This past weekend, a report in a Delhi newspaper made the observation that the Allahabad High Court judgement in the Ayodhya title dispute case would damage the JD(U)-BJP alliance in the Bihar election. Muslim voters would run away from the JD(U), the report suggested, as they now considered Ravi Shankar Prasad — BJP MP and a lawyer for one of the Hindu petitioners in the case — a hate figure. Paradoxically upper caste (and presumably Hindu conservative) voters too would walk away since the verdict for a Ram temple had come from the judiciary and not the BJP.
This neat ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ formulation has left most serious practitioners in Bihar nonplussed. They insist that the Ayodhya judgement is scarcely an issue in the assembly election there. Indeed, so careful has been the response of most Hindu and Muslim socio-religious organisations, as well as of mainstream political parties, that it is worth asking if anybody seriously wants to reignite Ayodhya as a political or electoral issue.
There is only one way in which Ayodhya can corrode Indian politics again. For the most part, those who are instigating this are not the regular ‘religious fundamentalists’ but self-proclaimed ‘secular modernists’, taking their litany from television studio to television studio and op-ed page to op-ed page. They are picking loopholes in the judgement, misrepresenting it where possible — for instance, a judge’s observation that there is a history to the Hindu perception of Ayodhya being the birthplace of Ram is being passed off as acceptance of Ayodhya being the physical birthplace of Ram — but at no stage are they pointing to an alternative solution that is legally workable and socially sustainable.
This is such a fringe intellectual position and so divorced from the larger reality of India, as evident from the relief the judgement has evoked and the genuine desire of people to sort out the issue and move on, that it’s a wonder it is still getting such traction.
There is an attempt to provoke Muslim leaders into intemperate rhetoric. There is criticism of the judges, even to the extent of the clothes they wear and the food they eat as if this somehow clouds their legal sensibilities. There is an attempt to scare the Congress that the ‘Muslim street’ is upset, that it will lose minority votes and that it should oppose the judgement if not promise to negate it by legislation.
Should all this happen — and in their own way
Mulayam Singh Yadav, desperate to stay alive in Uttar Pradesh, and Laloo Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar too see this as a dream scenario — there will be a counter-mobilisation of Hindus. The politics of the early 1990s will return.
There are two caveats to be entered here. First, the India of 2010 is very different from the India of 1990. This is a more prosperous and more optimistic country, and consequently less tolerant of political adventurism and direct action. Second, once earlier the Congress has walked down the path recommended by the ‘secular modernists’: in 1986, when it upturned the Shah Bano judgement. It paid a price for the next 20 years. It has no reason to fall into that trap again and that is why, after the Allahabad HC judgement, its response has been correct and guarded.
As a result, the Congress doesn’t want to reopen Ayodhya; the BJP wants to can it and move into the next phase of its evolution (wherever that may take it); and even the religious hotheads of the 1980s (Hindu and Muslim) have been remarkably calm and sense a reconciliation is possible. Ayodhya’s politics is gradually being buried. Will the ‘secular modernists’ please allow the Ayodhya industry to be dismantled as well?
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal