UP Election 2017: Why BJP's rhetoric around Ram Temple is mere electoral tokenism

Four clear themes have emerged from Firstpost’s coverage of the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, derived from closely following the series on millennial voters and reports on the trends and thinking of Muslim voters:

The first is the overwhelming irrelevance of the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress which, it is safe to assume, will be wiped out as the results will eventually show on 11 March.

The second is the pervasive sentiment among the electorate that Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's government has further impoverished the state and set records in corruption, rapes, and lawlessness.

The third is the alarming increase in rampant Islamic radicalism among its Muslim population, most notably in western UP; a fact that a recent Firstpost piece places on a larger national canvas, concluding that India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'.

The fourth is the near absence of any single factor or plank that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can use to unite Hindus, to form a decisive vote block, as this Firstpost report suggests.

It’s now a historical fact that abandoning the Ram Mandir issue was one of the decisive causes for the BJP near-permanently losing the plot in Uttar Pradesh. That and its numerous skulduggeries to marginalise Kalyan Singh and the ill-advised alliances with Mayawati cost it dearly.

 UP Election 2017: Why BJPs rhetoric around Ram Temple is mere electoral tokenism

BJP seems to have exhausted the vote-fetching potential of the Ram Temple agenda pan-Uttar Pradesh. AP

And so, for fifteen years, the BJP floundered in political wilderness in the state until Amit Shah’s ongoing, high-pitched battle to wrest it once again.

The same, more or less, applies to BJP’s shock-loss in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections – while 'India Shining' is the favourite punching bag, the more important causes were:

- A sense among the party cadre of being ignored by the top leadership. This peaked 2002 onwards after the BJP lost the UP mid-term polls, and the Congress was in power in a whopping thirteen

- The party’s core support base – apart from the Sangh Parivar – including the Sadhus, Mahants and millions of others who had worked tirelessly for the Ram Mandir felt betrayed at language like “you can’t cash the same cheque twice” coming from sitting ministers.

- Anger against not implementing the chief agenda items it proclaimed it would: Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code.

And so, as it stands today, the BJP has largely abandoned the Ram Mandir issue but continues to invoke it as tokenism, merely as a card for elections. To a disinterested observer, this invocation appears as a sort of twisted homage to the plank to which it owes everything that it is today. But it is not that surprising when we trace the history of the Ram Mandir movement. Quoting former BJP minister Swami Chinmayananda’s Parliamentary debate of 18 December, economist Arun Shourie says:

He began by saying that he had been listening to the debate on the Ayodhya issue for two days, and he had heard everybody passing on the responsibility to someone else. The BJP leaders were holding the Congress responsible and the Congress leaders were holding the BJP responsible. He would… tell them who was responsible. It was the sadhus, like him, who were responsible. The sadhus, he said, set up the Ram Janmabhoomi Muktiyajna Samiti in 1984. Not a single member of the VHP, RSS or the BJP was a member of that samiti. It was an effort of the sadhus alone.

Indeed, the said abandonment also offers a case study in what happens when spiritual and cultural mass movements are appropriated by and fall into the realm of politics. As the Ram Mandir issue shows, the goal of the movement rarely, if ever, is achieved.

Additionally, in a political atmosphere of India whose public discourse has been vitiated by the brand of secularism practised from Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the problems only compound. To put it bluntly, the discourse over Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid demolition and related issues continue to remain imbalanced. To paint the demolition as the “death of secularism” in India has become received wisdom even today.

In fact, the Ayodhya movement had less to do with anti-Muslim sentiments on the part of the Hindus and more to do with the cultural reawakening and reassertion of the Hindus. Yet, when we recall the grand theorising of the secular discourse back then, it was painted as the exact opposite in a bid to deny Hindus their voice, while simultaneously supporting regressive moves like the Shah Bano case and banning Salman Rushdie’s book, which only hurt the Muslim community.

The restoration of the Somnath Temple by Sardar Vallabhai Patel offers a good comparative study. The mosque existing on its site was pulled down, relocated to a nearby site, and the temple was rebuilt. The entire process attracted no opposition from the Muslims, much less the violence and riots that characterised the Ayodhya movement.

What had changed by the time of the Ayodhya movement was the aforementioned vitiation of public discourse. Dr Koenraad Elst, who has produced some of the finest academic analyses on the Ayodhya issue, captures this well:

Lourdes became the most important pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics and other Mary worshippers… France prided itself on being a secular state… yet it acknowledged and protected Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage. Not many French officials actually believe in the apparition, but that is not the point. The believers are human beings, fellow citizens, and out of respect for them does the state respect and protect their pilgrimage.

For essentially the same reason, the mere fact that the Ram Janmabhoomi (Rama’s birthplace) site in Ayodhya is well-established as a sacred site for Hindu pilgrimage, is reason enough to protect its functioning as a Hindu sacred site, complete with proper Hindu temple architecture. Ayodhya doesn’t have this status in any other religion… The site most certainly doesn’t have such a status in Islam, which imposed a mosque on it… [closed by court order after riots in 1935, surreptitiously turned into a Hindu temple accessible only to a priest in 1949, opened for unrestricted Hindu use in 1986]

The well-attested fact that Hindus kept going there even when a mosque was standing, even under Muslim rule, is helpful to know in order to gauge its religious importance… Secular prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had understood this, and from the court-ordered opening of the locks on the mosque-used-as-temple in 1986, he was manoeuvring towards an arrangement leaving the contentious site to the Hindus in exchange for some other goodies (starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the Satanic Verses ban) for the Muslim leadership. Call it Congress culture or horse-trading, but it would have been practical and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

This changed for the worse when a bunch of influential Marxists and Marxist historians appointed themselves as the protectors of Muslim interests and, given their dominance in public discourse, denied the historical fact there ever was a Hindu temple of the site. And as is the case, to cover up this one lie, they resorted to academic lies on an industrial scale sullying their scholarships and positions as teachers. Here’s a small sample:

 …an officer of the Archaeological Survey reviewed the procedures of Professor Irfan Habib and found that if Habib’s dating [of Ayodhya excavations] procedures were to be followed, then one would come to the conclusion that the reign of Emperor Akbar… shall begin in 2009 AD!

The Allahabad High Court indeed called their bluff, as this Firstpost scholarly piece shows.

In parallel, they also used their good offices with the Muslim clergy to whip up doomsday fears within the community. Not stopping at this, they fanned a demand for re-Islamising a sacred Hindu site, which eventually led to the ensuing, unfortunate bloodbath, and cost them the goodwill of the majority community.

Instead, had Sardar Patel, or even Rajiv Gandhi’s formula for peaceful negotiations been followed, the course of history would’ve perhaps been different.

Yet, despite the Allahabad High Court’s 2010 verdict sealing the matter amicably, the issue remains in limbo as the Supreme Court said in 2015 that it’ll take a decade to read the case files.

It appears that the Muslim community has largely abandoned the issue, while only the most devout and committed Hindus have been patiently pursuing it through constitutional channels.

Had a call for rebuilding the Ram Mandir been given in the present time, it would barely attract a significant number of Hindus as two things have changed.

One, pervasive westernisation has penetrated almost all spheres of India, making Hindus less Hindu in the sense of an erosion of their cultural and religious moorings. And two, a prevailing atmosphere of economic progress and/or the pursuit of wealth as ends in themselves among the millennial generation has also contributed to this erosion.

A large percentage of the pre-millennial generation of Hindus had intuitively imbibed the notion of cultural rootedness – which doesn’t lend itself to precise definition – that was regarded as a value to be preserved, and the pursuit of wealth wasn’t seen as being exclusive to said rootedness.

The millennial generation sees it differently, as noted in this Firstpost report:

In Faizabad's most intensely fought seat of Ayodhya, there are theories suggesting that Ram Mandir is an issue, and there are theories suggesting it is not…

“Mandir will not ensure a job for hundreds of youngsters like me," said the MSW student… “What good will it ever achieve?"

Millennial voters in the upper caste families may not feel as strongly about Ram Mandir as their parents do, and are not wasting their time agitating for it.  

Cynically speaking, the BJP seems to have exhausted the vote-fetching potential of the Ram Temple agenda pan-Uttar Pradesh. It might perhaps work in and in the vicinity of Ayodhya. If its past record of delivering on this promise is any indicator, Ram might well have a longer wait before he’ll finally be installed inside the temple.

Updated Date: Feb 28, 2017 11:43:22 IST