Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
The real question is whether the BJP is in the hands of its own genie, the Ayodhya temple issue, or whether it can make use of it for a rich political dividend. In 1990, then BJP president L K Advani saw it as an opportunity to ride on an emotive issue for electoral gain. He later rationalised his tactic to say that whereas then prime minister V P Singh had divided the Hindu society through his announcement about implementing governments jobs – when there were only about 45,000 – for Other Backward Classes/castes (OBCs) based on Mandal Commission recommendations, his temple movement had helped in uniting the Hindu society. Of course, like all rationalisations it was false and self-serving.
When the Sangh Parivar mob destroyed the more than 400-year-old mosque on December 6, 1992, Advani was not too sure whether it did any good to Hindu society. His comment that it was the saddest day of his life, which his critics dismissed as sheer hypocrisy, was a moment of introspection for him. The BJP wanted to direct the agitation for a temple, but it did not like the mob taking over. Advani knew that a political party just cannot take credit for the mob’s vandalism. The committed followers of the Sangh among the Hindus, and they were insignificant as a proportion of the Hindu society, had hailed it, but Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others knew that it was political hara-kiri for the party to accept it as fait accompli. The political sensitivity displayed by the party brass did not arise from morality or idealism but from a sense of realpolitik.
The construction of the temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya has been listed as part of its core agenda, along with Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and Article 370 of the Constitution giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir. But the BJP has been quite guarded about pressing its core issues. It has not ever made them election issues. The party has worked with pro-BJP Muslim women groups to move the Supreme Court and getting a favourable verdict but it cannot really claim direct credit for it. The ordinance making triple talaq a cognisable offense is a sorry attempt to show that the BJP has been pro-active in the matter. The party’s stated position of wanting to abrogate Article 370 remains a dead word. It is not due to a change of heart but more political tactic.
The temple question is a little more complicated, and no one is more acutely aware of it than the BJP itself. Whatever the consanguineous links of the party with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the saffron-clad members of the group called Dharma Sansad, the BJP just cannot afford to be a front-organisation of the Sangh Parivar. The political costs appear to be dubious. That is why, after the Somnath-Ayodhya Rath Yatra of Advani in 1990 and the demolition of the mosque in 1992, the party has always ducked the temple question. It did not make it a poll promise in any of the national elections it has fought ever since, including the 2014 contest under Narendra Modi. It is interesting that Modi maintained silence over the temple issue and stuck to the monotonous note of development in 2014 and after. Amit Shah has spoken about how a grand temple in Ayodhya is to be built but with the caveats of a legal verdict or mutual agreement between the contesting parties.
The secular opponents of the BJP want to push the party into the temple corner, and argue with some amount of credibility, that there is not much of a difference between the BJP on the one hand and the RSS, VHP on the other. The zealots among the BJP’s rank and file would also want the party to bite the temple bullet because they think that it would enable the BJP to remain in office for ever. But the BJP knows better than to be carried away by irrational exuberance of the religious kind. It might appear a case of splitting hairs but the BJP wants to use religion to serve its nationalist agenda but it is not willing to subordinate nationalism to religion, even if that religion happens to be Hinduism. For the BJP, Patel’s statue is more important than a Ram temple because of the political imperatives of the party’s nationalist discourse. Poet Mohammed Iqbal could cast Rama as a national and cultural hero in his poem, ‘Ram’, by saying ‘ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain ise imam-e-hind (The wise consider him the virtuous leader of India)’. But the Sangh Parivar does not have the intellectual wherewithal to make the ‘Maryada Purushottam Ram’ into a national icon. The saffron-clad mendicants have imprisoned Rama in the iron-clasp of religion. The BJP finds itself in an unenviable situation over the issue.
The general speculation on the part of the unrelenting ideological opponents of Modi and his BJP has been that he would indulge in subterfuge to get the temple built in Ayodhya or trigger a war with Pakistan to shore up his sinking political fortune before going into the 2019 election. The zealots in the Sangh Parivar too want Modi to do exactly that. But Modi cannot oblige either his critics or his supporters. Politics is a different ball game and Modi and the others in the BJP know it only too well. The noisy chorus of the RSS, VHP and the mendicants will continue. Modi would like to derive as much political mileage from it as he can without committing himself to more than what is the stated position of the party. The BJP would have made political strides without the crutch of the Ayodhya issue. Now it is struck with it.