What should we make of Amit Shah’s comments on the Ram temple? Do they reveal his lack of experience or the fact he’s speaking on issues he’s not authorised to talk about, as some in the BJP explain? Or is he an essential part of a deliberate double-act using different voices for different audiences, as the party’s critics claim?
Let’s begin with his precise words. They were: “Ye bhi prarthna kari hai ki hum sab mil kar jaldi se jaldi bhavya Ram Mandir ka nirman kare aur Ramlala ko apne uchit sthan par virajit kare.” That may not be a clear commitment to build the Ram temple but it’s richly suggestive and, probably, deliberately so.
Things become clearer when you recall he’s said this before. On June 14, on his first visit to Lucknow, he pronounced: “The construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was never out of the BJP agenda.” He also said the BJP would raise the issue of cow slaughter and other concerns connected to the Hindu faith.
Of course, BJP president Rajnath Singh distanced himself from Amit Shah’s statements but only after first asking what was wrong with them. Yet on that same day, speaking in Gorakhpur, Amit Shah reiterated the BJP would win the Lok Sabha elections with “the agenda of Hindutva”.
So does this suggest, despite what the BJP says outside UP, that the Ram mandir and Hindutva are likely to be its main plank within that critical state? Before deciding, let’s consider three concerns that point the other way.
First, can the Ram mandir trump issues like corruption, anti-incumbency, inflation and terror that polls suggest dominate the voter’s thinking today?
The answer hinges on a second critical concern. Twenty-one years after 1992 India is a very different country. The middle class is, perhaps, twice as big, there are nearly 900 million mobile phone subscribers, cable television dominates our lives and people have very different aspirations. Does the Ram mandir chime with all of this? Or is it relegated to a forgotten past?
Perhaps the third concern is most important: do Narendra Modi and the Ram mandir issue make a comfortable fit? Modi presents himself as the man who can deliver growth and good governance. He wants to be seen as the leader of the future. Surely the two-decade-old mandir issue contradicts that image?
What, then, is Amit Shah up to? After all, he’s Modi’s closest lieutenant and, presumably, sent to UP on his instructions.
The answer, I suspect, lies in the BJP’s desperate need to win seats in that state. It has 10 at the moment. If Modi is to become PM it needs at least 30, if not sizeably more. If Shah’s attempt to rekindle the mandir embers can add a few extra, it’s possibly worth the risk.
The question is how big is that risk? Can the BJP get away with double-speak, particularly if its president keeps denying what Shah frequently suggests? Or might Shah’s UP-intended indiscretions become the national story?
Already Prakash Singh Badal has clarified that the Ram Mandir is not an issue the Akalis share. So is there a danger that reviving it will weaken the NDA, ensure new parties don’t join and colour how the BJP is perceived?
It’s very possibly a high-risk strategy but, equally, the rewards are also tantalisingly large. Which is why the BJP will find the temptation to walk this tight rope irresistible while praying it doesn’t fall off.
Views expressed by the author are personal