Narendra Modi government's plea on undisputed land in Ayodhya threatens to stump Congress again

The temple is the centre of all of the BJP's poll promises. The idea is implicit that for as long as there is an Ayodhya issue there is a ready plank on which the BJP can hinge its election campaign. Mere months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP seems to have unleashed their oldest lethal weapon once again in the form of a writ petition in the Supreme Court requesting it to release the "excess vacant land" the government had acquired around the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Uttar Pradesh. The move not only satisfies beleaguered allies like the Shiv Sena who have accused the BJP of moving away from its Ram Temple promise, it also puts the Congress — riding high on the entry of Priyanka Gandhi in a distinct poll-driven role — on the backfoot.

Narendra Modi governments plea on undisputed land in Ayodhya threatens to stump Congress again

File image of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi at a temple. PTI

The BJP government's move, seeking to restore 67 acres of "undisputed" land surrounding the disputed 0.333 acres in Ayodhya to the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas organisation and others who owned and occupied the land before it was taken by the government, comes a day after Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked why the Supreme Court was not acknowledging the urgency of the Ayodhya hearing.

The BJP, that came to power in 2014, looks finally ready to tackle the Ayodhya problem head on after having left the issue for its hardliner right-wing allies in the Sangh Parivar to rally behind for the longest time. The Shiv Sena, for one, has been forever trying to draw focus to the Ram Temple and accusing the BJP of moving away from its promise on editorials of its party mouthpiece, Saamana. The fractured family now has a solid opportunity to appear as one, at a time when it crucially needs to, to consolidate votes.

It is thus no surprise that the Congress should question the timing of the petition.

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi was quoted by PTI as having said that a 2003 order by the Supreme Court had clearly stated that status quo be maintained on the "undisputed" land. "What is important is that this application is moved on 29 January, 2019, 16 years afterwards, in a matter of 2003 where the main writ of 2003 is pending," he told reporters.

"This status quo has been continued for 16 years. Suddenly and suddenly... you know it better, whether it is because of election or some other reason, we do not know... So, you judge for yourself, but ultimate judge is the Supreme Court," Singhvi said.

In the past few years, the Congress has been making a scattered effort to harness the Hindutva zeal for itself. On the same day when the BJP filed the Supreme Court petition, the Congress's Bihar unit was finding itself in a sticky situation after photos emerged on social media of a party poster showing party president Rahul Gandhi as Ram. The BJP's national spokesperson Sambit Patra lost no time in ridiculing the "sycophancy" of Congress workers.

Rahul may not be Ram but he has, in the past, tried to peddle a line of "soft Hindutva" that has seen him visit sacred sites of Hindu worship, pitch himself as a Shiva devotee and show off his sacred thread. A priest at the Pushkar lake in Rajasthan, who presided over the puja offered by Rahul early in January 2019, claimed that the Congress president had told him that his gotra (clan) was 'Duttatreya' and he is a Kashmiri Brahmin.

On 29 January itself, the Madhya Pradesh government headed by veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath, announced that it would be setting up 1,000 gau shalas (protective shelters for cows) in the next four months that would accommodate around one lakh stray cows, reported Indian Express. Cow shelters were also part of Nath's assembly poll promise.

File image of Hindu activists gathered on top of a portion of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. AFP

File image of Hindu activists gathered on top of a portion of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. AFP

That the party is conscious of the apparent failure of its soft Hindutva stance is evident from the recent Assembly elections in Rajasthan, where NDTV reports that it fielded more than a dozen Muslim candidates in a gamble that seems to have paid off with the victory of seven. The question, however quite late for the Congress to revert back to its forgotten promise of a fundamental secularist approach.

But to add to the Congress's concerns over the party's return to a fundamentally secular approach, not all minority bodies have reacted to the Centre's plea with anger. Waseem Rizvi, the chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board Waseem Rizvi, a votary of the construction of a Ram Temple at the disputed site welcomed the move. "It’s a very good initiative," Rizvi told Hindustan Times.

"We all know that a grand Ram temple has to be built in Ayodhya. If the SC releases this land which is not disputed, construction work on a temple can immediately start..," he added.

Interestingly, the land that the BJP has sought to "return" was acquired by PV Narasimha Rao's Congress government. In January 1993, it was the Congress government that had brought an ordinance for the Ram Temple.

The ordinance was brought only a month after the Babri Masjid was brought down by kar sevaks participating in a movement led by the VHP and aided by the BJP.

The Congress government planned to build "a Ram temple, a mosque, amenities for pilgrims, a library, museum and other suitable facilities" in Ayodhya.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 13:34:53 IST

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