindutva fold across the state has turned the party as much of a pro-criminal unit as any other regional outfits in the state. At the same time, some of the most discredited leaders from other parties are getting attracted towards the BJP.
Curiously enough, a group of BJP strategists see this trend as a sign of the party’s accretion of strength. In reality, though, BJP has already lost the battle of perception in a state where people’s yearning for change is quite discernible. In the present political scenario, the BJP seems to be emulating its adversaries in the worst possible manner.
As the elections draw nearer, the party seems to be drifting aimlessly and desperately, using all tricks to gain some ground. The plan to build a museum for Lord Ram is one such stratagem crafted to exploit the emotional aspect of the Hindu electorate.
By all accounts, it is a strategy too clever by half whose hollowness will be exposed sooner rather than later. It would be beyond the BJP’s capacity to turn the museum for Lord Ram into a movement for the liberation of an idol of Ram Lala, held captive in the sixteenth century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya.
Similarly, Mayawati and her BSP would pose a challenge which is far more formidable than adversaries like VP Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Even surveys for UP, conducted and commissioned by the BJP for internal consumption, have cautioned the party leadership against directly taking on Mayawati, as it would drift the extremely backward classes (EBCs) away from the Hindutva fold.
Needless to say then, that if Lord Ram is pitted against Periyar, Phule or Ambedkar, Mayawati would emerge as the clear winner. But self-delusion is an affliction that rarely gets cured. The BJP’s inability to recognise its own limitations will prove to be its nemesis in the upcoming UP elections.